Essays From A Teacher

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.

Essays From A Teacher

Hi, Doll!

South Bend, Indiana

Written by Frances Peacock

This is an Author’s Original Manuscript of an article published in the Kappa Delta Pi Record. The article can be viewed at http://www.tandfonline.com/ukdr.

The best things I know about teaching, I learned from my dentist.

Dr. Brennan took care of my teeth from the time I was five years old, and that man had a way about him.  He must have known that some children, while they waited in the chair, found all kinds of ways to scare themselves silly.  I was one of those children.  I’d sit there and imagine the long, moveable lamp above my head was really a pterodactyl in disguise.  I’d tell myself that the crazy, swirling spit sink would suck me up whole if I leaned in too close.

And then Dr. Brennan walked in – no, it was more of a bounce – and the whole place changed. One flash of his big smile removed all my fears.

“Hi, Doll!” he’d say. It’s the way he addressed me at every visit, and it’s the first thing he taught me about teaching. He said I was a beautiful doll. He told me my choppers were the prettiest set of pearls he ever inspected.  His words were so convincing, his manner so genuine, that all of a sudden, I was delighted to be at the dentist. He made me feel great, and so I stretched my magnificent mouth wide open for him, and I never once considered biting that man’s hand.

Looking back, I know it didn’t have to go this way.  I’ve seen my old school pictures, and frankly, I wasn’t really a doll.  I was far from it. I was an uncombed, freckled girl with six colors of Crayola wax under my fingernails. I had choppy, uneven bangs that I trimmed myself once a month.  I smelled like peanut butter. I rarely brushed, and I never flossed.

I should have been just another youngster in Dr. Brennan’s chair, for whom his task was to check the molars, fill the cavities, and send home with shiny, newly-polished teeth.  He didn’t have to make me feel special, but he did.

Now I am a teacher, and my students are the dolls. When I use Dr. Brennan’s words in my classroom, I see the same thing he saw:  a child who looks up at you and smiles and soaks in what you’ve said.   A child who feels so charmed, so happy inside, that he’d let you take a pointy metal drill and run it right down through the middle of his tooth.  Or let you teach him to read.

After the drilling, Dr. Brennan took out the treasure box, and I learned something else about teaching.  He plopped that box of wonderful toys onto my lap, told me to pick something out, and gave me all the time in the world.  The Mayor himself could have been in the next room, waiting for a painkiller and a double extraction, but Dr. Brennan didn’t care.  There was a child here, and a present to be chosen, and the decision could not be rushed.

The  treasure box that I have is just like Dr. Brennan’s.  It’s a crate of whistles, yo-yo’s and plastic rings for my students to churn their hands through.  On Fridays I call the children to my desk,  one by one, to pick out a prize.  I give them all the time they need, in just the way Dr. Brennan showed me it’s done.

To look at it, that treasure box of mine is nothing fancy.  It’s just a bunch of toys in an old wooden container, an assortment of simple objects that cost a few pennies each. It’s no big deal at all, really. There’s nothing important about any of this, I suppose.

Unless you happen to like whistles and yo-yo’s.  Unless you’ve ever waited in a cold room, by yourself, feeling nervous and scared. Unless you’ve ever been showered with words of flattery while you swished cherry-flavored flouride around in your mouth.

Unless you were ever a doll, like me.