Lessons Learned From Master Teachers
Article written by Kelly Tenkely for The Apple
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Last week was teacher appreciation week. Each year when this week rolls around, I am reminded of the amazing teachers I had in my life who helped shape me into the learner I am today. In my life, my favorite teachers always seemed to land on the odd grade levels. My first, third, and fifth grade teachers were particularly memorable. These women were master teachers. They taught me some important lessons and modeled what it means to be a teacher.
1st Grade Mrs. Hebert
Mrs. Hebert was a young teacher. I am fairly sure that she was just out of college. She had classroom management down to an art (a difficult feat with six year olds). Mrs. Hebert made everything we learned an adventure. One Monday morning, we walked into a darkened classroom to find an UFO at the center of the classroom. It was flashing and making sounds, it was amazing. There were glow in the dark stars scattered around the classroom. She immediately had our attention and had us intrigued with the learning that was to take place that day. We sat around the strange UFO in a circle and Mrs. Hebert led a conversation about where we thought the UFO could have come from. We noticed strange purple rocks scattered all over the classroom and talked about what they could be. One of the boys in the class spotted a book that had a rock that looked the same on the cover. A few of us suggested that we read the book for clues about the strange space rocks and UFO.
Mrs. Hebert handed out a class set of books (Space Rock by Susan Schade and Jon Buller) so that we could all read. We read through the book together and discovered where the space rocks had come from. Each one of us got our very own purple play-dough pet space rock. We were thrilled. I still have my space rock. As an adult looking back I realize that Space Rock is a leveled reader, there is nothing really special about this book at all. It is a cute story but if we had just read the book in a reading group and answered some questions about it on a worksheet, I would not remember anything about this book. With a little extra effort and preparation, Mrs. Hebert made the lesson memorable.
What we learned that day was more than whatever phonemic awareness skill that was being touched on with the book. We learned to love reading. We learned that books can be enjoyable and answer questions that we have and make us use our imagination in new ways. 20 years later I remember a lot about this lesson and many lessons that Mrs. Hebert taught. She was doing more than teaching us content skills, she was developing a love of learning.
3rd Grade Mrs. Graybill
Mrs. Graybill started every year by sending her new students postcards telling us how excited she was to be teaching us that year. She often bragged that she had the very best class in the school (I am positive that she told every class this same thing every year). An amazing thing happens when you are told that you are the best class in the school, you start acting like the best class in the school. We strived to please Mrs. Graybill. Throughout the year Mrs. Graybill had us write her notes in our journals. Sometimes she offered a suggestion on something we could tell her in our notes but we could write anything we wanted. She responded to each and every note every week. I remember reading Judy Blume’s the Pain and the Great One in class one day and writing Mrs. Graybill a note about how I feel like the Great One and my little brother was certainly a Pain. She wrote back a thoughtful response about her brothers and how she didn’t always appreciate them when she was a kid but as adults they are great friends. Mrs. Graybill made connections with her students. She knew about our likes and dislikes and what made us nervous or scared. She was able to tailor lessons to fit our needs because she truly knew our needs. She made everyone feel like the most special member of the class. At the beginning of fourth grade Mrs. Graybill sent each of her students a postcard telling us how much she enjoyed teaching us and how much she missed us. Mrs. Graybill instilled a sense of self worth in us. She made us believe that we could do anything.
I don’t remember doing a lot of worksheets in Mrs. Graybills class. Third grade can be a turning point in many schools where desk work increases. Mrs. Graybill always found interesting ways to teach. When we learned cursive handwriting she could have just given us practice worksheets, instead she wrote riddles on the board. We would copy down the riddles in our notebooks, in our best cursive, and try to guess the answer to the riddles. There was a riddle for each letter of the alphabet. We absolutely loved this exercise and looked forward to handwriting practice every day. At the end of the year we had a book of riddles to stump our families with. I still have this riddle book that I made in third grade (thanks to mom for realizing its value and saving it) and I use it to this day to stump my students with riddles. The kids love it; it’s become part of our daily routine. Mrs. Graybill taught me that with a little creativity, mundane tasks, like practicing handwriting, can be fun and worth while.
5th Grade Mrs. Nelson
Mrs. Nelson was amazing in so many ways. Like Mrs. Graybill she constantly told us that we were the best class she had ever had. We worked to make her proud. Mrs. Nelson taught us important life lessons in unexpected ways. One day we came in from recess to find loaves and loaves of bread piled high on her desk up front. Behind the loaves were jars of peanut butter and jelly and several plastic knives, plates, and napkins. Fifth graders are always thrilled when food is going to be involved. Mrs. Nelson asked us to each write in our journals directions for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. When we were finished, we would read our directions to her and she would make us a sandwich that we could eat. The first student got up and eagerly read his directions for Mrs. Nelson, “Put peanut butter on the bread, then put on some jelly. Put the pieces together.”
Mrs. Nelson followed our directions exactly (think Amelia Bedelia here). First she wiped her nose with her hand, then she stuck her fingers in the peanut butter and slathered it on both sides of the bread. This was followed by a licking of the fingers and then a dunk into jelly to wipe on another piece of bread. We were shocked to say the least. As the class watched what she was doing we scribbled frantically in our notebooks to give more specific directions. Wash your hands first. Use a knife to spread the peanut butter on one face of the bread. Put the peanut butter and jelly sides of the bread together. Don’t lick your fingers. It was great fun to see how everyone’s sandwiches turned out. Some were more edible than others. Mrs. Nelson taught us to be specific and intentional in our writing. She made us think about processes and instructions.
Mrs. Nelson always read us a chapter book after recess. She had us enthralled with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Wish Giver, Wayside School is Falling Down, and many more. We begged Mrs. Nelson to keep reading (she usually only read us a chapter a day). She helped every one of her students develop a love of reading and stories. She modeled reading for fun and enjoyment. The librarian always knew what book Mrs. Nelson was reading to us because requests for that book skyrocketed.
I have many great memories of my first, third, and fifth grade years of school. These teachers went above and beyond the call of duty. They put a lot of planning and love into their classrooms. The payoff was incredible, a class of students who all felt like they were the best and brightest, who loved to learn, explore, and read. I constantly use these incredible examples in my life to teach my students. I don’t remember a lot about my second, fourth, and sixth grade years. This is not because I wasn’t learning, but because the learning wasn’t as memorable and engaging. It is my hope that every child gets to experience life with a master teacher (hopefully many of them). To all of the master teachers out there, thank you! Your impact reaches farther than you will ever know.