An anonymous story as told to Michael Daehn
I have been an elementary school teacher for 42 years and loved every minute of it. I never went to work. Monday morning was always, “let’s see what we can do this week.” I’m 66, you’d think it’s time to slow down a little bit. Times are changing, and I want new teachers to be inspired–research shows they only stay with it for about seven years. Nobody is going to be staying in the field 42 years anymore–and that’s a shame as I wasn’t getting good at it until I’d taught for a while. I mean, I made lots of mistakes in the beginning and I apologized to all my students for doing that. But I loved what I did and I think a key to that was professional development. Teachers have to keep going to be fresh and look for what the kids need so I always tried to do that.
I knew at six I wanted to be a teacher. When I was six, I lined up all my dolls and teddy bears on the couch and I read to them. In fourth grade, I would make my own science tests and put the questions I thought the teacher would ask on them and if a question was on the test, I gave myself ten points – that’s how big of a nerd I was about wanting to teach.
I graduated in 1972 from Ball State with a kindergarten endorsement and got a job the week before school started about three hours away–teaching second grade at Clay City. We had just gotten married in July and had very little money. I had enough to make a mobile for my classroom and that’s about it. The first year, the army would’ve wanted me. I thought discipline was the key–and you only talked when teachers talked to you and asked you questions, so the room was very quiet. I had a little room in the basement which was a little like a dungeon. You could see feet walking by through the windows. But I loved that school because it was a country school like I’d attended and the people were a caring community. The second year I moved upstairs, I learned a lot and I became pregnant and my thought then was: Would we want our child in my classroom? So there’s something about your children that softens you up.
My first five years were second grade and I loved it! Then I got pregnant again. My Dad offered us an acre of land so we’d move back here to Delaware County and be closer. I wasn’t planning on going to go back to teaching until our second child was in Kindergarten . . . that lasted one year. I missed the interaction, missed the kids! I started subbing and told them I would only sub in K, 1 and 2. So my first calls, of course, were for 5th grade.
I went and learned a lot from subbing. For example, the first day the principal said you have one student who will give you trouble, you get ahold of him and make him a believer and you’ll be fine. So he walked in, sat down and threw his arm over a chair and I got in his face and said “I’m a teacher, not a garbage collector. I will take no garbage from you today.” And he said “I haven’t done anything yet,” and I said “and you won’t!” I got no trouble from him the rest of the day. I loved fifth grade because you could talk about current events, but they weren’t as huggy as the younger kids.
My husband had gone back to college . . . he was a Vietnam Vet and when I was a at Clay City, he came to help a little boy who had been abused and he fell in love with that, so he graduated from Indiana State in elementary education too. When we came up here and built a house, he subbed for the first year and then got a job at Eastbrook. He taught 3rd, 4th,, and 5th grade.
After I subbed for a year, I learned there was going to be a first grade opening and the principal selected me to fill it because he thought I was more motherly than the current teacher–she got bumped to second. I felt a little guilty about that. Then I taught at Harrison until they made a K-2 building at Gaston. But by 1989, I had enough. I gave the principal my resignation and said I can’t do this anymore. I can’t assign busy work for the kids and that’s what it really was. We gave them busy work in the morning so we could meet in groups. Some kids never got done and they shouldn’t have had to stay in from recess. Some kids got done and you had to give them more.
He said, “Let me keep your resignation in the drawer, but I heard about this workshop program which is an alternative to seat work.” So my husband and I went – we worked every night till two o’clock getting ready for the next day–I loved it and what it was teaching. There was a work board and the kids just came in and did different activities down the board. If you got done, fine. if I didn’t get done, it’s okay. It was all practice work we needed to do but you taught the children to learn how to manage their time. You taught the children work ethic–how hard you worked affected how far you got. You taught the children it’s okay to ask for help and you taught the children to work wherever they are comfortable so they no longer sat in chairs, in rows. They sat wherever they wanted and that’s where they learned–and the funny thing about it was there were no discipline problems after that because the kids were actively engaged about what they wanted to learn. This professional development opportunity was a saving grace for me as a teacher that gave me a fresh charge which lasted for at least ten years of wanting to do something different.
Next, the principal took seven of us to Purdue to be trained at the Learning Spheres for this multi aged class. The one I took was K through 3. We went for training to see how to set that up. On the way home, he said “does anyone want to do this?” and another teacher and I looked at each and said to sign us up! As a result of this professional development opportunity, we had the knowledge and the passion to get the program ready and up and running successfully. Parents had to take a leap of faith with us and sign up to be in our class because it was a three year commitment. Multi-aged worked like a family so if I wanted to teach plants, we learned about plants and then we had all these projects . . . you knew what level you were . . . you’d go take something you wanted to do . . . a kindergarten student could do a second grade project . . . a second grader could do a kindergarten one – nobody cared . . . in fact when people came to visit they’d ask what grade are you in and the kids would say I don’t know. We didn’t have to teach them how to line up to get their lunches, the older kids just showed the younger kids how . . . one of the greatest comments for that from our parents survey said “we want to thank you for this because you allowed our youngest child to be the youngest in the class, the middle in the family and the oldest in the family and nowhere else would they get that experience.”
We did multi-aged Age K-2 for about ten years.
Then my husband who was a Vietnam vet passed away after a long illness and I wanted to write his story – but realized I couldn’t. I didn’t know how. So I went to my principal and said I want to take a professional development conference July 15 – I don’t care what it’s on and she said, “Well this writing one came across my desk this morning.”
“Writing? Oh my goodness I’m not that good at writing, but I’ll do it. I want to write his story.”
I didn’t realize it was about how to teach writing to children. It was a week long workshop through the Ball State English department called Open Institute. I took that and was mesmerized about writing and how to do it. How to use children’s picture books to teach writing K through college–it was awesome. So I finally wrote my husband’s story which was very rewarding. And I put in place the writing workshop that fall and my kids have never been the same since. If we had to miss writing time for a convocation, they would beg to do it at recess. Nothing in the world like that has ever happened before. So the next year I took the next course which was four weeks long and I became a teacher consultant. That has kept my fire going the last ten years.
I started a writing camp at our Elementary School in 2007 because of this training. It’s basically for grades 3 through 5 but if there are openings, we accept 2nd graders. The kids write and learn about the craft of writing. It ends with a celebration where they read their work and they create an anthology. I found it personally rewarding this year when a fifth grader, Miss Ella wrote, “We’re too blessed to be stressed” . . . and I was a worrier so now every time I worry, I just think of that and to this day I will remember her and what she taught us.
All of this happened because I went through that professional development training for four weeks that summer. My fear is I was probably the last or next to last group to go through it because now schools are on a balanced schedule and a teacher’s summer is already so short that it’s asking an awful lot for them to take that much time out of a summer. When you try after school professional development during the school year, teachers are tired. There’s got to be a better way for professional development to happen because you need it. I don’t care what you have a passion for–we have a teacher who has a passion for gardening – but whatever it is, you’ll bring that passion to the classroom, so recharging your batteries is important! It certainly was for me!
My advice for teachers is to love what you do. Then it’s not a chore to go to work. And if you don’t want it, please save the kids and get out because they deserve good teachers. I understand it’s hard when we’re not getting the funding or when we’re not getting the encouragement. There’s so many troubled kids and family situations that it’s heart wrenching and now you’re doing more than just teaching, they’re piling more on you. I don’t want to say it’s sometimes a thankless job because in my area they are so wonderful and a little appreciation will go a long way. But I do think the professional development is key . . . technology is wonderful and kids are learning a lot from technology but we need to teach kids how to listen . . . teaching cooperative learning and using a project based curriculum makes them listen to each other . . . project based gets the kids involved–let them do little projects, applaud their successes, applaud their failures because more can be learned from the act of failing than succeeding sometimes and then they stop thinking they have to be perfect every time. If they don’t know how to listen to each other, there won’t be successful marriages, or jobs or anything . . . so the devices are good, but you need people skills too.
It is certainly not a thankless job. They often won’t remember exactly what you taught them but they will always remember how you made them feel – and that’s what life’s all about! So be positive – there’s already too much negative in the world and kids are being piled on more than ever.
You have to embrace your opportunities to keep yourself fresh and passionate as a teacher – I took advantage of mine and was able to continually explore new ways to approach teaching. As a result, I could finally write my husband’s story. Even better, I knew how to teach generations of students how to tell theirs!
Michael Daehn is an Associate Professor of Theatre Education and Directing who has edited stories into monologues and staged four Facing Project readings (Racism, Autism, Disabilities, Poverty). Daehn is the co-creator of The Prism Project. He is also the State Captain for Americans for the Arts and has directed many theatrical productions since coming to Muncie at Ball State, Muncie Civic and the Burris Laboratory School. He and costume designer Patty have four daughters, four grandkids and two spoiled cats.
This story originally appeared in Facing Teaching, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.