"Patience is a virtue we must all strive to possess.” – Miss Dmytryk
In an earlier blog entry, I mentioned my fifth grade reading and writing teacher, Miss Dmytryk (de-MEH-trick), as one of the most significant teachers in my life. She supported and nurtured my creativity, reading and commenting on week after week of stories that used all 25 words on my spelling list in context. And yes, she helped teach me patience. Most all of us can name at least one Miss Dmytryk, one of those special teachers who saw us as we were and as we could be, and whose faith in us becomes a part of who we are. Would I have persisted in thinking of myself as a writer through my first couple of decades as a teacher had I not had Miss Dmytryk’s words ever present in the back of my mind? Would I be blogging so actively today? I’m honestly not sure I would have.
Miss Dmytryk is by no means the only continuing influence of Marks Meadow Elementary School in my life. “Fifty Nifty United States,” learned in Mrs. Logan’s 3rd grade class, continues to serve as my touchpoint when keeping track of all the states for which I have seen or not seen license plates when I make the 12-hour drive to or from Southside Virginia. Mr. Byron’s breezy “Will Bill Cody” from my 4th and 5th grade years reminds me of the need all students have to know their teachers feel a connection to them. I still have a scalloped-edged black and white picture of Mr.Byron and Mrs. Light, who were so important to me to remember that I overcame my natural shyness and asked them to pose outside the school before running around front to catch my bus before it took me home and away from Marks Meadow forever. As a student, anyway. On site.
Marks Meadow also provided me the base for much of my teaching philosophy. As the lab school for the UMass School of Education, the school created an program in which several of my friends and I participated during our last half-year. We were taken entirely out of formal groups, freed of all restrictions imposed by a schedule, and allowed/encouraged/told to follow our own desires and inquisitiveness in reading, writing, researching and math. I read everything I could get my hands on, produced one of the longest research papers of my life, and in general found myself quite well prepared for the academic and organizational demands of Junior High without so much as a single orientation workshop.
Public Education has, to some extent, fallen on hard times since those long-ago days when my school and my teachers helped make me who I am. Or so it would seem, at any rate, if you listen to what politicians and pundits and much of the general public have to say. The reality, I am sure, is rather different. I know literally hundreds of dedicated, effective, beloved teachers through my school, conferences, and the various online groups to which I belong. Polls show that the overwhelming majority of parents approve of and support the schools where their own children go, have a lower but still generally positive opinion of other district schools, but believe overwhelmingly that the state of other schools in this country is rather poor. Metaresearch shows that, for whatever it means, our performance on test scores compared to other countries has been relatively stable for the past 40+ years. I’d never pretend all is well and there isn’t a need for improvement, most notably in schools of poverty. I’m a teacher. To borrow on the old Lexus slogan, “the relentless pursuit of perfection” is what I do.
But to my mind, we need a sharp slap in the face and a good dose of perspective. Let’s acknowledge the key role of poverty in the lives of children and how affects their readiness for learning, and let’s work to alleviate those effects. Let’s look honestly at what research tells us works, look for pockets of excellence (they are all over the place for anyone who makes the effort to check), and support schools in implementing proven best practices. And let’s acknowledge that the overall state of public education is, in reality, a heck of a lot better than most people believe.
Public education, free and available to all, has always been seen in this country as one of the most important paths to success for any child, anywhere, living in any circumstances. These days, we as a country are being forced to confront whether that is just lip service or something in which we really, truly, deeply believe. In my case, even as (or perhaps especially as) an independent school teacher, I believe it is an imperative. Public schools, like the kids who populate them, do not need mindless “tough love.” They need understanding and support. As with our own students, it is incumbent upon us to provide it. Miss Dmytryk regularly counseled patience to us fifth graders in her classroom many years ago. But in this instance, I think even Miss Dmytryk might admit that patience isn’t always a virtue.