47: Five Words

47: Five Words

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teacher Tales

Five Words

We need to understand that every time an elementary school teacher captures the imagination of a child through the arts or music or language, this nation gets a little stronger.

~Former Secretary of Education, Richard W. Riley

When we measure success in the classroom, we think of bonds forged with families and children’s increasing academic growth as measured on a regular basis. To facilitate sustained intellectual gains for our students, we strive to form ongoing two-way communication with the parents and families of our students. Research has repeatedly shown that once established, these critical relationships enable our children to become much more successful in all academic pursuits. Authentic relationships are built and nurtured when teachers and parents have the same goal and work together to motivate our children.

Parents are often as perplexed as teachers about the best way to inspire students to learn what must be taught. When parents and teachers communicate well, our adult communication makes a positive impact in the lives and learning of our children. Success is based on setting goals and working to achieve personal dreams, and as a team, parents and teachers share these values with the children to whom we are responsible.

At times, teachers are stunned to learn that no one at home is able to supply the necessary support. The responsibility for educating some young learners rests solely on the shoulders of the teacher. Usually parents come to meetings sharing their high expectations, soaring hopes and limitless dreams for their children. For some families, keeping a roof over their heads and food on the table has to be enough and they have no aspirations beyond meeting daily needs. There is no time for “frivolous” things like storybooks.

So, it was my honor to be humbled by a compliment from one of my students. His name was Willard, and he was the seventh of eleven siblings. When he arrived in our first grade, he couldn’t actually recognize his own name in print. I was dismayed and worried because this was completely atypical of my first grade students. Young children tend to master this skill set at a much earlier age. I immediately resolved to confer with his mother so that we might collaborate to help Will throughout the school year. In my first meeting with his mother, she confided that she was illiterate. Indeed, there were no readers in his immediate family. This explained why he had never heard a story read aloud to him, and it became clear to me why he certainly didn’t recognize any letters of the alphabet or have any desire to make marks on paper, as his mother called them.

In all my years of teaching, I had never experienced a distressing academic situation of this nature; I wondered how this child was ever going to experience any level of success in a classroom full of twenty-five needy students. But, what his mother hadn’t even considered was that this young man was able to dream. His classmates acted as role models for that little boy, and I truly believed he could learn.

Will wanted to be a member of this class, so his fellow learners and I welcomed him with open arms. Applying an enormous amount of patience, and after exertion of a great deal of pure dedicated hard work and creativity, together Will and I were able to achieve some honest-to-goodness breakthroughs. His temper tantrums subsided as he eventually began to enjoy listening to stories. Will learned to sing and dance, and he was willing to share pencils, crayons, and puzzles instead of biting other children in frustration. He stopped fighting, literally tooth and nail, for every moment of attention from me and could sometimes respond appropriately to peers as he interacted in our learning activities. It was an evolving miracle as Will learned to read on grade level and use number concepts well enough to be promoted to second grade with his newfound friends.

However, the thing I will always remember about this little blond-haired boy was the day he decided he wanted to write me a note. I don’t know how or why he ever decided to thank me and in writing. I guess it was because he could. He handed me a crumpled piece of paper; I didn’t even realize it contained a message. I held it for a moment. I had never seen Will volunteer to write anything, so when he said, “Aren’t you gonna read it?” I was more than a little surprised. He used those marks on paper to express his thoughts in exactly five words. It said, “Mrs. Hutchins, you done good.” When I was recording Will’s story; my computer kept pointing out that this sentence exhibits poor grammatical skills. But at the moment I unfolded that crumpled little piece of paper, I wasn’t worried about his shortcomings.

In fact, in that moment I knew the genuine definition of the word success and so did Will. It is doing the best you can with your abilities, every chance you get. Will achieved what no one else in his family had to date, and because of one little boy’s determination, the doors of literacy were opened for his entire family.

When parents cannot fulfill this role of communicating high expectations, teachers step in. This is one of our strengths. We, as teachers, must refuse to fail, so therefore we refuse to accept it from our students. We teach learners to embrace literacy, numeracy, and the principles of loving kindness. Character, compassion, and ethical behavior build relationships and create feelings of belonging. Nothing is more important for school and success in life. When we make being a member of a learning community compelling enough, our students engage in learning despite the odds.

~MaryLu Hutchins
2009 West Virginia State Teacher of the Year
Elementary teacher, grade 1-2

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