Third-graders' lesson on the power of a teacher lasts a lifetime

August 29, 2004|By Jon M. Andes

WE WERE A challenging class. Our reputation preceded us. In first and second grade, we frustrated and tested the skills of our teachers. We were a group of ragtag kids from a working-class neighborhood.

We would rather play than read. We would rather talk than solve math problems.

We were told that we were a bad class with little ability. We acted the part.

Twenty-three children began together in first grade, and two more boys who failed second grade joined our class. On our first day of third grade, we were a class of 25 children of little promise.

We were a demoralized group of kids who earned attention and acknowledgement by being bad and acting stupid. Our self-perception and our expectations were low. We were prepared to experience more lectures on behavior, periodic loss of recess time and punishment that included printing over and over again a message about being good.

Dressed in our best hand-me-down clothes and shoes, we entered our third-grade classroom. We wore our label of being a bad class with pride, and we were prepared to challenge the new teacher.

We knew our classmates, but the teacher was a mystery. She had been transferred from another school.

As we entered class, we could see that the room was different. The walls were covered with bright and shining construction paper bulletin boards. On each desk was a name card, a new sharpened pencil, a blank piece of paper and a different paperback book. My book was about dinosaurs. On the piece of paper, we were asked by the teacher to print our name and list the activities we liked to do, and to read the book at our desk. On that first day of school, the new teacher moved from desk to desk having a quiet conversation with each child about our favorite activities and hobbies and the book we were reading.

During our conversation, the teacher took time to learn as much about us as we were willing to share, reviewed our list of our favorite activities and listened to us read. As each conversation ended, she would comment about our list of activities and tell us that we were smart, talented and polite.

After visiting each child, the teacher spoke to the entire class. She told us that the pencil and book were a gift from her to us. She said that since we were so smart she expected us to be excellent students. She told us that we were a very special group of children, that we were a class destined to do great things, that we would work together to learn and grow. She told us that she was very impressed with us and that she was proud to be our teacher.

On that first day of school, I learned about the power of teaching. I learned that a teacher is one of the most significant adults in the life of a child, that children take their cues of their own ability and talents or perceived lack of ability and talents from a teacher.

I learned that learning takes place in a classroom through the interaction between students and a caring and supportive teacher setting high expectations for the children as well as the teacher. I learned about the difference between the impact of a great teacher and that of a satisfactory teacher on a classroom. I learned about the enormous power of teaching and the awesome responsibility that comes with teaching. I learned that the influence of a teacher lasts forever.

On that day, the new teacher began to change a class of children of lost dreams. On that day, she began transforming a classroom of children with diminished hope and expectations into a group of children who possessed pride and resilience. The new teacher believed in us, and we believed in her. On that day, the new teacher became our teacher of promise.

As we enter a new school year, we must pause and reflect on the inherent power of teaching, on the infinite impact of teachers and on our moral imperative to make sure that every child has a teacher of promise.

Jon M. Andes is superintendent of schools in the Worcester County public school system.

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