To honor World Teachers’ Day (October 5th), I’d like to, 32 years later, pay tribute to my 3rd Grade teacher, Sunny Wood, and the teaching ideals her style in the classroom so deftly embodied.
To utilize the artistic (indeed, teaching is an art) terms of form and content, the content a teacher works with is an odd kind of substance: it’s the stuff the students must know. You might also include the students themselves in the metaphor of content, so that teachers mold the curriculum into the minds of little people, creating art projects that are hopefully on or above grade level.
The form with which teachers create their content (students who know things and do things) consists of a handful of “strategies” that teachers use to deliver their content (the odd intangible stuff). And the development of a teacher is largely focused on the accrual of more and more strategies, which often amount to not much more than packaged tricks. Fads. The latest approach to get better and faster results. I think, if you know your content well and you’re armed with a large arsenal of researched based strategies, you can be a really good teacher. But being a great teacher requires a deeper formal need, an inherent selflessness and knack for empathy that, for some people, makes teaching a genuine vocation in the sense of a calling.
Mrs. Wood had a boa constrictor named Nigel.
Now when I use the word “selflessness,” I mean it quite literally insofar as the teacher is able to forget herself (including her research based strategies and even the content she’s required to deliver) in order to see into, properly imagine (be?), the student for whom she is responsible – perhaps inhabit that student – toward the end of understanding what it’s like for that particular student to be in the world. This is not a talent one learns in M.Ed. programs; it’s sorcery. And it’s the way great teachers understand, not how to lead students to the best possible scores on state tests, but rather what kids need.
A great teacher, via unquantifiable intuition and insight, taps into what a child needs. And, again, we are not here talking about different approaches to multiplying by 12s. Before it’s even possible for kids to care about multiplication, something else, something vital, is necessary and I’m purposely avoiding the attempt to identify it with a noun because we all sense what’s fumbling toward expression while knowing that it likes to hide from words. It’s as obvious as oxygen but, because it is, it eludes articulation.
Mrs. Wood had us, a bunch of 3rd Graders, engage the process of opening a restaurant from the initial planning stages to actually serving breakfast to our parents. It was called The Outer Space Pancake Place. I’m not sure if it was me or Mark Durbin who named the joint. Probably Durbin.
The straight dope is that I was not a very happy 9-year-old boy for reasons that extend beyond the scope of this essay and Mrs. Wood knew it. Maybe she didn’t and I made that part up because this is, after all, my myth but, either way, that’s how it was. And something she did for me, often, was give me a picture. Nothing more. Just an image and a challenge. I was to write a story that corresponded with the image and I remember staring hard at those pictures, those static images of frozen presence, until they began to melt into their pasts and futures, imagination, words, stories.
“You’re creative and being creative is the most important thing in the whole world. YOU… are going to be a writer.” That’s what she said to me. It’s what I needed. The word “creative” resonated all through my bones. It sounded like a wonderful thing to be. So much better than nothing. A way to work with nothing. I would be creative.
When I think about teachers and remember some with fondness, the fondness never revolves around what they taught me. I never think “Now Mrs. Berg? Man, she could deliver some content!” Not at all. Mattering to kids resides in showing them how they matter, that they can matter, and that they will matter. Work that magic and you won’t need better and better strategies to deliver content. You’ll have kids lining up to devour it. Thank you, Mrs. Wood. Happy World Teachers’ Day!
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