I called my mom Mrs. Bowen when we were together in the classroom. It just felt natural and necessary. She was my fifth- and sixth-grade teacher in the mid-1950s at Harvard Street School in Laconia, N.H.
Long before I thought about teaching, and eventually recruiting teachers as an administrator, the worlds of home and school were unforgettably connected by my mother, Sally Bowen.
At the time, my father was the junior high school principal. I know now that he and Mom worried about whether it was a good idea to put me in her classroom. Ultimately, they decided it would work because I was a very serious kid, and because other teachers traveled just one route to a destination while my mother found five different ones and tailored them individually.
I was fortunate to learn from her that great teachers could be like great moms to a whole slew of children at the same time. Special I might be when I was at home, but in school Mrs. Bowen went out of her way to avoid playing favorites. Years afterward, she sheepishly admitted a single dilemma. I had won a secret ballot for class president by one vote. She gave someone else the nod to preserve the appearance of impartiality.
Mom treated all of her students evenhandedly. Yet she also convinced all of them they had special talents and potential. It was no surprise her former students returned for confidence boosts year after year.
Whether teachers are male or female, the best ones nurture the whole child and, like my mother, do most of the following:
Think like the children they teach and are childlike in their enthusiasm and imagination.
Trust their students and let them start with a clean slate often.
Laugh easily and see the lighter side of life and learning.
Love what they do and communicate it in ways that make kids want to please them.
Create excitement and trigger curiosity as they do things together with their students.
Provide constant feedback without too much standardized testing.
State expectations clearly and prompt students to focus on them.
Help kids practice winning without arrogance and losing without loss of self-esteem.
Arrange the classroom as a home away from home where students feel they belong, can take risks and still be safe.
Assign kids different roles and responsibilities that fit together so each child values teamwork and feels like a decision maker.
Celebrate each child’s interests and encourage exploring them.
I recall becoming intensely interested in dogs when Lassie and Rin Tin Tin were dominant television personalities. With my teacher’s encouragement, I devoured every one of the library’s adventure books about dogs. I cut out pictures of dogs in magazines. To this day I can pinpoint and name any breed from a single snapshot.
Years of working with teachers have shown me that excellent teaching balances skill and knowledge with spontaneous inspiration. Mom effortlessly kept this balance. She simultaneously engaged the academic, social and emotional intelligence of the children. But she never strained while doing it because she thought from a child’s point of view. Some of this was her personality. Yet she also learned to dramatize the behaviors that would hook her kids on learning for life. It worked for me. I see Mom’s legacy in every great teacher.