During the year that I’m spending visiting teachers and schools, I’m sure there will be many wonderful and inspirational days, but today was the one I looked forward to the most as I developed the idea of this project. I arrived at Brentwood Science Magnet Elementary School in Los Angeles at eight o’clock this morning, and passed the entire day back on a campus where I attended school in 1979-81. None of the current staff were at Brentwood when I was, but I did arrange for my sixth grade teacher to join me, making the day particularly special.
Sharon Schneider had a teaching career of about forty years in LAUSD, mostly at Brentwood. The year that I was in her class made a huge difference in my feelings about school and education, as I’ve written before (in a satirical post a few years ago). She has built up a lasting relationship with the school, continuing to volunteer there occasionally in the nine years since her retirement.
With Sharon’s help, I was able to arrange a full day in the classroom of second-grade teacher Nikki Kanan. I arrived before school started and had a chance to see many of the campus improvements that have been made in the past 30 years or so. What stands out the most is that there is a grass field, trees, vines, and other plantings where we once had non-stop cement and chain link fences. However, the main school buildings and bungalows are almost indistinguishable from what I saw as a child.
In most cases with this project, I’m visiting schools where I already know the teacher with whom I spend the day. This time around, my introduction to Nikki came on the day I spent with her, which for many teachers would be a bit unnerving. However, Nikki was completely at ease with my presence, my note-taking, and photography. Her easy-going and warm personality put me at ease, and in fact, she did a fine job of making everyone comfortable; she greets students with a huge smile (and smiles at them almost all day long) and provides a smooth transition into the classroom. She also introduced me and we enjoyed the kids’ reactions when they heard that I had attended their school, and now have become quite old . In their collective opinion, however, I don’t look my age!
Over the course of the day, Nikki gave her students a variety of opportunities to read and write, speak and listen, and work on basic skills in math and vocabulary development. The students were eager for the most part, and able to use routines and expectations that Nikki has established to move easily through learning activities. I liked her focus on giving students immediate feedback on some of their work – which is not only more helpful for their learning, but a routine with a practical benefit for a teacher trying to minimize take-home work. However, her concern for students really showed through in the way she communicated expectations for behavior and self-regulation. Like many great teachers, Nikki sees problems before they happen, and often from across the room. Her management and discipline methods consistently put students in charge of recognizing, monitoring, and correcting their own behavior. There were two or three times during the day where Nikki needed to engage more directly with a student in greater need of discipline or intervention, and in these situations, Nikki gets closer and quieter to the student. It was a technique that was effective, and very dignified for all involved.
Of course, I have to admit my favorite part of the day was being with Sharon again. When I left sixth grade, I was still shorter than she, and like many things about elementary school, she seems smaller now than she used to. The vast auditorium stage that once held our whole graduating class for a group picture turned out to be a disappointingly small area, just a few feet high and maybe a mere fifteen feet across. And of course, these students are smaller as second-graders than we were as sixth-graders.
I always knew as a student that Sharon – Ms. Schneider – loved teaching and loved students. Now, in any objective sense, I’m more nearly her peer than her student, but I continued to learn from her. What I found most remarkable was her impulse to help. It was not her first time visiting this class, but she has not been a frequent visitor either. My approach with students has been to engage in a friendly way, but mainly try not to disrupt as I take notes and photos. Sharon, however, had barely sat down with me for a minute or two before she was on her feet again, moving among students, offering help, even suggesting to Nikki which students she wanted to pull aside to do a little extra reading work. The relationship between the two of them was quite apparent in the level of comfort Sharon had asserting herself and the trust Nikki had in Sharon’s judgment and instruction.
Seeing the delight they both showed when helping students brought home for me how essential it is that we have joy in our work. During the school year, teachers sometimes spend more time with the children than their parents do. That’s an amount of time that can change the course of a child’s life it it’s used particularly well, or poorly. Maybe we need a joy quotient in discussions of teaching quality and learning outcomes. Joy doesn’t have to be created in the same way Nikki and Sharon do it, however; we don’t all have it in our personality to as consistently smiling and effusive in our interactions. Joy in learning can arise in other ways – especially when students’ curiosity and interest are respected, and used as a lever to bring about important learning. That doesn’t mean an entire curriculum devoted to student choice and individual tastes. It just means that the teacher needs to teach in a way that any and all learning can be interesting, even revelatory. In the picture below, you can see Sharon doing that for a boy she doesn’t even know, trying to celebrate the smallest discovery he makes about how to write better. I’m so fortunate she did that for me when I was her student, and I hope that small part of my educational DNA, derived from that experience, continues to be expressed in my work.
To support my travels and writing, I’m running a Kickstarter campaign through October 22, 2014. Please take a look at the campaign page and video, and consider a pledge that will support the work and also allow me to send you the book I’ll be writing next year!