Thirty-three years ago, I began my teaching career in a tiny school district comprised of 400 students in one building. Little did I know that it would take seven years for my professional identity and competency as a teacher to reach a personally acceptable level. My early days of authoritarian teaching perspectives and practices slowly melted away into a complex array of balanced fairness, compassion, motivation, interest, discipline, humor, emotion and constant quest to improve knowledge of my subject. Unaware at the time, I eventually realized that this initial evolution was a reconnection to my own experience in kindergarten and first grade.
I remember the first week of kindergarten and the daily drills of learning the alphabet, the blank paper, the sharpened pencil and the grind of writing the alphabet over and over. Unlike most of my classmates, I didn’t see the logic in trying to memorize the 26-character sequence. I could just copy it from the alphabet circle of tiles inlaid on our classroom floor. You can imagine the teacher’s reaction to my paper on test day when a rug covered the floor and I couldn’t recite anything past the letter C. The rest of that year proved to be one contentious interaction after another. I appeared to be a source of distress for my teacher. I didn’t much like her and I don’t believe that she was fond of me either.
Luckily, kindergarten turns into first grade and Mrs. Jennings greeted all of us with a friendly smile and a warm hug as we entered her room on the first day. I remember her friendly demeanor as a regular staple of the classroom. Even when it was time for corrective action, Mrs. Jennings had a way of getting your attention and setting you straight without making you feel humiliated. She was a skilled and effective teacher. Twenty-six of us all seemed to love Mrs. Jennings while she helped us to enjoy learning.
As I now have the privilege of working with soon-to-become teachers, each semester’s teaching methods class reaffirms the lessons of my early elementary experience and my first years of teaching. With each undergraduate’s story of a favorite teacher comes an outpouring of the human relations skill, professional competency and time commitment in becoming a good teacher. Through each student account, I am encouraged that those personally evolved attributes and lessons from Mrs. Jennings are still present. While the names, places and situations are different, the relayed elements of good teaching and learning are strikingly similar.
Despite this perception, I am also worried about personally increasing skepticism regarding the future of education. The time and effort previously placed on lesson preparation and teaching skill appear to be eroding with each new encroachment of data acquisition, student assessment, accountability and other distractions and detractions otherwise termed, “21st century educational reform.” The storm clouds are apparent.
As my college students pass through my door, there is still hope via shared perceptions that a teacher in front of the room was responsible for enabling their success in education. The attributes of caring, interest, passion and dedication still seem to define good teaching and learning. In reality, these traits confirm that education is and always has been a human endeavor, not a digital or economic one. I wonder if our political and education leaders recognize that.
Clarke Greene, of Hamburg, is coordinator of the Technology Education Program at SUNY Buffalo State College.