The worst school year ever! That’s how I remember my last year in elementary school. I spent a large amount of time digging ruts in the pencil holder of my desk. I learned that by sharpening my pencil and applying just the right amount of pressure, I could make a rut deeper without breaking the point. I was experiencing a caustic classroom environment and a burned out teacher. I’ll call her Ms. S.
I stayed out of Ms. S’s line of sight as much as possible but a classmate named Ricky didn’t have that luxury. He was a tall, lanky, good-looking kid. He was outgoing, verbally clever, and an artist. None of these qualities were valued in this classroom and he quickly became the teacher’s “whipping boy.” If a rule was violated or there was a disruption, it was assumed that Ricky had a part in it.
There is one person I have no memory of from that year…the principal. I never saw the principal in our classroom. I can’t remember who the principal was or what she looked like. I wonder if she had any idea of how we were suffering. If so, was she afraid to confront bad practices or overwhelmed with other duties? Did she hope to address instructional issues when she found the time?
How might Ricky’s life have been different if his artistic abilities had been valued and his verbal cleverness developed? He might have been the team member everyone wanted as we did collaborative projects but he had little value when it came to completing mind-numbing worksheets. In his early 30s, Ricky died of a lethal combination of drugs and alcohol. I’m not saying that his year with Ms. S was the reason for this but I do know that caring teachers can change the trajectory of a child’s life.
If she were still alive, Ms. S might be surprised to hear that I learned several lessons from her that impact my professional practice today. I learned that teachers have the most powerful influence (positive or negative) on student learning. I learned how important it is to visit classrooms and assess the culture and quality of interactions between teachers and students. I learned that it’s crucial to let students, teachers, and parents know my beliefs about teaching and learning. I also learned to watch for students like Ricky to see if their talents are valued and allowed to flourish.
A few months ago I was going through some old photographs at my parents’ home and came across the class photo from that year. I was shocked at the appearance of Ms. S. I remembered her as being ugly but she was actually very attractive. We were all sitting at our desks with artificial smiles pasted across our faces. I wondered how our lives might have been improved if the principal had been in the classroom often? How might Ms. S’s life improved if she had been challenged to do better and involved in professional learning with other teachers? It was a sad year in terms of learning and building relationships. More tragic is the collective impact of the many years that these bad practices were allowed to continue?
Thankfully teachers like Ms. S are uncommon. The majority of our teachers want to do the best they can for kids. Our responsibility as school leaders is to see to it that teachers have the resources needed and the professional knowledge and skills necessary to be successful in their work. When teachers are doing their best work, classrooms become joyful places where the paths of children’s lives are changed in profound and positive ways, impacting families, communities, and our nation for years to come.
Written for the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators Newsletter for August, 2013