Monday, October 3, 2016

Teacher Influence. What happens when we find the hidden talents inside our students, and when we don't.

At this year's National Book Festival, my family gathered around the children's stage to hear Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewis read from their new book, Click, Clack, Surprise.*

The new book is delightful and my girls rocked back and forth with the rhythm and giggled at the silly baby duck's antics.

Toward the end of the talk, another child asked Doreen Cronin when she started writing. Cronin explained that she had been a very shy child, and although she had a lot to say, she often had not said it. Instead of expecting her to talk in class, her first grade teacher encouraged her to write down what she wanted to say. That was when she became a writer. First grade. She would write at home, adding extra homework to her plate.  As her first grade teacher watched this unfold, she told labeled Cronin a writer, which made that little first grader think of herself as a writer. That thought carried her through the rest of her life. In college she majored in journalist because she was a writer. She went to law school because law school was a place she could read and write and she was a writer. The choices she made in her life were shaped by the self-image her first grade teacher gave her of being a writer.

I hugged my five year old, hoping she picked up on the message that Doreen Cronin had not liked to talk in class and that was OK. I'm pretty sure at that moment she and her sister were wrapped up in tickling each other, but it does not matter. I heard it, and I can repeat the story to her all I want. It is OK to be quiet and thoughtful. Just find another way to share your thoughts. 

I was an extremely quiet child, and I see that playing out in my own daughter as well. Unlike Doreen Cronin, I did not have a teacher that accepted this character trait and found a strength hiding inside.

 In fourth grade my teacher decided that my quietness was unacceptable and was going to end with her. When she called on me she would walk outside the classroom and stand in the hallway, refusing to come back in until she had heard my loud voice. Let me tell you one way NOT to motivate a child to talk. All these years later I think about those moments and I feel the panic building inside me. Just the memory of that skinny woman standing in the hallway makes me never want to speak again. At the time I remember thinking, in pure anger and humiliation, that one day I would write a book to get back at this teacher who would only accept my answers if I yelled them loud enough for her to hear them outside the classroom. Unlike Doreen Cronin, I have not accomplished that goal yet. One day. Apparently, positive encouragement from teachers is a more powerful motivation than revenge.

There is power in her story for teachers. Instead of seeing her shyness as a weakness, or assuming she had nothing to say (another assumption teachers made about me over the years), Doreen Cronin's teacher found a hidden strength. She turned the quietness into a powerful positive force, that gave Cronin an identity that carried her throughout her life and influenced the choices she made.

In comparison, I spent my life fighting the message that what I had to say was not worth listening to because I said it so quietly, or infrequently. That because I did not speak up in class, I was not a valuable member of the classroom community. I did not go to law school because, if I am honest with myself, I saw that as a profession for those other kids. The confident, self-assured ones who thought quickly on their feet. I tried to find a safe place to land, one that would not require too many people looking at me or demanding that I be loud and different. 

It is amazing the power teachers have. Amazing, and terrifying. Those decisions we make when we are frustrated, the way we snap at kids who are on our last nerve, or how we interact with kids who we do not even consciously realize bother us, have lasting impacts on the little people in front of us. We have the power to form a future adult's self image. What we say to children sticks with them, long after our days with them end. When we mine for the positive under a child's weakness, we can create a long lasting impact for that child, who will go into adulthood knowing their strengths. When we break a child down without finding the positive under the "problem" we will do the exact same thing, except this time it is not an impact we want to have.

When I sat down to write this I was not planning on sharing about my own adventures as a quiet child. I just wanted to focus on the power Cronin's first grade teacher had on her. But I suppose something about the story struck a nerve. I obviously don't blame my fourth grade teacher for all of my life choices. I made those myself. But I can blame her for hating fourth grade, and perhaps the terror that struck me for years whenever I was asked to speak in class. In college I just told teachers that I was not going to participate. They could dock my participation grade or give me extra papers to write, but I would not talk. If I had to talk in class, I explained to them, I would become so fixated on what I was going to say that I would stop learning in the class. I would not pay attention to what else was being said. I was in their class to learn, and I truly wanted to take in everything everyone else was saying. So I would not be participating. Some teachers were very concerned, others accepted this as long as I was OK getting a B because I would not get my participation points. I was. As long as I did not have to talk, I would take anything.

Don't be my fourth grade teacher. Find the positive and bring it out of every child, even if they do not fit in with how you think a child should be. The world needs more authors like Doreen Cronin.

*I LOVE the Click, Clack, Moo series, probably more than an adult should love a children's book series. But there is so much you can do with the books. On face value they are silly books about unruly animals on a farm, who drive poor Farmer Brown crazy with their antics. On another level, they are perfect for getting budding readers engaged in a read aloud because of their repetitive text, which allow kids to "read" sets of text from memory. They can sit down with the book by themselves, or during a read aloud, and proudly recite "Click, Clack, MOO!" every time the phrase comes up in the text. It is perfect for teaching beginning concepts of print and encouraging those early literacy skills. On a whole other level, the books are strategic thinkers. Click, Clack, Moo and Giggle, Giggle, Quack are about the power of literacy and what a group of people (or animals) can do with an ability to write and non-violent protests. Duck for President is the perfect intro to presidential elections. Each book gives an opening for deeper discussion on particular topics. Or, if your readers are just too young for the seriousness, allows you to just have fun in with the text.

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