Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Power of the Imperfect Teacher

When I returned to teaching children five years ago, my principal asked me if I thought I was a better teacher now than I’d been when I was younger. I told her no, that I was still pretty much the exact same teacher I was when I was thirty.

Aside from having some wisdom about children and how most of them turn out okay despite of our best interferences and also some amassed logical thought about how people actually learn, I do believe I'm basically the teacher I was years ago, one who was, and still is, incredibly imperfect and flawed.

And that, to my mature, long-view way of thinking, is a good thing.

In our American system, kids have an average of about twelve teachers through fifth grade, and then most likely a minimum of forty more from middle through high school. Just like everybody else, teachers come in all ages, shapes, sizes, colors, political leanings, and yes, sexual orientations. They also come with strengths and weaknesses and preferences and irritating habits and passions for things like kayaking or Sudoku or hairless cats.

Teachers also arrive with preferences and strengths and weaknesses when it comes to teaching itself. For example, my school has about fifty teachers. Some of those teachers are wonderful at creating a serene and ordered environment that makes kids feel safe and valued. Others are masters of planning and organization who never ever forget to teach a skill or a standard, or they are creative geniuses who think of new and interesting ways to make learning fun. Still others will travel all over Atlanta begging pizza parlors for boxes to use for fantastic projects. Then there are those who will stay late with a kid every afternoon until something sinks in, and one in particular who loves hands-on and minds-on learning to the point that he spends hundreds of dollars out of his own pocket each year so that his students have the games and manipulatives and learning materials they need for maximum understanding.

Although I do try to be the best teacher I can be, I’m not any of those people . I will never have the most well-behaved students or those with the prettiest handwriting. Very few of my kids will make perfect scores on achievement tests, nor will they walk in a perfect line to and from the lunchroom. What I do believe I’m good at is finding what each of my students is good at, whether that be drawing or telling a joke or being an excellent friend or break dancing or somersaulting while singing the Star Spangled Banner. I'm more interested in salvaging their little psyches than in molding their minds, I'm afraid. I, myself, am more heart than brain.  In addition, because my sense of what’s humorous arrested at about age eight, my second graders and I think the same things are extremely funny, something that, believe me, makes the grayest February day seem a bit more sunny.  

But it's not only our strengths that give the children we teach the gifts we have to offer; it's also our weaknesses and our crazy, not to mention irritating, foibles.  For example, I can't teach Science worth a darn so I have to get Starla, my scientific genius, to explain our solar system and the life cycle of a frog.  I also can't ever find anything so I need Katherine and Maddie to help me to organize myself.  Then there's the rest of my class who have to finish my sentences for me because I'm post menopausal and I've misplaced about 50% of my language synapses.  

However, my students are lucky to be learning that grown ups aren't always right and are, in fact, rather lame in some important areas, and that, I can tell you, is a learning worth learning for kids of all ages.

If teachers were electrically powered automatons or perfect humans, kids would lose out on so many things, like a grown up who will try to help them make a map of the world with macaroni no matter how incredibly stupid that idea is, or an adult who can't recall at just the right moment how many inches there are in a yard but will give the kid who can remember a high five and a very loud "thank you, Einstein!"

And the good thing is that, next year or maybe the next, my current students will get a teacher who loves Science or who truly believes that neatness counts or who sets firm rules they will learn to follow and believe in. And ultimately, all of the teachers those children have throughout time will help to give shape to the adults they will become, along with their own strengths and weaknesses and preferences and irritating habits and passions.

That, to my mind, is how it works.

The mother of one of my current students just sent me this email:

These children are making such strong friendships in your class.  You are making such lasting impressions on these young children.  They will remember you with love all their lives and will always have positive memories of second grade.  Thank you!

Notice she didn't mention anything about her child's improved handwriting or how well I taught our last Science Unit.  I'm afraid that praise will have to go to next year's teacher.


19 comments:

MaryB said...

When I began reading, I thought, oh no I disagree with that thought. BUT then I read on and heard your beautifully explained reason for your thinking. I agree with you 100%. And I think that's what makes a great teacher - one who goes to the heart of the matter. Rather to the heart of the student.

Brighid said...

Out of all the teachers I've had I only remember two: one in jr high, who realized what it took for me to learn Algebra, and an idiot professor in college who taught PoliSci. They were my best and worst. Both made me think outside the envelope.

Friko said...

The teachers I remember are the ones who opened my mind to hitherto unknown vistas and those who firmly trod on anything I did, ridiculing me into the bargain.

Guess whose subjects I love best, even today?

If you are anything as a teacher as you are here in the land of blog, you will never go wrong. That's what I think, anyway.

Phil said...

And, you will be remembered as one of their best...

Olga said...

NOT one of is perfect--doctor, lawyer, etc. Even so, it is easy enough to recognize a really good teacher and it seldom has anything to do with test scores. Sometimes real learning is not quantified. I can ask my 9 year old grand daughter who is a good teacher and I'll bet she is right on 99.9% of the time.

Wisewebwoman said...

I think, for what it's worth, that the values you are teaching your students will hold them together a lot more than being perfect at spelling or whatevers.
And that, my dear, is what it's all about.
XO
WWW

LC said...

I was blessed with a surprising number of great teachers and many good teachers. I am sure each one helped me learn something that made a difference in my educational path and in my life. In fact, I think I may need to write those memories down before I start forgetting everything. But helping a child learn what he or she is good at, that opens the door to everything else.

"In addition, because my sense of what’s humorous arrested at about age eight, my second graders and I think the same things are extremely funny . . ." I loved this.

Celia said...

Seeing what is best in each of those little ones is wonderful. I was a grade schooler who could make adults clench their teeth until their fillings popped out. I realize what imagination and generosity of spirit my teachers had who like you, didn't give up until I was on a road where I could speed off into the sunset.

Arkansas Patti said...

That you are seeing what is best in each student puts you way above the pack. I had teachers who could teach the facts quite well, but had to resort to the roll book to know our names. They were unaware of us as individuals.
Like LC, I also loved that phrase. Teachers with humor were my favorites.

oklhdan said...

I just loved this post Marcia. Both of my daughters are teachers and though they are identical twins they each have their own teaching style and talents. They each bring something unique to their students. You said it so well!

Cile said...

All I can think of is how lucky those kids are to have you seeking out their little sparks and fanning their fires! I'm so glad for everyone involved that you returned to teaching.

Karen Young said...

Marcia...Amen to that! This is an awesome article and I intend on sharing it with all of my teacher friends and administrators! I have to tell you that my very first kindergarten class from Linwood is graduating COLLEGE this year and I was invited to attend a graduation at UofFlorida of one of those students! Your kiddos are lucky to have you, just as I was lucky to have you as my first principal!!
Karen

paula devi said...

Your kids are blessed to have you as a role model. Imperfect teachers teach that we are all imperfect and always can help each other out and be okay with having strengths and weaknesses. I don't remember (smile!) if I ever mentioned that in Israel I was a teacher. My kids also picked up the slack. You certainly inspire them even if at such a young age they don't realize it yet. You plant the seed. Of course we have a curriculum to teach, but from my perspective, the microcosm of the classroom is also an important place for earning our most basic skills for interactions with each other - and with ourselves.
Marcia, you have inspired me with your post and so I will take the liberty of posting about my teaching days.

Jean said...

This needs to be published in an education journal. Send it out!

marciamayo said...

Jean, my years of publishing in education journals are past, thank goodness. But thanks for the support.

nacodoches said...

Never underestimate the power of experience. I would be you are a better or worse teacher today than you were at age 30. You have either grown in wisdom or become burnt out. You obviously love teaching so it must be the former. My fondest memories of my childhood are certain teachers who cared enough about me to insprire me or shelter me or whatever I needed at the time. I remember Mrs Welborn who told me I should go to college. It seemed impossible at the time, but how right she was. The problem is that I never saw her again to tell her how wonderful she was. Teachers are very important.

nacodoches said...

Marcia, nacodoches is me.....Schmidley. I don't know what is going on today, I am not that literate. Dianne

Freda said...

Sounds to me as if you are doing an excellent job where both children and parents are concerned. It must be such a hard job. I wasn't always blessed with "good" teachers at secondary school, but those who loved their subjects and their students, shone out and influenced my life greatly.

All courage to you and Every Blessing.

joared said...

I don't want a bunch of "cookbook teachers" who all teach the same. The more I learn the more I realize how much more there is to know -- and I love it. Sounds like children would be fortunate to have you as a teacher.