In 1969 two wonderful things happened: my husband and I got married and I started teaching.
(My son provided a chat program so that we can “talk” any time we would like to, even though he’s across the world from us. This morning he had left me a question about my teaching many years ago. The chat program is having a hiccup, so I’m not able to answer him yet, but the question brought a flood of wonderful memories.)
My students were all black and I fell in love with them the first day. I taught first grade and we were in a self-contained classroom. This meant that I was responsible for trying to teach them everything. I was so excited about the opportunity it didn’t dawn on me that maybe I should be scared of all the responsibility, being a brand new teacher. We all learned a lot that first year.
I learned that our daily lives were much different from each others’, but we could sure love. I was trying to teach them phonics, and it was difficult to get or keep them excited about ‘sounds’ of letters. I made up a really silly song about the sounds, brought my guitar to school and taught my kids the song. They loved it! I would play and they would dance and we would sing, absorbing the sounds the letters made, and gradually putting them together to make words. Words became phrases and phrases became sentences and reading began. I checked out books from the school library and brought some from home to read to them so that I could share my love of reading.
I was supposed to have three reading groups, but I had six. I found that my kids learned in different ways and that, in order to make things stick and come alive, I needed to use different approaches for each group. I had the fast learners work with the kids who were having trouble, and that helped, too. I encouraged my kids to do well by giving them paper certificates on Friday afternoons for good work – one child would get one for sitting still for his reading lesson. Another got one for a good score in spelling, and son on. I gave out the certificates under the one tree on the playground, weather permitting.
My kids had trouble relating to the stories in the Weekly Reader, but we were required to go through it every week. My kids’ favorite use of it came when I rolled them up, climbed up on top of the waist-high heat register beside the windows and used it to swat a wasp that was threatening us and ruining our concentration.
I loved teaching. When the light of understanding came on – I called it the ‘light bulb moment’ – my day was made. I had made something understandable to a child. Their eyes would light up, a smile lit their face, and they could then take the ball and run with it. There is absolutely nothing more thrilling in teaching than when a child gets excited about learning.
Unfortunately, the public school system and I didn’t see eye to eye. I got into trouble – getting called to the principal’s office like an unruly child – called on the carpet for
- playing the guitar (“Ms. Lewis, this is NOT a music class!”)
- having too many reading groups
- not having all the kids on the same page at the same time
- letting kids tackling the learning in their own style
- giving out certificates under a tree on the playground
- attempting to contact parents when a child was having problems
- standing up in a PTA meeting and asking for help on getting the supplies we needed (we weren’t supposed to admit we didn’t have supplies)
- and the biggie – using the Weekly Reader to swat a wasp (the superintendent happened to walk in while I was on the register. The kids all cheered when I swatted the wasp and killed it. I put the nail in my coffin when I said, “This is the best use of the Weekly Reader I’ve seen yet.”
I had a wonderful eight years in the Tulsa Public Schools. During that time I earned a Master’s Degree as a Reading Specialist. I then started and ran my own reading clinic for another three years – my partner an intern teacher who taught with me.) We changed a lot of lives. We helped people – kindergarten through adult) fill in the gaps in their learning that had kept them from making sense of the printed page. We unlocked doors, brought smiles and confidence. The only thing we didn’t do was make enough money to continue. It was with great regret that I closed the clinic and went back to the regular world to get a job that helped pay the bills.
How lucky I was to have an opportunity I’ll never forget!