Test Scores When You’re Eight

bird's nestWritten  by Frances Peacock

Everyone is worried about test scores.  Go to any corner of this country, and you’ll hear mayors, governors, and senators making speeches about students’ growth on standardized tests. It’s enough to give a kid a stomachache.  Children don’t care about those speeches.  They have better things to do.  They’re busy growing and learning.  Every child knows, there are lots of things more important than a test score when you’re eight:

If the teacher says you’re a sweet kid and a good listener.

If you’re better at skipping rope than you were a year ago.

If you can hold the door for the lady behind you, and say “hello”.

What you do when you see a bug.

If you can keep your shoelaces out of the mud.

If you can pick the weeds, not the flowers.

If you know not to sit in the sun with a chocolate bar on a hot day.

How you act when you receive a birthday present you really do not like.

If you can help your mother remember where she parked the car.

If there’s a science experiment you can’t wait to try at home.

If you can make something beautiful out of an oatmeal box.

Whether you keep on trying to get the ball in the hoop.  Whether you keep on trying to write your name in cursive.

If you want to know what kind of nest is in that tree.

If you put a lot of stuff in your pockets that you want to look at later.

If you’re friends with the lady behind the desk at the library.

If you’re beginning to figure out that everything good comes from God.

If you have a teacher who knows that you, little Suzanne in group number 3, are more important than any test score could possibly measure.



Written by Frances Peacock

Today after school I’m going down to Pezanowski’s Funeral Home.  I’m going to plan my funeral and make all the arrangements.

It’s not that I’m dying – Heavens, no!  I don’t even feel sick.  I just want the free pencils.

My class needs pencils, and Mr. Pezanowski gives them out.  His pencils are shiny and black, with a little gold hearse below the eraser.  The kids will love them.

I’ll have a chat with Mr. Pezanowski.  I’ll discuss flowers or whatever he wants, then I’ll ask him for the pencils.

I’ll tell him I have 25 students and I’m giving a math test tomorrow.  I’ll explain that the school’s supply closet is bare, and the children forget to bring pencils from home.

What is a teacher to do?  My students have a pack-a-day habit with pencils.  First thing every morning, they start burning through them.  Write spelling words, sharpen pencils.  Solve story problems, sharpen pencils.   By lunchtime, their pencils are nothing but wee stubs.  They flick them into the trash can, then expect me to slip them a long, fresh one to get them through the day.  They’re hooked.  I hope Mr. Pezanowski can give me two dozen.

After the funeral home, I’ll head over to Lenny’s Car Wash.  I’ll order the Scrub and Buff, and talk to Lenny.  I’ll tell him my class loves his pencils – they smell like cherries, just like the interior of a newly cleaned car.

When I’m low on pencils, I pick them up all over town.

I’ll reach my hand beneath the grimy seat of a city bus, if I think there’s a pencil down there.

In the laundromat, I’ll tilt a washing machine on its side, and, using my foot, drag a pencil out from underneath.

One time at the airport, I made six trips through a revolving door, just trying to get my hands on a pencil that was rattling around at the bottom.  When I finally made the grab I was dizzy, and a cop wrote down my name, but I didn’t care.  I boarded my plane to Paris with a victorious heart.

I got really lucky the day I met a man named Mo.  He gave me 500 pencils with a slogan written on them:  “Midnight Mo’s Auto Parts.  We’ll find you a fender and paint it…FAST!  Just don’t ask where it came from.”

Mo said he wouldn’t need those pencils anymore.  His business had been shut down by the sheriff, and he was going away for five to seven years, then he plans to turn his life around.  I don’t know what in the world he was talking about.

The way I see it, any fellow who has 500 pencils to give a teacher is already living his life quite beautifully.




President Obama

Written by Frances Peacock

This morning on the news I saw the President of the United States bend down, pick up a stick, and toss it to his dog.

And I greatly admired that man for that move.

He made it look so easy, as if anyone could pull it off, but I know better.  Had I been in the President’s shoes, that stick would have stayed on the White House lawn, and that pup would have been out of luck.

I’m a teacher, and teachers don’t bend.

We don’t have to bend.  Our students pick everything up for us.  Whenever I drop a piece of chalk, lose my grip on the lunch envelope, or let my reading glasses slip through my fingers, the result is always the same:  A child will come to my aid.

He’ll leap from his seat, take the object off the floor, and place it in my hand.  I’ll say, “Thanks a bunch honey,” or something like that, and then we resume our lesson.

This has been going on in classrooms for as long as anyone can remember.  It probably began a hundred and fifty years ago, in a one-room schoolhouse someplace.  The school master dropped his hickory switch on the dirt floor, and some kid wearing overalls hopped up and grabbed it for him.  It’s a custom that continues to this day.

Now, I will be the first to admit that I don’t deserve such special treatment.  I’m a teacher, not a queen, and I really should retrieve my own stuff.  But who am I to defy tradition?

The trouble is, at this stage of the game, I don’t know if I could pick things up if I tried.  It happens to every teacher sooner or later.  If you teach long enough, you forget how to bend.

Maybe this is why some of the older teachers don’t retire.  They won’t have any students to do their stooping for them, and they don’t know how they’ll survive.

I think this is a bigger problem than all of us realize.  Did you ever go to the supermarket, and see groceries lying on the floor?  How do you think they got there?  Just today, I saw three cans of green beans rolling around at Kroger.

I bet a teacher had been there.  The cans fell off the shelf, and she didn’t know what to do.  She looked around for a child to help her.  Finding no one, she got in her car and went home.  Poor thing. She had no choice.  She’d forgotten how to bend.

Next time you’re at the store, and you see a can on the floor, do a teacher a favor, will you?   Grab it and put it back for her.  Somewhere out in the parking lot, a lady will be grateful.

Thanks a bunch, honey.

Tennis Lessons


Written by Frances Peacock

The new young teacher was crying after school.  All of us gathered around her.

“The students won’t listen,” she told us, “the whole class is noisy and out of control.”

Poor dear; we’ve all been there.  It’s hard to know how to manage a classroom when you’ve never done it before.

The teachers offered advice:   Give more recess.  Give less recess.  Pass out detentions.  Carry a rosary.  Pass out candy.

I told her to go play tennis.

The other teachers rolled their eyes and walked away.  Humph.  Not a sports fan in the bunch, I guess.  Oh well.

Alone with the new girl, I asked if she owned a racquet.  I told her to go find a wall and play against it, and she’ll learn everything she needs to know about handling a class.

Racquet back, bounce, hit.  Racquet back, bounce, hit.  She’ll find there’s a rhythm to it.

Tennis is about ball control:  Swing the racquet hard, and the ball comes back at you hard.  If you try to smash the ball, be ready to duck…you’ll get what’s coming.

The same is true with a teacher’s words.  Every new teacher tries to be tough.  They look at the 25 grinning faces in front of them, and they get scared.  They want to keep order, but they’re not sure how.  They hesitate to laugh or smile, for fear the room will erupt.

A teacher doesn’t have to be tough all the time, there’s a rhythm to it. A good teacher is strict when she has to be, but she doesn’t try to be the greatest enforcer of rules since Sister Henrietta Henry ran Saint Penelope’s Women’s Lockdown Prison. That approach doesn’t work.

Children are little backboards – they return whatever’s been hit their way.  If the teacher speaks softly, they’ll speak softly.  If the teacher is kind, they’ll be kind.  If the teacher reflects the joy of school, the class will play right along.

The best teachers lead gently.  They manage the game as a smooth back-and-forth.  They know that a group of happy children will do whatever you need them to do.  They’ll follow you anywhere, they’ll want to please you and make you proud. They’ll return your love with love of their own.

The tough teachers don’t last very long.  They spend a few years swinging hard at the backboard, then they wonder why children are awful, and they go get a job at Starbucks.

Sooner or later, every teacher figures out it’s smart to keep the class on your side.

Think of it this way:  Suppose you have a little girl named Venus in your classroom.  In the seat next to her is Little Serena.  Do you really want to talk tough to those two?  Are you sure about that?  They’re so pretty, and they’re sitting so nicely and quietly.  Would you really want to serve up an ace at one of them?

Not I.  I’d be as sweet as I could be…or else look out for the return.







Gifts of Opportunity


Written by Frances Peacock

This post is inspired by Mother Angelica of EWTN, who said we all have the capability to be great saints, “Don’t miss the opportunity.”


A teacher’s job doesn’t come with a lot of fancy opportunities.

Do I get to drive my own company car?  Only if it’s long, yellow, and seats 50.

Will I ever see my name on the front of the building?  If so, it means somebody’s getting in trouble for graffiti.

Is a promotion in my future?  Sure. As soon as Mrs. Jones retires, you can run the chess club.

All of this is fine with me. A teacher doesn’t become a teacher for the big opportunities, she does it for the small ones.

Opportunities.  They roll around the classroom like loose crayons, and if I’m smart,  I go after them.

Kindness.  In a room full of children, the chances to show kindness are all around me.  I place a bandage on a child’s thumb after he shuts his pencil box on it.  I  share my gloves  with a child who forgot his. I give a fresh piece of construction paper to a frustrated artist.

Patience.  In the classroom, the opportunities for patience abound.  I can give a slow reader all the time in the world.  I can smile and wait while a child pulls a mud-covered knot out of his double-tied shoelace.

Forgiveness.  There are moments that are made for forgiveness alone, where nothing else will do.  A rude word can be washed off a desk and forgotten.   A hot-tempered girl can have one more chance to be sweet.

There are millions of teachers in America.  Every day, we are all given the same  wonderful gift – the opportunity to practice those virtues we’ve read about in the catechism books.

Thank goodness for teachers?  I prefer to thank goodness for our students, our guides.  Blest are we when we are shown the way to imitate Christ.

Our students take us by the hand, and lead us.  They are the people who arrive late, with stomach growling, and we give them a granola bar to hold them together til lunch.  They  are the people who have no winter coat, and we buy them one at Wal-Mart.  They are the runny-nosed, wiggling-toothed bunch who ask us for a Kleenex, or a piece of tape to repair their shabby folder, and make us holy.

Every morning, the big yellow buses pull up in front of school.  The children hop off.  They bring us their homework, their notes from home, and their needs.

It’s a lovely and important gift, to have the chance to serve a group of children.  In the course of a school day, the moments come fast and swift.

Let’s hope we never miss the opportunity.









A Little Justice


Written by Frances Peacock   

This is an author’s original manuscript of an article published at http://www.edutopia.org

Today’s newspaper carried a photo of the Justices of the United States Supreme Court. Most readers, no doubt, looked at that picture and saw nine wise and distinguished persons in black robes, the greatest legal minds of our time.

But that’s not what I saw.  As a teacher, I saw something else — I saw nine board washers.

I have no way to be sure, but I’m willing to bet that all of those judges, back in their elementary days, held the job of chalkboard washer.

Board washing is the most trusted job in the classroom.

A teacher doesn’t hand a water pail to just any child — she’d be a fool if she did. Ask any teacher and she’ll tell you –  it’s the most important decision we make. We choose carefully. We take our time.  We deliberate. We think, and then we think some more.

Every year on the first day of school, I take a good look at my new crop of first graders. I peer at each of them, eye to eye. I try to see into their little six-year-old souls. I search for the person who is up to the task.

I’m looking for a child I can send down the hall every day at 3:15. I want a child who can take that long walk, all alone, with bucket in hand, to the custodian’s closet. Someone who can stand at the mop sink, fill the bucket, and remember to shut off the water before he leaves. Someone who understands, innately, the perils of skipping while toting a load of water. I need a child who can hold a drippy, wet sponge in his hand and, at the same time, resist the urge to try out his curve ball.

The job is not for everyone.

The person will be on his honor, guided by his conscience. He must be capable and serious.  He must be a follower of rules and a rock-steady citizen. He must be a miniature Supreme Court Justice in size six pants.

It’s a lot to ask of a child, to have him walk out of the classroom, shut the door behind him, and deny himself the wonderful enjoyment of practicing his wind sprints up and down the corridors of the school. For most children, the temptation is too great, the freedom is too much, the custodian’s room is too far away. They’re in over their heads. The errand requires a measure of responsibility that many children, because they are children, are not ready for.

But there is always a child who qualifies. Every year, without fail, I manage to find my board washer. She is the sweet child with the peaceful manner. The child who sits quietly in the middle seat while the boys and girls around her are giggling their heads off. She reads during her free time. She gets every answer correct, but you’ll never hear her boasting about it.

She is the child who is ready to take on the first of many important assignments. A lifetime of official duties begins this day, with the teacher handing her a lime-deposited, hard-water-stained, metal bucket.

This is the kind of job that can take you places. The bucket in first grade could lead to another bucket the following year, and the year after that. One teacher will hear it from the next, that this is their go-to person. They’re glad to have a child they can trust, and they tell him so. With each step down the hallway, he walks a little straighter. He’s getting the message that comes with the bucket – that success is around the corner for him.

I like to pretend that I can know the future. I imagine my first grade kids as they will be years from now, after they have grown up. Greatness can begin at an early age. It can be recognized and nurtured. It can be spotted and encouraged. In a decade or two, when the greatness is achieved and the child’s picture is all over the news, everyone back at her school can be permitted to take a silent, subtle bow.

Every so often, the President of the United States is charged with the task of selecting a new Supreme Court Justice. If I may, I would like to offer him a piece of advice. There’s no need to consult with legal experts or comb through hefty stacks of resumes. All the President really has to do is invite all of the contenders into the Oval Office. Let them take a seat on the couch, and say to them, “Any of you who washed the chalkboard for the teacher, please stand and raise your right hand.”

And there you go, Mr. President. Somebody in that room will rise, I promise you. Then, all you have to do is get out the Bible. Swear that person in. You found her. She’s the one.

Blue Line Beauty

blue lines

Written by Frances Peacock

Honorable Mention essay, 2014, Erma Bombeck Writing Competition, http://www.humorwriters.org

I’ve seen all the ads for beauty products. Revlon and Maybelline spend millions making women pretty, but I have news for them: I don’t need any fixes. I’m forty-eight years old, and – I’ll try to be humble here – I am a vision of loveliness from head to toe.

If you don’t believe me, please raise your hand. I’ll bring my collection of portraits over to your seat.

It’s great to be a teacher. When a child draws my picture on a piece of notebook paper, I look like myself, only ten times better.

The child draws me as if I were a model in a fashion magazine. She gives me a slender figure and a pair of long, gorgeous legs. She puts me in a snazzy party dress with three- inch high heels. She glitters my lips. Sometimes she places a crown on my head.

She gets me all dolled up, and every inch of me – the shoes, the lips, the snazzy dress – is striped with the blue lines of the paper. I look fabulous in blue lines.

When a child hands me her work, I could accept it with a quick “Thanks, honey,” and pat her on the head. I might chalk it up as just a page of coloring, the creative diversion of a six-year-old.

Or, I can take a deeper look. I can stop for a moment and study it, and then I begin to understand what the child has done with her crayons:

She has sketched me as the magnificent person she perceives me to be. She has endowed me with every good and glamorous attribute. She has turned me into a red-hot mama. Because she loves me.

It’s a wonderful gift when a child draws my picture. She uses her own crayons for the task, and crayons don’t come easy when you’re six. If a child runs low on crayons, she’s out of luck, and she knows it. She can’t grab the car keys and drive down to the drugstore to buy a new box.

Children guard their crayons like misers guard their gold. They share them only with people they trust, they don’t let them roll off the edge of the table, and they choose their coloring projects carefully.

A child’s handmade picture is a gesture of great value. Nothing compares to this compliment. Where else could I get such a spectacular glow? This stuff can’t be bottled, and it’s not for sale at the Macy’s makeup counter.

Ladies, next time you’re feeling the beauty blahs, I suggest you find yourself a six-year-old, and hand her a fresh box of Crayolas.

If she loves you, she’ll know what to do.

Bring It In

santaWritten by Frances Peacock

This is an Author’s Original Manuscript of an article published on http://www.edutopia.org.

I’m going to close my grade book now. I’m taking it to the top of a snowy hill. I’ll sit upon it and go sliding down the hill. It’s the only good use for that book, now that December is here.

Christmas is coming, and my students can’t think about schoolwork. They’re too busy wiggling in their seats, tapping out Christmas carols with their toes, giving each other reindeer names, and Googling this year’s “Santa’s Bad List.”

I pass them math sheets, but they forget to fill in the answers. I ask them to open their English books, but they’d rather turn off the classroom lights, close their eyes, and listen for far-off jingling noises. Instead of writing their spelling words, they want to draw me a sketch of the elf they just spied out of the corner of their eye.

What is a teacher to do? I can’t compete with Christmas. I’m just a lady holding some chalk. I can’t deliver the fanfare the children expect. I don’t have Santa’s phone number. I don’t know where I’d find three wise men toting presents. I have no manger, I refuse to ride a camel, and I can’t measure up to a baby in a stable, born beneath the brightest star ever seen.

So that’s that. I can’t make it happen. But the truth is, no teacher can. Christmas offers promises that teachers can’t keep.

Lucky for me, the children know how to bring Christmas to the classroom. I picture it like this: they bring it in like it’s a big old pine tree. The whole class works together, they turn it on its side, and they shove it through the door. It looks like it couldn’t possibly fit, but the children know what they’re doing. If a teacher’s smart, she’ll get out of the way.

When the children bring Christmas, it arrives in its fullness. Its joy and wonder fill the room — big and beautiful — as high as the ceiling and as wide around as twenty small people linking arms. You can practically smell Christmas in the air. It’s better than anything a teacher could do.

And then something magical happens. When the teacher lets Christmas in, the children love her for it. They take her by the hand, and they show her how the holiday should be done.

They teach her how to make fancy ornaments out of nothing but a brown paper lunch bag, a few drops of glue, and three and a half pinches of glitter. They show her how to take an old Reader’s Digest, fold all of the pages, spray on some gold metallic paint, and turn that little magazine into a stunning Christmas angel.

They cue her when it’s time to pass out candy canes.

They steady the ladder for her while she hangs a red and green paper chain that stretches the length of the school’s main hallway and flows all the way down to the principal’s office. They let her know — tactfully — to stop buying those stale wreath cookies from the gas station.

They give her a CD of a group of singing Chipmunks who can really rock the Christmas carols.

They tell her not to worry about checking papers right now. They say there will be plenty of time for that grade book later. They suggest it might be fun to go sliding down a hill upon it. They take her to the hill, and they watch her go down.

They’re proud of all the things the lady has learned. They’re delighted with the Christmas they brought her. They’ve really delivered for this gal, and they know it.

They slap each other on the back, and they shake hands all around. They meet her at the bottom of the hill, they pick her up and they dust her off.

She tells them it was a fabulous ride. And then they all cheer.

Help Me Out

winter coats

Written by Frances Peacock

Honorable Mention essay, human interest category, 2008, Erma Bombeck Writing Competition,  http://www.humorwriters.org.

Winter brings wonderful things to a child – a new sled, a larger size in skates, and plenty of snow for playing. And teachers know another thing: winter brings coats with crummy zippers.   Ask any teacher and she’ll tell you. The cheap, plastic zippers come to school every year, and they cause a lot of trouble.

When a child is stuck in his coat, he comes straight up to the teacher. He looks at her with pleading eyes. He begs her to fix the zipper, to get it moving up or down, so he can hang up his coat and begin his day. He doesn’t know why his zipper won’t move, he can’t explain how he became trapped in his own coat, and he thinks he has done something terribly wrong. He fears he may have to wear the coat all day, and he wonders how he will ever go to the bathroom in that thing.

Luckily, the teacher knows the remedy – she goes to her purse and takes out a nail file; she prods, she pokes, and she sets the zipper back on track. Even if it takes fifteen minutes, she battles the zipper until she wins, and the teacher always wins – because she is fighting for the dignity of the child. This skill – freeing children form the confines of their own winter coats – isn’t something you can teach. It’s a maneuver you just figure out, and every teacher knows how.

I don’t know who would do this to a child. I don’t know who would sell a coat with a flimsy zipper that travels halfway and then suddenly stops… and splits…and strands the wearer in a drafty no-man’s-land, with no instructions for rescue. It’s hard to feel cute in your new winter coat when you’re at the front of the room and the teacher is trying to open you up like a can of peas, and the whole class watches as you get hotter by the minute.

The makers of the no-good zippers are causing children shame. I’d like, just once, to see one of those zipper-makers get stuck in his coat. I wonder how he’d like to sit in his fancy office and try to tug his way out of his hooded parka. I bet his body would start to sweat. I bet his face would turn red, and I wish the furry collar would tickle his chin.

I wish he had to go to the stockholders’ meeting that way, and I wish his secretary can’t get him out of that coat.

And I wish no one can find a nail file.

Lessons Learned

FullSizeRender (3)Written by Frances Peacock

This is an Author’s Original Manuscript of an article published on http://www.edutopia.org.

A teacher works for the future.

Every August, a new group of first graders enters my classroom.  I teach them how to read and write, I tie their shoes, and in June, I send them on to second grade.  As soon as I meet them, I push them ahead, swiftly:   “Onward and upward we go, children!”  It’s the way the system works.

But recently, for one teacher at another school, the process stopped cold.

She dismissed her students on a Friday afternoon, and on Saturday, one of them died.  The child was taken in an instant, from her family, her friends, and her school.

On Monday morning the teacher was faced with an empty desk, bewildered students, shock and sadness.

I can’t make sense of this.  I don’t know how I’d cope with the loss of a student.  But it seems to me that, along with the terrible grief, I would feel that a deal had been broken.

I’ve always had a quiet arrangement with my students.  It’s a one-sided contract I’ve never told them about.  If I were to put the deal in writing, it would read something like this:

I, the teacher, will have you, the student, in my class for one year.  After that, I may never see you again, but I reserve the right to spend the rest of my days entertaining hopes and dreams for your future success.

My students are heading off to do great things, I am certain.  I have visions of grandeur for each child:  The actress will go to her Broadway stage, the Supreme Court Justice to his bench, the Naval Commander to his ship.

When a student dies, those dreams are wiped away.  The hopes are gone.  The deal is off.

A teacher must look backward, not forward, to see that particular child:  She is sitting at her desk.  She is turning the jump rope on the playground.  She is crying because she left her gym shoes at home.  She is planning to grow up like the rest of the class.

But it’s not going to happen.

Every year there are teachers who lose students to illness and tragedy. I wonder how this changes them.

Those teachers have been reminded of how fragile life can be. They’ve found out that sometimes there is no next year, and the biggest days of a person’s life might be playing out right in front of their own desk.

I bet those teachers slow things down.  They probably don’t push quite so hard.  You won’t hear any of them hollering, “Hurry up, we’re late for science!” as they walk their class through the hallway.

They are the teachers who give an extra 15 minutes for recess, just because the weather is warm and the sky looks pretty.  They sit on the carpet and read three storybooks in a row, and only stop when their voice gives out, because the children are enthralled with the performance.  They let the class use up all nine tubs of poster paint, and they don’t worry about cleaning up the mess on the floor until after school.

These teachers know that the happy moments matter.  They know it’s their job to be joyful.

I see what a fine balance it is, to care about the future, yet also cherish a day of childhood.  To know that my first graders must be ready for law school someday, but other work must be done also – work that fills the soul in the here and now.

And so this morning, I have a different set of lesson plans.  I’m going to give everyone a diamond shape to trace.  I’ll pass out orange paper, wooden sticks, and string.

The spelling and math will have to wait.  Right now, tomorrow’s lawyers have some kites to put together.