Wis­dom for in­stant ‘teach­ers’

Daily Southtown (Sunday) - - OPINION - David McGrath

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. mc­grathd@dupage.edu


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.

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