To Teach is to Learn Twice.
~Joseph Joubert, Pensées, 1842
For the past three and a half weeks, I had the privilege of substitute teaching in a first grade class.
I prefer fourth and fifth graders when I fill in for an absentee teacher. First graders have not yet mastered shoe-tying skills and have small bladders. Every time some child-person (I hear that the term “kid” is derogatory) raises his or her hand to leave, you never know if they are simply trying to avoid sitting still for the directions or if they really need to tinkle. It’s always a risk to ignore the request, but then, there’s always the possibility that if you let them leave, they may not find their way back. (As a side note, I was informed by one of my charges on the first day that teachers are not allowed in the boy’s bathroom. I grasp the legal ramifications of ignoring that gem of wisdom, but as a former mother, I am quite aware of the damage that even one little boy can do in a bathroom by himself, never mind three or four. )
But, I digress.
As I said, I prefer older children…at least when it comes to teaching. You can have conversations that make sense. You can usually tell when they are being untruthful, and when they lose their lunch money, you can give them lectures on being more responsible. First graders are too young to expect much in the way of accountability.
So, when I knew that this particular teacher might be out for an extended time instead of the one or two days for which I usually proxy, I decided that I needed to (as the warden in “Cool Hand Luke” says) “Get my mind right.” I thought about something I read in a Parents Magazine before my first child was born. The writer suggested that a new mother should “fall in love with her child.” The article went on to say that finding the unique personality of the child, the amazing opportunities for watching the baby grow and learn, express himself and develop a sense of humor, were wonders that would deepen the relationship that a mother and child would only share for a short time before the world would make its mark on the child’s life. I guess that I was part of that outside world now, but I recognized the element of trust that I had been given. I needed to treat them as respectfully as their loving parents.
And I fell in love with all of them.
Like a proud mother, I identified the eager beavers; those who knew the answers before you asked the question. They hold their arms up, waving impatiently, accompanied by sound effects and disappointed looks when someone else is called on for the answer. I experienced their social network that facilitated frequent desk moving and the crushes that were largely unwelcomed by the first grade boys.
And I saw the children who were gradually being left behind.
It isn’t anyone’s fault, but it still hurts.
I think that some children could just use another year or two at home for maturing. However, the point is mute, unless the parent wants to home school. Our particular system starts us all out together and the teacher has to figure out how to bring the slow starters up to speed.
The trouble is, it takes a while to get the remediation plan implemented, and every day that goes by is a strike on the child’s self image. During the time that I was with this class, I found myself trying to look the other way when I knew that I had just given out some Greek version of English to these children. I did not want to hold the rest of the class back, but I knew that someone (I couldn’t be everywhere) would have to give one on one time to some of these children who would not get what we were talking about any other way.
I took the frustration home with me every day… just as I am sure that most full time teachers do. To do that job full time, I knew you would have to feel a personal connection, or you couldn’t be a very effective teacher.
Anyhow, by the end of the assignment, I was thinking about these lost boys and girls an awful lot. I talked about them to my husband, invented ideas to keep them involved; I even dreamed about them.
Then on that last Saturday, a feeling of moroseness enveloped me. I tried to shake it off in my usual manner of putting my shoulder into something physical and I went out into the yard and began pulling weeds. (I don’t know why I bother. After four years in this place, there are just as many as ever. My grandmother used to say, “All the flowers of tomorrow are in the seeds of today.” So are the weeds.) Anyway, as I worked, I couldn’t keep my mind off of the kids…er, child persons. I started thinking that surely no one could really know if they were making a difference. How will they survive if their problems are not discerned before their self worth is irreparably damaged? It only takes a small amount of discouragement before some people give up on themselves.
And then, suddenly, a thought came into my mind as I worked. I thought we are only human. God knows our limitations in everything He has given us to do. He can make up for those weaknesses if we ask Him.
I had a few more days. I began to pray for those children whom I had concerns for by name. I left the worrying behind me and focused my energy on giving my best effort.
Do we sometimes think that we are able to change the world because we have acquired a little knowledge? I failed in many ways with my own children, and I have felt the pain of those mistakes. I used to see every struggle that they had (and have) as something I could have pre-empted if I had only done a better job. This new understanding has healed my heart about those things that I wish I had done differently with my own children and has given me the freedom to enjoy the adventure of making the learning environment a place that is safe and fun, even if I don’t always have all the skills to make it educational.
Fortunately, being a substitute teacher, I only have short windows to carry that responsibility. But if I were the full time teacher, I would make it my mission to do just what millions of good teachers do…
They listen. They question. They remember that each student is different. They try to elicit responses from the quiet students and push others to try the next harder problem.
Good teachers know how to laugh. They know how to make a joke, sometimes at their own expense, letting the students know that they are human and they are learning too.
And good teachers care, nurture and develop talents as well as minds.
I only hope that those good teachers don’t forget that they can’t do it alone. It’s another way that Christ’s atonement makes up for all our shortcomings. I only had a little time in the trenches, but I needed that reminder. We do our best and, in some way that we may never understand in this life, He will make those weak things strong.
D&C 90: 24 Search diligently, pray always, and be believing, and call things shall work together for your good, if ye walk uprightly and remember the covenant wherewith ye have covenanted one with another.