William Wordsworth wrote in his famous poem, The Rainbow, “The child is the father of the man.” We could just as easily say, “The student is the father of the teacher.” Just as human traits are established while young, so are teacher traits.
All I ever needed to learn about who I am as a human and as a teacher, I learned, not in kindergarten, but in second grade. Truth be told, I don’t remember much of kindergarten and first grade, except nap time, blocks, being scolded for not wanting to nap, and having my first-grade teacher tell my mother that I needed “testing.” I was never sure what my first-grade teacher, Mrs. S. (the bunned witch), meant by that. I think she meant psychological. It was before attention deficit disorder (ADD) was the easy answer. I prefer to think that she meant gifted and talented. Turns out it was probably a bit of both.
It was there that I endured Mrs. S. in class 1-3. I have one class picture of me in a cowboy outfit. I was smiling. It must have been Halloween. Like I said, I don’t remember much of first grade. I do remember not liking her and school. My memories consist of being told to keep my hands folded on the desk and my legs under it. That was hard, because the desks were bolted to the floor, and I didn’t fit. So, I kept moving my feet and legs into the aisle, for which I was scolded time and time again. “David. Put your feet under your desk. You will trip someone.” I would usually respond, “But no one is allowed to get up and walk down the aisle.” At which point, she would tell me to be quiet and, “behave yourself.” So, I would be quiet and not pay much attention, rather than get yelled at, until the next time I had to move my oversized legs from under the undersized desk.
Actually, I don’t remember much of third, fourth, or sixth grades either. I skipped fifth grade. I guess I really was gifted. I only remember sixth grade because of two reasons. One was a guy named Murray, who did the dumbest things. He was hysterical. In fact, we created a new phrase, to “pull a Murray,” which meant doing something Murray-like. (Thirteen years later, I nicknamed my wife Murray.) The second and most important reason turned out to be my most embarrassing moment in school. You know, the one when you want to hide, not only under the screwed-to-the-floor-desks, but under the floor they were screwed into. Mrs. F. was going over some spelling list I was not particularly interested in. Actually, after second grade, there wasn’t much in school I was interested in, except playing ball in the school yard. My second-grade teacher spoiled me.
Anyway, Mrs. F. was giving each person in the room a word to spell and pronounce. “Oh no,” I thought. There were enough words to reach me in my seat in the last row; I figured out which word I was going to have to spell and pronounce. “Oh shit,” I thought. “I have no idea how to pronounce it: a.w.k.w.a.r.d. What kind of ‘fuckin’ word is that?” I had never seen it, heard it spoken, let alone knew its meaning. Pretty ironic, huh? “Hmm, is it owkword? Awwwkwaaard?” (As you can tell, I learned to curse early on in life. That was far more useful than knowing awwwkwerd.)
“Oh no. Does she see how panicked I am? I don’t have a clue,” and now she says, “David, please do word number twenty-six,” or whatever number it was. I fumbled for the right pronunciation, screwed it up, spelled it, then, as we all had to do back then, say it again… incorrectly, while listening to the belly laughs of my classmates and Mrs. Bitch telling me to try again. And again. And again. Remember when I said I had skipped fifth grade? Well, that made it even worse. Not only was I the youngest in my class by about one and a half years, but I was also in a class with very few cronies who knew how smart I really was. As a result, I never forgot this experience. It was a moment that probably led me to teaching, although I didn’t realize it back then.
That takes me back to second grade. Miss Stafford was our teacher. She must have been the ripe, old age of twenty-three. We had no idea. We were seven. In 1956 and 1957, she was ancient. She was also incredible. When she passed away in 2009, several of us from her second-grade class were at her memorial service. We had no idea that our Miss Stafford would become the world renown Dr. Rita Dunn. A professor at St. John’s University for nearly forty years, she had become an authority on learning styles, an internationally renowned professor of higher education, a prolific author of thirty-two textbooks and more than four hundred fifty manuscripts and research papers, and the recipient of thirty-one professional research awards. We had no idea who she was going to become. At the time, neither did she. I wrote this in her Tribute Book:
Little did we know as seven-year-olds entering Rita Stafford’s class 2-1 in PS 66, Bronx, in September of 1956, that we were to become the happy guinea pigs for a life dedicated to helping children with all kinds of ‘personalities,’ as we called it then.
People marvel when they are told of what Rita did for us. They marvel at our advanced work. They marvel at our activities. They marvel at our reunions every Christmas time for twelve years, and at our last reunion, eight years ago this month. [Forty-four years after our second-grade class.]
I can’t count the number of times I have told students and teaching colleagues how we learned about the solar system by building one and hanging it from the ceiling; or about civil rights by writing letters to President Eisenhower. (We even received a reply and were quoted in The New York Times.)
She inspired me to become a teacher. Those activities were the seeds of every ‘outrageous’ activity I ever cooked up for use in my classrooms. The more I look back on my body of teaching and work, the more I see how indebted I am to her. I used a variety of styles because I knew, not intrinsically, but because I experienced it in her second-grade classroom, that they were necessary to reach more kids.
Over the past dozen years or so, I have become increasingly interested in the rise of the number of underachieving boys in our society. The more I read about the subject, the more I realize that she was right on the money those fifty-three years ago. Both directly as a teacher, and indirectly, through her research and training sessions, she saved countless students from failure. I know she saved me.
Over the years, I have never stopped talking about her. In addition to students and teachers, I have spoken about her to several colleagues involved in this latest endeavor. I have told the Teach For America teachers I mentor in the Bronx about her. She is their model.
I will continue to tell everyone I know about her. She was my hero. My work shall forever be in her honor and name.
She proved to me that in any one year, any one teacher could make a difference to any one student. She was creative and autonomous. She was innovative and caring. Unfortunately, I didn’t have many other teachers who had a positive impact on my life. Most were and still are forgotten. Looking back I now understand how being a student totally influenced who I became as a teacher.
There weren’t many I learned from or remember having any influence on me besides “Miss Stafford. One, most cool, was Mr. Gerard, the Junior High music teacher who could play two reed instruments at the same time in two-part harmony. He was a character. He used to take us into the huge clothing closet if we were “acting up” and whisper, “shh, just make noises like I am hurting you.” Then he would throw stuff and bang on the walls. Although it was an act we got hip to rather fast, it made him rate high on the cool-but-nuts factor. Another lesson learned–always make them think you are crazier than they are.
I went to the Bronx High School of Science. I hated it. I did poorly––for there. Out of a class of 950, I ranked 903rd, with an average of about 80 percent. Even if I had an 85 average, a solid B, I would have been in the bottom half of the class. I spent more time playing basketball, softball, and touch football at the schoolyards with my Black and Puerto Rican neighborhood buddies. When I was in school, I was mostly bored. I was also immature and hadn’t yet learned how to “do school.” I had always gotten by on innate ability. I had no idea how to study, write, do homework correctly, or even really engage in class work. I was virtually left to my own devices. The fact that I was influenced how I taught.
Only four teachers interested me and improved my learning. Mr. Merovick was the social studies chairperson and a master teacher. His discussion-based American history class was all about how we developed points of view. Mr. Kotkin turned microbiology into fun-filled “piss and puncture.” Those two influenced me.
Mr. Rifkin, an English teacher, made studying Othello intriguing. To this day, it is the only play of Shakespeare I enjoyed reading, because of him. One day, he asked us why we thought we were studying Othello. I whispered, “to kill time,” to the student seated to my immediate left. Mr. Rifkin heard it, and for another year, every time he saw me in the hall, he would ask, in a good-natured way, “Hey Greene, still killing time?” From him, I learned the power of great hearing and a sense of self-deprecating humor. Finally, there was Mrs. Rockow, the only teacher I asked to sign my yearbook. She was my senior-year math teacher who showed me how to use my abilities to tackle sold geometry and probability. No one had tapped my brain that way before. It was her way of differentiation, and I learned how that personal touch is so important in turning students around.
Sometimes, just as we parent as a reaction to what we hated about how our parents treated us, teachers learn to do the same. Certainly I didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of my first and sixth grade teachers. I also learn what not to do from another bunned teacher, who embarrassed me what seemed daily in class. Mr. C., my economics teacher, was infamous for setting the world record for “Ums” in a forty-minute period–436. He, by the way, has one distinguishing, positive accomplishment. He was the second teacher who pointed me to my career path. I remember saying one day that I could do a better job than he. I didn’t make much of that back then, but as things turned out, it became true.
Just as our experiences as a child influence how we parent, our experiences as a young student influence how we teach. The problem as I see it is that too many new teachers take on the bad habits of too many teachers they had as students.