Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Two Roads Diverged

I left Dayton in August 1972 to teach in a New Hampshire school that had formerly been college-prep. There I taught American Literature to 268 juniors: a remedial class of 18 and five classes with 50 students each.
            Thinking these particular juniors couldn’t learn much, the administration had labeled the students in the five classes as the “C learners.” The “D and F learners” made up the remedial class.
            I set out to prove to the powers-that-be that they were wrong.
            The beginning was rough because I believe that the answers to most of our questions lie within each of us. If we search, we’ll find them. What this means practically is that when students ask questions, I direct the questions back to them.
             “What does this guy Frost mean when he says that one road made all the difference?” a junior asks.
            “What came to your mind when you read that?”
            “I asked you first.”
            “What do the rest of you think? What difference can a road make?” I ask, looking around at their young faces.
            No response.
            “Think beyond the poem,” I suggest. “What’s a road for?”
            No response.
            “Think about something that takes you somewhere. Can anyone name some roads you’ve been down in your life?”
            No response.
            The students are stuck in what the administration believes about them. A few days later, the superintendent calls me into his office. A group of juniors has complained to him about me. He describes the meeting to me.  
            “What don’t you like about Ms. Ready?” he’d asked them.
            “She’s dumb. We know we’re dumb, but how can we get any better with dumb teachers?”
            “What makes you think she’s dumb?”
            “She doesn’t know any answers. She asks us what the answers are.”
            Another junior, clearly incensed, shouted, “She’s supposed to be teaching us.”
            When the super reports this to me, I feel like crying. These kids know their worth. They’re desperate for someone to value them. I immediately realize the mistake I’ve made—I neglected to explain to them that they have answers within themselves. Dah.
            I try to explain to the superintendent what I’m doing, but he cautions me to be practical. “They’re only C learners,” he points out. “Don’t aim too high. You can’t expect much.”
            Angry now, I retort, “I can expect a lot. There’s gold in them there hills!”
            He shakes his head. I recognize the gesture. Even though I’ve been out of the convent only six years, I’ve already discovered that in doubt, many men simply shake their heads. Automatic reflex or something.
            “They’ll surprise all of you this year,” I tell him.
            “Don’t be disappointed if that doesn’t happen,” he says, turning to his paperwork.
            Well it does happen. Next day, I explain to each of the six junior classes why I don’t answer many questions. I stress that many, many, many answers lie within them. I express my belief in them. I challenge them to be true to themselves.
            They respond whole-heartedly.
            Their absentee rate goes down dramatically. Each day, the 268 shoulder their way into my classroom, eager to hear the inventive answers their fellow classmates come up with to their own questions.
            The next thing that happens delights me. . . .
                                                             (to be concluded on Thursday)


  1. Dee you have no idea what this post means to me. I always had to work so hard in school to keep up. It was such a struggle. My boy now has the same problem. Thankfully in College I had one teacher that looked at me and said "You know the material. I don't know why you are failing the test." She sent me down to be tested and the simple fact is I'm dyslexic, and I have a problem with ADHD also. My boy suffers the same problems and thinks he is dumb. He isn't he's actually quite brilliant, we just don't learn the same way. However due to years of being told I can't do math I still struggle with this because I was one of the D students you are talking about. I wish I had a teacher like you.

  2. Now there's a teacher who should other teachers first and foremost.

    I am looking forward to part 2.

  3. Anything remedial always causes me to pause. We all need improvement~but the word "remedial" seems to conjure up images of a harsher(aka dumb)variety for some people. People easily calmed by Muzak. I haven't found that to be the case.

  4. I can't wait for part two, either! We now call this "inquiry" - turning questions back to the students, and having them ask questions. I love it! It's so much more fun to teach when we don't have to be the ones who "know all the answers". Kids DO know the answers, and they know the questions to ask, as well.

  5. Just wanted you to know that Elisa and I were talking about you yesterday and we were both saying how much we enjoy your comments and blog. I'm so glad you found us. You are truly an amazing lady.

  6. I loved this post, Dee and am looking forward to the continuation. One of the most crucial aspects of teaching that is so often neglected is guiding young minds to think for themselves. You hit the nail on the head with your approach and it gives me goosebumps, because I know you will have permanently changed the futures of many of those pupils! This is the difference between teaching as a "calling" and teaching as a "profession". Sadly, there are too few teachers who see/appreciate the difference. You were a gift to your pupils!

  7. nice post yes good teacher makes a difference

  8. You are such an inspiration! I LOVE this. There's such a deep, rich message here. I can't wait for Thursday.

  9. Despite knowing this story, I cannot wait to read the rest of it. Your writing here is a wonderful telling of an inspirational story.

    As one who benefits from your teaching every day and on behalf of the thousands of others who do the same, thank you.

  10. I love this story. I read part 2 first, but part 1 is what made me smile the most. When I was working, somebody told me that if I wanted to change (improve) the way I treated someone, I needed to state that to them first. Otherwise, they wouldn't even notice a difference, or wouldn't see it as a deliberate act. It was hard to remember to do, but this story is wonderful.

  11. Without question, "[t]he answers to most of our questions most lie within each of us." I'm so glad your students embraced your teaching style and the truth about themselves that it revealed. They were lucky to have as a teacher a woman of mindfulness, someone willing and able to reveal to each of them the universe that lies within.

    Thank you for your continued willingness to reveal to those of us who read your blog of the universe within ourselves… If we are willing to explore it.

  12. Absolutely brilliant! So glad you stuck to your guns...

  13. Categorizing students is so sad.


  14. 50 students??!!! My goodness, I can't even fathom that. Dee, you are such a gifted teacher. I'm glad they start to see that, and I look forward to reading the next installments~