Education Opinion

Ode to Elmer

By Jessica Shyu — December 09, 2007 4 min read
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I used to say that there is nothing like the high you get from watching a kid learn. But I have to add to that now. There is nothing quite like watching a teacher learn to be a better teacher and be able to get his/her kids to learn even more.

But I still miss teaching. Eventually, I will return to the classroom. But in the meantime, I will brag about my teachers’ growth, and I will retell stories about my students in New Mexico. That is what I did last week when I went to Boulder, Colo., to interview Teach For America applicants.

In the middle of the interview day, I had a chance to describe the challenges and inspirations of teaching. The story I told is one of the stories I retell myself when I am feel unmotivated or slothful about my work. It’s one of the stories I discovered as a first year teacher in New Mexico. I’ve republished it below from my personal blog the way it was written almost 2 years ago.

Below is a snippet of my personal experience as a first-year teacher in Tohatchi, NM with Teach for America. It was originally written to be presented to prospective college seniors/grads. But it’s also something to keep me going after those not-so-inspiring days.

I knew when I signed up to be a Special Education teacher, things were going to be rough. I just had no idea how rough it would be. I eagerly assessed all of my seventh and eighth graders the first week of school, only to realize that almost everyone was between a kindergarten and third grade level in math. Some students with more severe disabilities still had trouble counting on their fingers. We had our work cut out.

I decided to organize the students by their disabilities and their math grade levels to determine what and how they would learn. Some students worked on adding while others started multiplication. For the first time in their lives, everyone had homework every single night. This was unheard of and trust me, they rallied against it. At the start of every class, everyone does three word problems for the day. After that, they study their addition or multiplication flashcards and every single day we did a Mad Minutes exercise in which we did as many problems of addition or multiplication as they could in five minutes. Soon, the arguments and complaints quelled. These basic math skills became a routine and after a month and a half, they became the foundations for us to move on to higher level math skills. Everyone—including my students with mental retardation memorized their basic addition and subtraction facts. We were on our way to making gains.

And then Elmer came. The first quarter was almost over when the eighth grader swaggered in. He had been out of school for the entire past year and could only read at the pre-kindergarten level. And he most definitely did not know his multiplication tables. I tried to get Elmer quickly accustomed to our math routines, but within a week he was suspended for getting in a fight. A week after returning, he was caught in another fight. When he wasn’t suspended, he often skipped my class. Phone calls home and parent conferences didn’t seem to help, but I had to keep trying.

When I was able to catch him for math class, I would often sit down with Elmer and just chat. He wasn’t much of a talker, but he seemed to enjoy the extra attention. We made multiplication flashcards together and I would sit next to him and practice first his 1’s tables. Next came his 2’s. And then his 3’s tables. The first time Elmer memorized his 3’s tables on his own, I danced and hurrahed until he thought I was nuts. He put on a tough-guy scowl and just said it was too easy for him. But I wouldn’t let him go that easily—I made such a big deal about his amazing memory and ability to soak up the math, he couldn’t help but smile. And then he moved on to his 4’s tables.

When I gave my students a mid-year assessment in December, almost everyone improved by at least one grade level in math—even Elmer who missed almost an entire quarter of school. From the moment he realized he really had the ability to learn math, I never had to chase him down for class. The only problem we came across was his missing multiplication flashcards—he would often sneak his flashcards home to practice at night and then forget to return them in the morning.

This story does not stand out for being unique, and that is a beautiful thing. Every single teacher out there-- current or former-- has their own story of how they have inspired their students and how their students have inspired them. How powerful is that? When I told this story to the applicants, I focused it on Elmer because his experience illustrates the types of challenges and joys teachers face. On the other hand, I keep retelling it to myself, especially on those low days, because it reminds me of the challenges and joys we were able to face then and need to keep facing now.

The opinions expressed in New Terrain are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.