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.