The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"People commonly educate their children as they build their houses, according to some plan they think beautiful, without considering whether it is suited to the purposes for which they are designed."... ...Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.

Commentary of the Day - October 18, 2003:  What Do You Teach Best?  Guest commentary by Felice Prager.

When I was searching for my first teaching position almost thirty years ago, the job market was padlocked for anyone without experience.  With a just-out-of-college resume like mine, even getting an interview for a job was considered a major accomplishment.

I was eager to start my career and determined to do it on my own so I sent out hundreds of resumes to schools around my state, a tedious process in the pre-PC era.  When, after several months, I only received one response, and that response was asking if I'd work as an assistant secretary in a small elementary school on the other side of the state, I decided to bury my pride.  One phone call later to a family friend who knew someone who knew someone who knew someone, and I had an interview lined up with the superintendent of schools for a middle school position in the town where I had gone to school.

What I remembered most about this superintendent was that his home had a slanted driveway, and he would only announce a snow day if he couldn't pull his car out of that driveway after a snowstorm.  Legend had it that one group of seniors was expelled from school after one such winter storm when they dumped all of the snow they could carry in the back of their pickups onto the superintendent's driveway.

What was for certain was that this humorless man held the key to the beginning of my career.

The interview consisted of three questions:

The first question was to demonstrate my understanding of grammar by creating a sentence with a predicate adjective.  Although my sentence was less than stellar, I got it right.  "The superintendent of schools is nice," I said. (I've since become quite adept at creating exceptional sentences with subject complements where an adjective follows a linking verb and modifies the subject.)

The second question was, "If there is a teachers' strike, will you participate?"  I didn't know at the time that a strike was pending between the underpaid teachers and the under-funded board of education.  However, I was smart enough to get the second question correct, too.  I sat with my hands folded on my lap, and said, "No, sir, I would not participate in any strike ever."

Then the superintendent leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, and said, in a most personal and inviting manner, "Felice, what do you teach best?"  Finally, he asked a question I could answer well. I created what I thought was a genuinely unique answer about how I taught reading best.  I remember speaking for a long time.  I thought I sounded intelligent, informed, and dedicated.

When I was finished, the superintendent lowered his arms, leaned forward with his palms flat on his desk, and announced with too much enthusiasm, "WRONG!"

I looked at him quizzically. How could such a profound answer be wrong?

Then he said, "The right answer: You teach CHILDREN best.  Everything else is gravy."

In my defense, I didn't realize it was a trick question.

I went home, knowing I wouldn't get the job.  At the bottom of my resume, I saw the superintendent scribble, "Female. No experience. Can't coach football."

Eventually, I got my name on a list of substitute teachers in another town.  I got my first contracted teaching position, one that lasted about a decade, when a teacher left her tenured position for a maternity leave and never came back.  My starting salary was $7500.  During that time, I taught predicate adjectives and participated in three teacher strikes.  I taught literature.  I taught grammar.  I taught SAT verbal skills. I taught reading.  I taught mnemonic spelling tricks.  I taught my students how to write letters and how to give directions to their homes.  I taught footnoting.  I taught students how to write reports and term papers.  I taught Latin and Greek prefixes and suffixes.  I taught them how to use a library, a dictionary, and a thesaurus.  On occasion, I taught manners.  I taught many students the reason why one doesn't put gum under a desk, lean back on two legs of a chair, or write on furniture.  In spite of the superintendent's delivery and condescending nature, his message didn't land on deaf ears.  "You teach CHILDREN best.  Everything else is gravy." was never forgotten.   I'm not sure how well I taught CHILDREN best, but I always made it a priority.

My mother still lives in the town where I taught.  A few years ago, my mother's car was stolen.  A policeman was dispatched to help her, and upon seeing her last name, he asked, "Are you related to the Miss Klein who used to teach at the middle school?"  When my mother told him that she was, the policeman told her a story I'd almost forgotten.  Apparently, he was failing English because he wouldn't do any work.  Working along with his shop teacher, I worked out a plan for him: he would restore the old wooden desk in my room in shop class.  Then he would write about it for English.  He kept a detailed report about what he did and how he did it.  Then he had to write an essay about what he learned from the task.  According to the policemen, the fact that two teachers cared enough to give him a way to succeed was what turned him around in school.  I guess there were times when I was really good at teaching CHILDREN best.  I'm also enough of a realist to know that my connection with this young boy was the exception and not the norm.

In my newest position at a private multi-sensory education clinic, I work one-on-one with children who have a variety of learning differences.  (Differences is the new euphemism for disabilities.)  Parents come to our learning center desperately seeking help for their children.  Many have tried everything within the schools to get their children assistance.  They've tried other tutoring facilities.  They've tried reading books and searching the Internet for help.   We are often their last hope.  It costs them a lot of money because it is one-on-one therapy, but most of our students see a lot progress.

In defense of the public schools, if they could offer constant one-on-one attention for students with learning differences, they would see similar successes.  Reality isn't like that; there just aren't enough hours in a day for even the best classroom teachers to focus on the individual child and address each child's personal needs, and it's not fair to expect it.  Many try.  Many see successes.  The difference is that where I teach now, I have the luxury of individualizing my curriculum.

One little girl started coming to the clinic last spring.  She was in first grade and her parents realized there was something wrong when the teacher continually sent home notes that her behavior was poor.  She couldn't sit still.  She was disruptive and combative.  She could not read even the simplest words.  She refused to even try.  According to the teacher, she seemed to exhibit mild signs of dyslexia.  More importantly, she was a problem to the teacher who was trying to teach 29 other first graders.  A few afternoons a week I worked with her on short words with short vowel sounds.  I realized she was a creative little girl who loves to draw things, especially animals.  I incorporated that into the curriculum.  She told me that her teacher did not like her.

One afternoon she came to see me and was bubbling with excitement.  Her mother said, "Tell Felice what you just told me in the car."

"I raised my hand in class today and got the answer right."  This was such an incredible first step for her.

The next day I got a personal call from her first grade teacher.  "I don't know what you've done, but please don't stop!"  Then we chatted about how she wished she had the time to work with each child the way I can.   "There's so much to do and no one can do it all."  I totally understood where she was coming from, and I shared that with her.  When I told her how much the clinic charges the parent and how little I get of it, we laughed again about how underpaid teachers are.

The other day, I met with the mother of a new student.  She asked me what my credentials were and I answered her.  Then she asked, "What do you teach best?"

"I teach CHILDREN best," I said.  I'd finally gotten the third answer right.

©2003, Felice Prager
Felice Prager is a former English teacher and freelance writer from Arizona.  She publishes the Write Funny pages.

The IP comments:  Too often prospective teachers assume that a desire to teach children is all that is needed to be a good teacher.  However, Felice and other great teachers teach children best because they have a thorough grounding in what they teach as well as great respect for who they teach.

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© 2003 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.