Wisdom for instant ‘teachers’
With schools closed, parents are discovering how challenging it is to be their children’s teacher. But there is a simple lesson I learned from my days in elementary school, which parents can implement every day and will ensure they’re doing right by their kids.
Sister Killian, my first-grade teacher at St. Bernadette School in Evergreen Park, was like the good witch Glinda in “The Wizard of Oz.” She was young, kind, optimistic, energetic and very gentle. Not much more you could ask for in someone responsible for your 6-year-old from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
I remember wanting to please her with my work and behavior, just to feel the sunshine of her smile.
Contrarily, I shudder to remember other years in elementary school, with teachers overwhelmed by classes of 50 and 60 students, substituting worksheets and other busy work for educational interaction, making for endless days of boredom.
But not first grade. Sister Killian taught us to read, to print, to color, to read maps, to sing and to pray, making every activity fun with her enthusiasm and love of children.
Of course, she didn’t always smile. I recall my shame and isolation one Friday afternoon when I had to be punished. We had recently been given compasses, the instrument with which you could make perfect circles, and I decided to show off my printing skills by using it to carve my initials on the back of my wooden chair.
So, when the other children participated in our usual Friday afternoon routine of coloring on huge sheets of art paper with crayons while enjoying milk and cookies, I was deprived of both and made to work on a phonics worksheet.
Nonetheless, I still was crazy about Sister Killian. I accepted that the carving debacle was all on me.
By Thanksgiving, I had I gotten the sense I was pretty good at this school business. I spent only a half year in kindergarten because our family moved from Chicago to Evergreen Park but thanks to my mother and siblings creating such a lively atmosphere for learning and competition in our household, I likely began first grade with a level of achievement five or six months ahead of the rest.
It was another reason Sister Killian mostly smiled in my direction, and why one morning, while I as sitting idly at my desk after being the first, as usual, to finish the “numbers” assignment, she handed me a small wooden box and said she had a special project for me.
The box contained several dozen glossy flash cards, each with a word in bold black letters.
“Study all these words, David,” she said, adding that when the other boys and girls were finished with arithmetic, she would call on me.
That irresistible smile, and the fact that is sounded like our secret, made me feel very special.
Eager to do what she asked, I plucked out the first card with the word “saint.” Of course, I knew what it meant. But Sister said to study, so I looked at it hard for a little while longer before going on to the next.
They were all familiar: words like rhyme, prefer, direction, ignore. Nothing I never heard of. I went through the deck of flashcards two or three times, which I figured was more than enough to study them. Just another one of the tasks I found easy in first grade.
When Sister Killian had collected all the arithmetic papers of the other pupils, she winked in my direction, then made an announcement, something like: “David has a special surprise for us, boys and girls. Would you please stand, David?”
I couldn’t help smiling. I could get used to this, I thought. “Spell ‘saint,’” she said. Whoa. Spell? OK, I’d give it a try:
“Let’s try another, David. Take your time. Spell ‘ignore.’ ”
I took a deep breath.
“That’s OK,” she said. “Good try, David. Wasn’t that a good try, class?”
I sat down, feeling my face flush. Then I flipped through the cards to find saint. Sure, I could spell it now. I could have spelled them all had she explained that the goal was spelling. Maybe she would let me try again. But Sister had already gotten out another book as we were ready to move onto religion.
The rest of the day, I was frustrated over what might have been. I was kicking myself, though eventually I realized it was not my fault. Sister made assumptions, did not give directions and essentially failed at being clear with an individual lesson. For all her pure goodness, it was a single teaching failure and I still wince half a century later.
It was quite a blow to my confidence, and I was hesitant to participate in class for some time. I also became a worrier, over-preparing, over-obsessing, which took a long time to overcome.
One positive result is the lesson I would take from this episode for my own teaching. I always made certain, with copious examples, questions and dry-runs, that every one of my own students was clear about what the objective was for every activity.
And to all those parents who are their children’s teachers during the pandemic, don’t simply give an assignment with instructions before letting the learners fend for themselves. Actually demonstrate what you want them to do by modeling the recitation, the behavior or the problemsolving with an actual example. It makes a big difference, not just for today but potentially for the rest of their lives.
David McGrath is an emeritus English professor at the College of DuPage and the author of “South Siders,” a recently completed collections of columns on life in the Midwest. email@example.com
Even Norman Rockwell’s beloved teacher could unknowingly make the same mistake as columnist David McGrath’s first-grade nun, Sister Killian, did if she or he tells rather than shows you what they want.