The Times They Are A-Changing

24 08 2011

I once had a college professor who said he could sum up all of history in two words: Things change. That really didn’t help me pass the final, but the truth of his words did stick with me. There are very few constants in this life, other than the proverbial “death and taxes.”

The beginning of a school year is chock full of change, but this year more than ever. We were starting the year off with a brand new bunch of students, which doesn’t sound too surprising, but after two years of looping with the same students we had forgotten how much of the routine had to be taught and rehearsed. The number of students in our grade level shrank, causing one of our group to have to teach at another grade level. Another challenge presented itself to us when a new student came to our door that first day who spoke not a lick of English: we’d have to change our way of teaching just to communicate with him.

Yet these were ordinary, to-be-expected changes common to the first of school year. A more momentous change was a “changing of the guard” in our school administration. In 22 years of teaching, I had only ever taught under two principals. Two days before school started, the first of these principals died after a long illness.

Mrs. Rinehart (I never could call her “Lynette”) had hired me for my first teaching job out of college. Somehow, she saw something in me that no one else did, and because of her belief in me I was able to persevere and grow as a teacher. She expected the best out of everyone, and that is what she got.

Far before anyone else, she realized the value of computers and technology in education. I remember, way back at Laurens St. Elementary, how she got a computer for every class, a TI-50. None of us knew what to do with them at first, but it was a start. She made sure from then on that we all had the latest technology and knew how to use them effectively. Today I am reminded of her legacy every time I pass the C.A.I. Lab at our school, her name by the door.

Mrs. Rinehart knew the value of motivation and learning from each other. After all of us had gone home, she would sometimes walk through the classrooms to see what was going on. I know this because several times she left notes on my desk, complimenting me on what she had seen. I kept every one of those notes and still have them to this day. We would often have faculty meetings in a different classroom each week, just so we could get ideas from each other.

Several people spoke at her funeral about how she always called them “sugar,” or “sugar-foot.” I don’t remember her using this expression, but I do remember something else she often called people: “nit wits”! She was one smart lady, and she knew her stuff. She had no patience for people in administration telling her what was best for the students in her school, when she knew quite well they were wrong. I remember her vividly calling them “nit wits.” She was quite willing to stand her ground for what she believed in, and everybody knew not to get in her way.

If Mrs. Rinehart taught me nothing else, she taught me the value of reading. Every day she told the students at our school to “read, read, read.” I took her advice to heart with my own two girls, and read to them constantly. I attribute much of their success in school to having read to them so much. So often we get caught up with complex methods, when all we really need to do is teach students the love of books and then stand back.

After staying home for eight years with my children, I came back to teach under Sharon Cagle. Trained under Mrs. Rinehart, Sharon had the same drive, setting high standards for her teachers and students in her school, and she too achieved at an extremely high level. She also continued the legacy of cutting edge technology, ensuring that we each had Smartboards and other new technology that would help us teach more effectively. She worked us hard but fairly, shot straight, and always had the students’ best interests at heart. By the end we had all been thoroughly “Cagled,” transformed into a lean, keen, teaching machine. Now she was retired and a great change was upon us as we learned the ways of a new principal.

The Sunday before school started found me out in my garden, pulling up the massive expanse of cucumber vines that had engulfed my garden during the summer months and now were wilting with an infestation of pests. The tiny seedling had looked so cute when I planted it, perky little leaves popping out of the ground with so much empty space around it. Having never had any luck with cucumbers in the past, I really didn’t expect much, but year after year of putting “Kricket Krap” compost on my garden must have made a difference. That one plant grew and grew and grew and produced so many cucumbers that I had to learn how to make pickles just to keep up. Yet when I began pulling up the plant, I quickly found that it was not just one long vine: a spider’s web of vines confronted me, with one vine branching off of another and other vines likewise branching off of it. Each new branch had put out tendrils that gripped anything in its path so that I had to pull just one at a time, unsnarling the tangles of vines. By the time I was done, there was a mountain of vines ready to be hauled off, and a wide open space in the garden, ready for the next crop to grow in the fertile soil made by the castings of oh-so-many crickets.  I doubt there will ever be another cucumber plant like that one.  Every year is a new adventure in this garden.

I’m not a big fan of change. I like routine, knowing what to expect. Yet change is inevitable, so I guess I’ll just have pull up my Big Girl Panties and get on with it. Or else I’ll really be in a pickle.




9 responses

24 08 2011

I certainly agree with the “read, read, read” advice– I learned to read that way, too. I have read a while back, though, that some kids can learn to read through the “whole language method,” while others require phonics or see-and-say. Do you think this is true?

24 08 2011

Just as no two people are alike, no two students will learn in the exact same way with the exact same methods. However, a motivated student can learn just about anything! If kids are hooked onto reading, they will just about teach themselves. If teachers (and that includes parents) can get students interested in reading, the rest will take care of itself. My classroom bookworms are typically excellent writers and excel in other subjects simply because they can read and understand. Reading is the key.

24 08 2011

but which came first? I apparently have a natural ease with language that I don’t have with sports, say. Reading came easily to me, so I did more and a virtuous circle was created. If a kid is not gifted in language, can he be assisted to get to a level of proficiency where it’s fun to read?

I am still a physical disaster area, but I exercise regularly and truly enjoy walking, and when I can do so safely, biking. I have never gotten comfortable with water sports or activities involving coordination of anything greater than required to walk or ride a bike. Now, I have walked and ridden a bike from an early age, and frequently biked as a child. I did not do any other sports, so I did not develop my naturally pitiful aptitude much at all. If someone had broken it down into smaller bits and encouraged me to practice, I do not doubt that I could have gotten much better. Swimming, in particular–I can swim enough to make it across a pool, but it isn’t very pretty and I never developed the coordination to swim the crawl. I didn’t have a lot of access to places to swim, and it wasn’t a priority for my parents once I could swim enough not to drown.

I suspect a lot of parents figure that once their kid has rudimentary literacy, they’re set. It’s a pity more don’t make that extra push to get a kid to a library frequently….

24 08 2011

It’s the old “nature vs. nurture” debate: Does environment or heredity play a greater role in determining the characteristics of a child? Although I haven’t heard the latest research, my gut feeling is that both are involved. However, I do think that environment plays a greater role than heredity. I have seen lots of adopted children who achieve at the level of their adoptive parents. Children who grow up in an environment rich in language have a natural boost and the added advantage of having the value of language modeled to them daily, so they also become very verbal and take to reading like a duck to water. Your parents had nightly political and current events discussions with you at the dinner table, so it’s no wonder to me that you became a lawyer!

26 08 2011

Actually, my dad would regale us with tales of life at the lab–very little political discussion–I’m kind of a weirdo that way. My family is fairly apolitical and engaged with society on the chess club/Girl Scout troop leader level. Nothing like what I have gotten into. My parents have actually followed my interest, not created it!

I could talk before I could walk; I never crawled. I certainly have repeatedly seen where some things–words and music come very easily to me, but other things–things involving coordination: not–and my mom is gifted with her hands and I am a total klutz with everything except a pen or a keyboard–yet I can grow things and she can’t. it’s curious…..

27 08 2011

Interesting! I have this vivid memory of you telling us about the family discussions you would have at dinner. I guess that memory is faulty! Go with your strengths,girl (and you have some very strong strengths). Sounds like that’s the way your brain is hard-wired.

27 08 2011

But the spanish speaking boy learns very fast!!!

27 08 2011

Beth– We did have some discussions by the time I was in high school maybe, but not debates or anything. I became a lawyer as much because I was an English major and had no imagination, and b/c I wanted to know how the system worked.

27 08 2011

Brian, that he does! I cannot imagine how confusing it must be to be in a whole new country and not understand the language. It’s going to be fun to watch how fast he picks up English, though, thanks to the help of his wonderful classmates!

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