In fourth grade I was a mess. Clueless about what it meant to be a good student, I was more concerned with whether or not I was going to get a Pete Rose or Dale Murphy in my next pack of baseball cards. Times tables, fractions, and proper sentence construction were not at the top of my priority list, and climbing the academic tower to enlightenment never entered my realm of consciousness.
Perhaps I should have been more tuned in to the importance of fourth-grade academia, but I had learned pretty quickly that school was not necessarily a safe place. After some bad experiences with a teacher in third grade, I came into fourth grade with my confidence shaken. My teacher that year was a strict, lay down the law-type of woman. She had very little patience for the foolishness of a 9-year-old boy and she expected excellence from all of her students. Now, being strict is not a bad thing and certainly expecting excellence is an admirable quality for any teacher to have. How that expectation is expressed to the students, however, makes all the difference in the world in how the child views school, and education in general.
If a student is disorganized, does the teacher say, “You are such a mess. You’re never going to get anything accomplished living like that.” Or, does she say, “You seem to be having some trouble keeping organized. Let me help you with a better way.”
If the student is slower than the other students, does the teacher say, “I can’t believe you are only on problem number 7, when the rest of the class is on number 20.” Or, does the teacher have the insight and patience to understand that not all student work at the same pace?
If a student doesn’t “get it” the first time, or the second, or the third…does the teacher roll her eyes and say, “You’re never going to get this.” Or, does she come along beside the child and say, “I understand you are struggling with this, but we are going to figure it out. It will be okay. Keep trying.”
Don’t get me wrong. Challenging, and sometimes, confrontation have its place in the student/teacher relationship. Teachers must remember, however, that confrontation, in the absence of a trusting relationship, is perceived by the child as cruelty. This brings me to Mrs. Leggett…
After I had turned into a royal mess during the first grading period of fourth grade and come home with multiple failing grades on my report card, I was assigned to Mrs. Leggett. Mrs. Leggett, I suppose, was what we would now call a Learning Specialist. I just knew that she was the old lady I was being sent to because my report card was so bad. While I didn’t know it at the time, Mrs. Leggett spent the rest of my fourth-grade year giving me the best gift I would ever received. She began by letting me know that everything was going to be okay and that we were going to figure all of this out together. She spent the next several months loving on me, building my confidence, and getting me organized. She also put me in my place a few times when I got out of line. The difference, however, was that when she confronted me, I knew that it was out of a sense of care and compassion. She had built the relationship first, which allowed me to accept what she had to say and grow from it.
I would like to say I went on from fourth grade to become an academic giant, but my parents may read this, and they know better. I did, however, leave fourth grade with a new found confidence, and school was not a scary place anymore.
In honor of National Teacher Appreciation Week, I would like to thank all of the teachers that show patience, take the time to build relationships, and care enough to challenge children with a sense of compassion.
And to Mrs. Leggett, wherever you are, thank you.