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Why Is The Next Grade Level Always The 'Serious' One?

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It happened again this week. Twice. I was visiting two of my student-teachers who were just weeks away from becoming certified in their respective grade levels. The cooperating teachers with whom my students had worked these past 10 weeks were full of compliments about both the personal and professional qualities our wannabe teachers possessed.

And then it happened again. Twice. The conversations went something like this:

"Stella will be a fine teacher once she gets her own classroom. She's very creative and the children love her. My only concern is that she needs to focus more on 'the basics'--you know, getting the kids ready for the next grade level. It gets tougher next year and the kids need to be prepared for it.''

I heard the same thing from Todd's cooperating teacher and, in years past, I'd heard the same from Julie's, Sam's, Rita's, and countless others'. It doesn't seem to matter what grade level I observe--Stella was in a kindergarten class; Todd in 6th grade--the comments and the concerns are the same and they boil down to this: The previous grade level may have been fun, but now it's time to get serious about learning. Whether it's 12th-grade English ("College is tough, you know'') or 5th-grade fractions ("If you don't learn them now, you'll be behind next year''), teachers lead students to believe that the worst is yet to come.

In doing so, we take away some of the joy and wonder of learning, for instead of exploring a new concept with the unabashed excitement that often accompanies new adventures, students may undertake school tasks out of fear that, if they don't, it'll catch up with them in 1st grade or 4th grade or graduate school. In preparing our students for the future, we often forget that the only thing that both they and we have control over is the present.

Perhaps I'm overreacting. Maybe it's appropriate for us, as teachers, to justify what we do by what someone else--the next grade's teacher, the principal, the state department of education, a parent--expects us to cover. But taken to the extreme, as it often is, education becomes a constant dress rehearsal; the play itself, the real performance, lying elsewhere, in another grade, with another teacher. Trouble is, the next grade level brings yet more practice, leaving students to wonder if they'll ever get a chance to shine. Too often, they don't.

But in reflecting on those teachers who left the greatest impacts on me, I recall the ones who cared more for today than tomorrow. For example, there was Mrs. Bradley, who made 2nd grade special because we got to sing each day for no reason at all. In 6th grade, there was Mr. Bennett, my first male teacher, who extended our recess on warm fall days so he could teach both the boys and the girls how to throw a spiral and fake a pass. In 11th-grade American Government class, Mr. Maloney played theBeatles' song "Hey, Jude'' and informed us, a group of horny and vulnerable 16-year-old Catholic boys, that the song wasn't about sex or drugs, as we all assumed, but dealt instead with something called "angst ... a quality, gentlemen, from which you shall all someday suffer.'' I wrote angst down so I could recognize it when it appeared in my life. Trust me, it helped.

What each of these teachers shared was an abiding trust in themselves. A self-assured confidence that it was their job, not the next year's teacher's, to instill in me a love of learning. I was never afraid to sing with Mrs. Bradley, and I don't recall her ever telling me that if I didn't learn "My Country 'Tis of Thee,'' I'd be banished from 3rd grade. And, at the time, I might have liked Mr. Bennett because extra recess meant less time for spelling, but I recall him now because he realized the importance of football and crisp, autumn days to a boy whose own dad was often too busy to toss a few laterals in the backyard.

By concentrating on the present, these teachers took charge of my education. They knew that other grade levels lie ahead, and that more difficult challenges than I could now even imagine were just across the threshold in another teacher's class. But they didn't worry about future events over which they had little control. Rather, they focused their attention on the me that existed today instead of the person I would be later on. In doing so, they gave me the confidence to play around with this serious business of education.

Now, as a teacher myself, I realize that Mrs. Bradley, Mr. Maloney, and Mr. Bennett also gave themselves something: permission to teach a new set of basics, one of which was making students like me believe that 2nd grade (or 4th, or 11th) was the most special one of all.

Back to Stella and Todd. Next week, when I observe them both for the last time in their roles as student-teachers, I'll take them aside and ask them to talk about their most memorable moments during these past 12 weeks. If they mention a lesson so good that the students didn't want it to end, or a poignant one-on-one when a child needed a caring adult with shoulders big enough to lean on, then I'll ask them to write down these memories and laminate them on Day-Glo paper. This'll preserve them forever. I'll tell them to keep these papers in their desk drawers and to re-read them frequently when they become real teachers. Finally, I'll ask Stella and Todd to give copies of these memories to their cooperating teachers, as permanent reminders that we get only 180 days to convince our students that, whatever the future holds, today is the most important day of all in which to learn.

James R. Delisle is an associate professor of education at Kent State University and an enrichment teacher at Orchard Middle School in Solon, Ohio. He has authored five books, including Kidstories: Biographies of 20 Young People You'd Like To Know (Free Spirit, 1992).

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