Garrison Elementary School, Kindergarten, Teacher for over 35 years
Why did you become a teacher?
I am very fortunate. I came from a two-parent and extended family that made children and animals feel cherished. For me I was going to be either a vet, police officer, mother of 12, or a teacher. When I realized I had to put animals to sleep, I decided I didn’t want to be a vet. Nor would I be a police officer because I didn’t like guns.
When I learned who would be giving birth to those twelve children, I realized that would not be that either (I am a mother and a grandmother, but did not want twelve!). Oh, I was also going to be a nun (decided not to when I started dating and decided I liked it), and a paleontologist, which I decided against after a few digs.
I had that urge to teach and give back, the way my parents did with us. Out of all the choices I have had─we never felt there was anything we couldn’t do, and I had a lot of choices─I have never regretted being a teacher.
Who was your favorite teacher and why?
Csilla Luckett—who was recently killed by a drunk driver─was my mentor when I did my student teaching. I came in excited and new, full of ideas and zest. During the 70s I was full of feminist and revolutionary ideas, and Csilla wanted me to teach a lesson at River Terrace, the neighborhood where I grew up. She wanted me to teach a kindergarten class how to pledge to the flag.
I said I didn’t believe in it, because black people had been lynched under our flag, and I was reluctant to comply. She sat me down and said that would be my decision, but with children, you have to let them make decisions based on what they learn. If they later decide based on objective information I teach them, then let them make their choices.
That really helped to mold me, made me think about what teaching is about. Now when I teach the Pledge of Allegiance I emphasize the value of “justice for all.”
Csilla later went from being my mentor to being a classmate when we took courses together and taught other educators. We collaborated as colleagues and became friends.
She was a wonderful person and a wonderful teacher. She was zealous. I came in with my fists raised and she just sat me down and said teach the kids, and let them make their choices. She laid the foundation for me that children’s abilities shouldn’t be underestimated based on the preconceived ideas of the educator.
Three adjectives that describe your job:
Purposeful, interactive, fun.
I have 22 kindergarteners and no teacher assistant. Someone asked me how I can say this is fun. But there is a purpose, you interact. It is definitely fun!
What is one thing that you wish someone had told you when you were a first year teacher?
Goodness. I remember that first year of teaching. I wish that someone had taken me aside and told me to extract or draw on my own life experiences and integrate those into my teaching.
Teachers can draw on the experience of administrators, and teacher assistants—who are sometimes looked at as low on the totem pole, but have such rich experiences—not just depend on standards or pedagogy from a book.
Those things are important, but you have to draw on real life experiences to develop a whole child socially and academically. The developmental ages and stages and academic goals have to work together, and both seasoned and new teachers have something to share with each other to support that.
I wish someone told me that because it took me a while for me to figure it out. I kept looking for the answers in all of the books, in my degree, and that is not where most of the answers are. Many teachers who quit or are going to quit, miss this. Developing the classroom management skills, you have to respect experiences.
What's one thing your students have taught you about being a better teacher?
To smile and listen. I learned this from my students and from my own children. In 1997 I was honored by President and Mrs. Clinton when I was teaching the first grade. Everyone was so excited, including me.
The children looked at me and said “Look at her smiling! What is she smiling about?” This made me wonder if I was smiling enough with them. I know sometimes we need the “teacher face” but we need to smile, let them know they are welcome and that we are listening to them.
You can still use the tough love, but it is what my grandmother used to say “You can catch more flies with honey.”
We don’t listen enough to what the children say when we are moving so fast to get to the next step and the next standard. I hope I can continue to smile and listen to my children as they taught me to do. Maybe that is why they still come back even though I am not their teacher anymore.
Tell a little about a time when a student's accomplishments completely exceeded your expectations. Or, tell a little about a time when you were inspired by a student.
I set the bar pretty high and they usually go for it and go over it. Last year though, I had third graders, where there is a lot of emphasis on the DC CAS. 46% of my students were special needs children, either special education or ESL.
One of my students who had special needs, always summarized when asked to do one of the “constructed response” questions in which critical thinking is required instead. I had to work hard with her to get her to do more than summarize, to answer the question. But she then scored proficient on both math and reading. She did it – despite the odds.
Why is teaching an incredibly important job?
It affords us the incredible opportunity to take a stone in the rough and really make it shine. I think we can as educators empower and support children with the visions and dreams they have, and give them hope that they are capable of doing anything. Teachers are the ones who are working in the vineyards nurturing, watching them grow. Everyone is taught by a teacher.
In this country we don’t look at this profession like a white collar profession. In other countries, Asian countries and others, they do. There is something lacking here. You have the unique opportunity every year, a whole new group of children every year to empower, and all of our lives hang in the balance too because we will depend on them later.
When people asked me “Why didn’t you become a lawyer?”…or some of my students (who think I was demoted when I went from teaching third grade to kindergarten!) say “Why are you just a teacher? Do you need a degree to teach kindergarten?” It demonstrates that society doesn’t understand how important our job is. Early childhood is the foundation for teaching. You need your strongest teachers here. The children’s personalities and knowledge base are formed here.
So I answer “I’m passionate about my work!” I have 22 children, and 17 of them are reading at the first grade level, and I am so proud of them. The others are on their way. I cry at the end of every school year as they depart. I love teaching. Kids never cease to amaze me.
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