Teacher’s Pet

Michelle from WordPress pressed: Tell us about a teacher who had a real impact on your life, either for the better or the worse. How is your life different today because of him or her?

In a time when teachers have ridiculous outcome expectations flung upon them in the midst of conditions where it becomes nearly impossible for many of them to actually teach, I’m so glad you asked this question, Michelle. I am so long overdue in giving out some necessary thank yous…


“Give me a child and I’ll shape him into anything.”
-B.F. Skinner


If I had a time machine, there are two classrooms I would surely enjoy going back to revisit now that I have a meta-cognitive awareness of why the teachers who conducted sessions within them were two among my very short list of favorites. Though these teachers taught me at extremely different times in my K-12 educational experience and though their subject matters were quite different, these ladies both possessed common factors in their instructional approaches. As a matter of fact, my admiration and respect has grown immensely more, if I thought that were even possible, in my realization that these women had a firm awareness of their learning theory preferences and went to great lengths to assure they actively engaged their learners in these philosophies and practices.

Faye Duke was my third grade teacher. In the 1970’s, this sweet, bubbly, petite blonde, who wore modern polyester mini-dresses well enough that all the boys in our class still have a crush on her to this day, looked as if she should not yet be out of high school herself. I suppose an active classroom of 8 to 9-year-olds could have made a late breakfast of her, but she kept us far too busy in activities from the time we walked in until the time we left each day for us to dream up any trouble (short of a couple of stolen cheek kisses at the bottom row of the back bookshelf).

How the 3rd grade boys saw Miss Duke when she walked into the classroom.Image Courtesy of CBC Player Web site

How the 3rd grade boys saw Miss Duke when she walked into the classroom.
Image Courtesy of CBC Player Web site

Miss Duke’s philosophy obviously included the importance of establishing and engaging learners as a community. Though our curriculum was rigorous, including learning our multiplication tables and how to write in cursive, we never seemed to have the sense that we were slaving away in school. Because she vibrantly and excitedly approached every new topic as an adventure, we believed her, enjoying every moment of what we accomplished together. We learned our telephone manners with desks facing one another, authentic telephones in hand. We learned to set extracurricular goals together, such as helping one another prepare for the upcoming spelling bee, putting together a mini-choir for our school’s talent show, and quizzing one another on newfound math skills. We created our own poetry and illustrated our own stories; and, in some aging teacher’s attic, there may yet be a copy of a story about Roxy the Rabbit, written and illustrated in an educator’s magazine by a 9-year-old elementary student named Jody Love. The pages of the magazine may be faded, but the social learning environment set up by Miss Duke has not. Though I left that elementary school the following year and it has now been many forgotten a few years since, I have reconnected with many of my prior third grade classmates, via Facebook; and we still vividly recall our experiences from that year, enthusiastically sharing them with one another.

Sylvia Wade entered my life as I began my sophomore year of high school.  My new Spanish I instructor was tall and willowy in shape, with dark, wavy hair and cinnamony-brown skin. As a woman of Puerto Rican heritage teaching in a predominantly white southern middle-class school, no one would have ever thought to question her authority in her position anymore than her expertise in her subject matter. Differences were only beautiful comparisons to be esteemed in her classroom. She had a way of easily blending everyone into a like-minded community that could have the power to end all prejudice in the world if her magical formula could somehow be bottled and distributed. With immensely warm cheerfulness, she conducted her class sessions with a welcoming sense of humor that caused people to look forward to being in her presence. During my two years of Spanish with Ms. Wade, I learned to conjugate verbs and carry on conversations (well, sort of) without ever feeling as if the tasks were mundane or too far out of my ability’s grasp. As her students, we performed quite a bit of role play, eventually getting beyond the embarrassed giggling (okay, not always) to making pragmatic preparations for the day when we might take a future Senior Spanish trip with our beloved, bilingual teacher to Mexico. (Unfortunately, I left a year too soon and missed that trip – but I came to realize the educational journey was the most important trip I’d made.)

Ms. Wade’s missed runway calling (had she not answered a higher one to teach).Photo courtesy of: http://aloftyexistence.wordpress.com/2010/12/01/top-black-models-of-the-decade-2000-2010/

Ms. Wade’s missed runway calling (had she not answered a higher one to teach).
Photo courtesy of: http://aloftyexistence.wordpress.com/2010/12/01/top-black-models-of-the-decade-2000-2010/

Judgment was never attached to who could or couldn’t roll their r’s or how badly we might have interpreted during our extemporaneous exercises. Rather, we were praised for our attempts as we all laughed together, helping one another stumble through the transition of forming Spanish words from English thoughts, self-assessing our improvement as we went. I remember a surprise visit from our principal once, who entered a classroom full of laughter with a stern expression on his face. Ms. Wade approached him warmly, patted him on the back, and teasingly explained to her class that our principal thought all we did was play in there. We were suddenly proud to be able to showcase our learning so we might assure him otherwise. That was the only smile I ever saw from him during his tenure as my principal. He, too, seemed pleased with what was being accomplished there.

I’ve recently reflected on the brilliance of how these two women inspired me and others like me to believe we weren’t getting a traditional scholastic experience. They tricked us, if you will, into learning more than we realized in what appeared to be an informal, social setting. Furthermore, our retention was obviously greatly enhanced, as I cannot describe many other classrooms in which I have attended from those early years or remember many other teachers to the extent that I am able with these two, nor have I maintained many other peer relationships from those years in which we discuss other teachers to the extent that has been so with these two instructional matrons. In essence, these women have become ghost mentors to model in my own instructional career. It would be a natural extension of that admiration, then, for me to reflect upon and enact these associated theoretical beliefs and learning philosophies.

In revisiting my two ghost mentors, Miss Duke and Ms. Wade, I readily subscribe to the notion that learners are more greatly impacted by delivery related to context rather than content. It is within a carefully planned and engaging environment that a learner has the ability to combine cognitive, behavioral, affective and social learning domains to make a lasting connection with the content being introduced or reinforced. Attention to this procedural aspect of obtaining knowledge likely enhances the attaining of conceptual knowledge. Both of my ghost mentors actively engaged me with application in what I was learning. They gave me glimpses of how I would procedurally interact with such content in future contexts, aspiring me to achieve greater goals (such as being published or traveling to another country) than I might otherwise have thought possible for myself. These women were change agents, bringing innovation to the classroom that learners eagerly adopted because it was radically different from the boring means by which we had otherwise been forced to endure instruction as recipients of a sometimes mundane educational process. The only contextual meaning of social education we otherwise understood was being packed together into a classroom of crammed-into desks and told not to communicate with one another – else, we would be negatively disciplined. Such a structure of formal public education did not truly equate to social learning, the element that seems to be key in the motivation I experienced in my then-indiscernible apprenticeship with my ghost mentors.

These two teachers were also active facilitators within their settings, purposely leaving their own desk space to become actively engaged within their designed learning communities. Miss Duke surrounded us with her lively presence, even singing with our little choir on stage to support us. Ms. Wade immersed us into another culture, taking her classes with her to another land, whether she was helping us bumble through interpretations in our classroom with our southern accents or leading groups of seniors to Mexico (to roll r’s in mixed accents). Both of these ladies created the means for positive affective synaptic connections to learning, praising us when we were right or praising us for our attempts, so we would have the courage to tackle the problem set before us once again. They brought their learners into a Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky), teaching us to be facilitators of one another, operating as resource exchange agents in our problem solving development, providing motivation through stimulated emotional satisfaction. This, too, is the sort of community in which I want my own students to develop as they make choices to engage and reside within it.

How can you not like love a teacher who strives to help you like what you’ve accomplished in yourself?

In the words of Sylvia Wade, herself…Con mucho cariño. -j

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