From Parochial School to Public School
Our daughter started four-year-old half day kindergarten in a small parochial school with a wonderful teacher who infected her students with eagerness to learn and easily captured their imaginations. An elderly friend once asked our daughter if she was learning her letters and numbers and she calmly replied that she was learning about capillary action. She went on to say that her teacher showed the children how plants drew in water by putting white carnations in glasses of different colored water. The children were excited and learned the lesson well as they watched those carnations turn the colors of the water: green and red and yellow.
The joy of learning in four-year-old kindergarten was followed by a very different experience in five-year-old kindergarten. Our daughter who had been surrounded by books at home came out to the car after school looking sad and downcast. She said that there were no books with words in her classroom. There were picture books but no word books. I assumed that perhaps they didn’t have sufficient funds for books so I wrote the teacher a note and said that we would be happy to buy some books for her classroom if she would give us a wish list. She called me, declined our offer, and said that she had plenty of books for her class. I repeated that our daughter had said there were only picture books. She explained that she wouldn’t put out any books with words until the children could read. I said that my daughter could read and that having books with words was a great carrot on the road to better reading. The teacher told me that one of the primary lessons of school was “learning to wait.”
First grade was blessed with another excellent teacher; excellent teachers in both classes and the year flew by. But that was countered with a second-grade year which was horrible. The teacher, soon to retire, had checked out of anything that resembled work. She calmly explained to our daughter that she was no good in math and that eventually, she would find something at which she would be good. The problem seemed to be that although she understood basic math, she froze whenever she had a timed quiz or test and repeatedly failed them. How could a teacher give up on a student’s ability to learn when the student was seven years old? Seven years old and written-off as no good in math.
Third grade was not good. She was still getting D’s and F’s in math. Her teacher would flirt with workmen at the school in front of the children, and when a child brought in a picture for Show and Tell of her uncle holding a fish he caught, the teacher asked the little girl if her uncle was married. He was. “What a shame” the teacher replied.
It was this same year that our daughter came home upset because she had been prohibited from checking out a book from the school library. She was very excited about the book and couldn’t understand why the librarian wouldn’t let her. She explained that it was about Eratosthenes, the Greek Mathematician who had calculated the circumference of the world.
I asked the librarian why she couldn’t check out the book. The librarian sheepishly replied that school policy allowed each homeroom teacher the authority to decide which books their students were allowed to check out. This teacher required that her students could only read third grade books. The book about Eratosthenes was, gasp, a fifth grade book. It wasn’t racy or sexually explicit. It didn’t have obscene words or subject matter inappropriate for a young person. Its sin was it was a fifth grade book.
These sorts of things combined to make our daughter hate school. We talked to the teacher, we talked to the guidance counselor, we talked to the principal – a plan of action was decided. But the teacher quietly made sure none of it happened. Again we talked to the appropriate people but nothing changed.
The lesson learned for us at the parochial school was that the mediocre teachers taught to the middle and that children at both ends of the spectrum got left behind. The excellent teachers seemed to have the ability to teach to all the students. They challenged them all to improve regardless of whether they struggled with grades or good grades came easily. In a small school with only two classes per grade there was often little that could be done if a whole grade had ineffective teachers. In four-and-a-half years we had two years of excellent teachers and two-and-a-half years of mediocre to poor teachers.
Finally we felt we had to act. We weren’t ready to give up on the education of our child in the middle of third grade. So, we talked to the principal at the public school. We explained to the principal that our child was having trouble with math. She asked us what we thought would help. We explained that our daughter was a word person and felt that if the teacher explained how math worked and encouraged her we thought she would be fine.
The principal was thoughtful, listened to us when we explained how our daughter learned, and she said she knew just the teacher that would help. We were invited to sit in on a math class with the teacher that the principal thought would be able to help our daughter. We asked the librarian about their policy for lending books and it seemed a common sense policy to us. We liked what we saw and enrolled our daughter for second semester.
Shortly after she enrolled in the new school she took the national standardized tests with the rest of her class. She had scores of 97 and 98 in every subject except in math.
We were a little apprehensive because she had been there such a short time. But already we could see a change in our daughter. Her new teacher encouraged her and explained that math was just a puzzle that she could figure out. She explained with words how math worked. She never told our daughter that she was a failure. As I said, she took the national standardized tests with the rest of her class. She had scores of 97 and 98 in every subject except in math. In math she had a score of 96. From failing to an A in a matter of months – all because a teacher took some time to teach and encourage.
This underscored something we instinctively knew. As parents, we dare not relinquish the education of our children to others expecting them to handle it. We dare not be on auto pilot. When our child was struggling with teachers who weren’t trying to help we had to look for ways to help our child. Our story of learning to be pro-active in our child’s education didn’t end here and it didn’t end with the public schools.