Sunday, January 27, 2008

My first year teaching ...

... was in Tapiola, a very small farming community in the Keweenaw Peninsula area of Upper Michigan. The year was 1959.

The contract was for $4,200/yr., which seemed like a whole lot of money. I was both excited and terrified, all at once! You see, the contract stipulated that I would be teaching first grade, and I had absolutely zero/zip/nada experience with that age level!!

In the State of Michigan at that time, one received "certification" according to their student teaching experience. And, as a recipient of a Bachelor of Music Education degree, ALL of my student teaching hours were accomplished in the area of music. An instrumental major, my "dream" had been to conduct bands (I even had charts of marching formations on the field for half-time performances!).

One of my professors had advised me that, because of the paucity of female band directors in the U.S. at that time -- there was, actually, only one! -- I should apply for a dual certification, that of either "Elementary" or "Secondary". I followed his advice and applied, receiving certification for elementary (K through 8) because I had one more hour of student teaching at that level -- all in the field of music, you understand.

SO, going back to my first teaching contract. I was vaguely aware that teaching first grade involved teaching these very small children how to read -- and, the more I thought about it, the more scared I got. Good heavens, I have to teach them how to read!! I had no idea how to go about such a thing!

The good Lord must have been looking out for me, because He provided me a way to "crash intern" with a first grade teacher, one Johanna Genry, who had been teaching first grade "forever", it almost seemed, in my home town of Munising. AND, as "luck" would have it, Munising's school year started a full week before I was due to debut in Tapiola!

Heavens to Betsy! I "sat in" on every minute of that crucial first week, watched her every move and took copious notes. She kept trying to assure me that I would be "fine". (?!?) At the end of that week, she presented me with boxes of materials that she had accumulated over the years, all of which were really not needed any more, she said.

Looking back at it now, I KNOW I would not have been able to succeed that first year if it had not been for Johanna Genry!

The little community of Tapiola was composed, primarily, of farmers of Finnish ancestry. (In fact, not that many years before I taught there, the Kindergarten teacher had to teach the children English!) The school and a combination gas station/all purpose grocery store comprised the business district.

I can still see the school in my mind's eye. It was a two-story stone structure (3-story, if you count the basement, boiler room & lunchroom). There was one classroom for each grade, K-12. The first-grade classroom (mine) was on the 1st floor, right next to the principal's office. The principal -- "Mr. Allen", I believe -- had this absolutely hideous disease where his bones were growing together, and was quite unable to ascend the stairs to the second floor to "observe". In addition, he had this somewhat quaint practice of "observing" just outside of one's classroom door. As a consequence, all of us who were teaching on the first floor daily assigned a "spy" to alert us when Mr. Allen was just outside our door in the hall observing.

That first year was really memorable. All of them were, actually, but the first one especially so! I applied so many of Johanna's techniques! One that I used -- over & over again -- was gathering the children around me on the floor (I would be sitting on one of the little one's chairs) while I read or told them a story. The children were often so enrapt that my spy failed to report!

One day, I was called to the principal's office. I thought, "Oh, my gosh, I'm in trouble now. He will soon tell me what I have done wrong, I hope!" I was really nervous. He said, "When I was outside your door 'observing' earlier today, I noticed that you had all your children sitting on the floor around you." My immediate thought was, "My gosh, I had them sitting on a cold floor!" Then he said, "That reminded me of a time many years ago when I was 'observing' another first grade teacher. The teacher was telling the children the story of the 'Three Little Pigs'. The story was going along according to norm when the teacher changed the ending to ... 'and he ate the little pigs all up'. (!!) There was dead silence in the classroom. Then, -- finally --one young child exclaimed, 'The son of a b _ _ _ _!'" (It wasn't until many years later that I tried this variant ending on one of my first grade classes, and you know what the response was? ... It was, "Oh, Mrs. _______, that's not how it goes!!" ... Love that one!)

I have so many good memories. I guess I'll leave you with one final one ... ... that of a husband & wife (father & mother) of one of my students -- "Danny", I guess I'll never forget his name -- who appeared at the final "Open House" of that first year (and, I was told later, they had never appeared in school before at a PTO/A meeting or "Open House"!).

"Danny" was eight years old when he started the first grade. He was the youngest of many children (I forget how many), and the "baby" of the family. His parents had held him back because they felt that some extra years might be necessary in his growth process to enable him to "learn". Well, Danny struggled, and I struggled right along with him. He tried MIGHTILY, and I passed him along to the second grade.

His parents were there to thank me for trying to teach their child how to read. They said that no other teacher had worked so hard with any of their children, and they wanted to let me know how much they appreciated my efforts on their child's behalf.

This is now MANY years later, but I still feel a very warm glow thinking of the hugs we exchanged that evening.

1 comment:

Tammy said...

I think teaching children to read is perhaps one of the most humbling, scary, and satisfying (all at the same time) experiences a person can ever enjoy. It's an amazing feeling to watch children's faces light up when they realizes they can now "decode" the big world around themselves.