If Guys Could Talk: What College Doesn’t Teach You
May 26, 2008
My college professor prided himself in tossing out questions like hand grenades. “What is the most important quality for a teacher to possess?” he asked us one day, staring into the whites of our eyes.
No one knew the answer. We were just 100 wannabe educators, book smart, green and full of baloney. None of us had done hard time in the real world: pounding out lesson plans and managing classroom chaos. Not yet. Our expertise was limited to Ramon Noodles recipes. Despite our naivety, we took the bait.
“Knowledge,” one replied.
“Passion,” said another.
Solid cases were made for every virtue: determination, ethics, discipline, organization. I threw my support behind preparation. Surprisingly, the professor neither validated nor discounted our responses, only interjecting an occasional grunt.
“Good discussion,” he said after 20 minutes, rubbing his hands together. “There is no wrong answer. You will have to find out for yourselves when we throw you to the wolves.”
“Typical college fluff, raising more questions than answers,” my classmate said as we walked to our next class.
But the exchange had sparked something. I never forgot it, vowing to unravel the mystery.
I began my quest as a student-teacher, under the wings of Ellen Gillis, who had mesmerized 8-year-olds for 20 years. Her classroom was an explosion of color: vivid bulletin boards, activity centers and picture books. Her enunciation was as perfect as her teeth, and her smile was permanent.
She welcomed me to the second grade, saying, “I can’t wait to see you in action, to get some fresh classroom ideas.”
That day, I observed ” watching a pro at work, smoothly transitioning from reading to spelling, from math to science. She instructed, encouraged, corrected and motivated without a single hiccup.
There was only one chink in her armor.
“Mind if I correct the misspelled word on the chalkboard?” I asked a couple of weeks after getting my feet wet.
“What?” she said, staring at the chalkboard in horror.
“Fiery. You transposed the letters ‘e’ and ‘r.’ It could have happened to anyone.”
“What are you talking about? I spelled it right: f-i-r-e-y.”
“Actually, it’s spelled f-i-e-r-y.”
The dictionary did not vindicate her. After 5 minutes of therapy, she rallied nicely, managing a smile, deciding to bide her time ” knowing that she had Chester in her back pocket.
He rose to the occasion a few days later, when I needed a volunteer to use the spelling word “slept” in a sentence.
“No problem, Mr. T. My brother slept with a girl,” he said defiantly.
Our eyes met, and the game was on. In my first sink-or-swim moment, I kept a poker face, but hesitated longer than I should have ” long enough for the students to smell blood. They whispered, smirked and anxiously waited. Mrs. Gillis just sat in the back of the room sipping Folgers, hiding her grin, wishing that she had brought popcorn.
“OK, next word,” I said, moving things along, deciding not to stoop to his level.
“But he did,” Chester shouted, spitting in the soup again. “My brother slept with a girl.”
At this, Mrs. Gillis nearly choked on her coffee. She quickly ducked behind her desk and coughed violently. Thirty seconds later, she surfaced, wiping tears from her eyes and calling off the school nurse.
“OK. Back to the lesson, class,” I said, counting the minutes until recess. “Who wants to read the next spelling word?”
“He slept with my sister,” Chester blurted aloud again, disappointed that the scandal didn’t blossom into a Jerry Springer episode.
Later, I discovered that his 6-year-old brother fell asleep on the couch with his 10-year-old sister one afternoon. Big news for a second-grader.
Mrs. Gillis got a lot of mileage out of the fracas in the teachers’ lounge. She told and re-told the story ad nauseam, conveniently omitting Act 1: that she abandoned me that day because she was still licking her “fiery” wound.
Laughter was part of our daily routine, but something more important was going on in that classroom for nearly three decades. Students were forever touched by a passionate teacher who cared for them deeply. In Ellen Gillis, I discovered the answer: the most important quality a teacher can possess is love.
” Everyone has a story. What’s yours? E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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