June 30, 2006

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Learning comes with great teaching

The beginning of summer vacation from school seems a good time to reflect on teachers we have known (or know).

Most of us would agree that a good teacher makes all the difference in a child’s attitude toward learning.

Of course, times change. Back in the dark ages of my childhood, we spent each year of grade school with one teacher who was responsible for teaching everything from art to geography. And, the teachers were always unmarried women. Only in “junior high” grades seven and eight did we travel from class to class with a separate teacher in each, some of whom were actually men.

Some of my cousins went to one-room schools, where one teacher taught all eight grades. If the teacher was clever—and I imagine she had to be clever—she’d make sure the lesson she presented aloud to some of the pupils was reinforcing the learning of the others.

Recently, we visited a similar Amish school in which one young woman managed a large room of students of all ages, including some almost as old as she. And they were special-needs students!

Just when many of us may despair about the current state of education, teachers appear on the scene who inspire us by their excellence. One such is a friend who finished her teaching degree after raising a family. She graduated with honors and went on to teach at inner-city public schools.

This woman’s class is usually composed of kids from low-income families. They run the gamut from the working poor to the vaguely criminal, from average or above intelligence to undiagnosed disabilities requiring special instruction, from multi-generational households to every kind of marital arrangement or cohabitation. They represent a rainbow of ethnicity and color.

Despite all these prospective handicaps, every year Susan manages to produce a class of kids who show real progress. Although a few are unreachable or just plain unteachable, most of her students end each year knowing how to read, even reading for pleasure, and knowing about the world beyond their own. In short, she’s taught them to be intellectually curious.

Another fine teacher is our German son-in-law, who teaches children of many varied backgrounds in a lower economic suburb of Hamburg. Johannes teaches English and American History to

10th- and 11th-graders, many of whom are the children of immigrant workers.

Johannes turns to his advantage the ethnic and cultural differences of the students that might be obstacles in the classroom. Once, he used the Myers-Briggs personality test to teach his kids that, although some are Muslim and some Christian, some quick-tempered and some passive, some bright and others so-so, all of them have separate gifts to contribute to the class so that together all will learn.

Recently, he dreamed up a unit on “The Simpsons” TV show. The kids learned about American life and humor in a fun way, and also how to find truth hidden in satire. The study reinforced critical thinking without demonizing any nation or viewpoint.

We can only hope and pray that all teachers remain dedicated to the kind of creative teaching that Susan and Johannes employ.

Because someday, their students will be running the world!

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)


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