Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

What’s the Point of the Needle’s Eye?

By Don Bartalo — March 01, 2014 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Today’s guest post is written by Don Bartalo. His friends call him Bart, and he has 50 years of experience in public education.

The needle’s eye that does supply,

The thread that runs so true...”

This is an old folksong kids in the mountain region of Kentucky used to sing years ago. It’s called The Needle’s Eye That Does Supply the Thread That Runs So True. I first saw these words when I read Jesse Stuart’s marvelous book, The Thread That Runs So True: A Mountain School-Teacher Tells His Story (1949). In many ways this simple song defines my experience and growth as an educator.

I’ve been in public schools for 50 years as a teacher, teacher leader, assistant principal, principal, superintendent, literacy specialist, instructional leadership developer/coach, and instructional systems analyst. I have no desire to retire, and currently maintain an active practice as an educational leader and consultant. Through all these years, you might say that I discovered the needle’s eye that does supply the thread that runs so true.

In high school, I used to practice teaching on the front porch with all the little kids on my street. I entered college in 1960 at Brockport State, a small teachers’ college in western New York. I had only one goal--become a teacher. There was no tuition for instate students my first two years at Brockport--just living expenses. The free ride was over my junior and senior years as the state introduced a new $200 per year tuition fee system. To this day, I have never had a better deal or a greater opportunity to improve myself. To paraphrase an old 60’s Kingston Trio song, “$400 and you’ll set me free"--the needle’s eye.

In the spring of 1964, I received my first offer for a teaching job while I was sitting in the college union. Someone said there was a call for me on one of the pay telephones just outside the entrance to the union. The voice on the phone asked me if I would like to teach sixth grade at Victor (small town in New York). He told me that my salary would be $5,000. I said “yes”, thanked the man, and ran back into the union telling everyone, “I’ve got a job teaching!”

That first was also the start of my ‘practical’ education about ‘real’ teaching. It came from the classroom next door and a teacher named Bill. He graduated from a private university and never took a single education course. Bill taught in the army and earned enough credits to qualify for a New York State Teaching Certificate. You could do that back then. He had innate instincts about natural learning. That is, learning that comes when someone is interested in something. Bill made learning so interesting that his students (and mine, too) couldn’t resist, they had to be a part of it.

One time, Bill set up a biology scavenger hunt in the Bristol Hills for his class and mine. Sixth graders working in pairs had to find everything from milkweed, rock samples, different kinds of leaves, and even how to find natural gas bubbling up from below. When a team found bubbles, Bill would put a tin can with a hole punched in the bottom over them and light the gas. The kids thought that was cool--very cool. Bill was a gifted master teacher, but more than that, he was truly the needle’s eye.

Like many young teachers did back in the mid-sixties, I left my position at Victor to take a similar job in Brockport. Hey, why not? Brockport offered me $200 more. In the elementary school, I soon discovered an older third grade teacher named Emma. She was a frail looking woman, very shy, and almost never went into the faculty room. Someone told me she was doing some different stuff with the kids in her class. On my break, I would visit Emma’s classroom and watch how she taught.

I couldn’t believe what I saw. The children were as independent as I have ever seen. Emma had taught these children how to take responsibility for everything in their classroom. Decisions about learning became topics of discussion with all voices heard. Emma devised a number of “systems” that allowed her third graders to assess their own progress on a continuous basis. In arithmetic, for example, Emma put together answer sheets so children could check their work and either move on or seek help from Emma or other students. The common denominator: everyone learned. Emma measured out responsibility to her students like it was some sort of natural fertilizer, not too much at once, but enough when needed.

Listen to part of Emma’s philosophy:

  • “Give each student a chance to work individually with the knowledge that they are not alone. If a student needs help, it is close by, either from the teacher or classmates or others. Help each child to be a winner at something.”
  • “Guide each child toward a goal which is within his or her reach. Let learning be a challenging and desirable adventure.”

Like Bill, Emma was the needle’s eye.

And then there was my Dad, John Henry Bartalo. He never made it past ninth grade in high school. My Dad was the greatest ‘natural teacher’ I ever saw. For over 50 years he volunteered in Caledonia, New York as an ambulance driver, fire fighter, and first aid instructor. The man was born to teach. When I was superintendent of schools, my Dad was teaching first aid to high school students interested in a career in nursing.

I used to sneak into his classes and watch him model basic first aid techniques, demonstrate everything before asking students to try it, always providing lots of guided practice, and finally helping each student apply new learning in ways that made sense. How did he learn to do that? For sure, my Dad was the needle’s eye.

So there you have it: “The needle’s eye that does supply,

The thread that runs so true...

After all these years, I’ve learned what that old folksong from Kentucky really means to me as an old hand educator. The ‘needle’s eye’ is the teacher, whether formally educated at a teachers’ college, acquired through experience, or the just plain common sense of a natural-born instructor. It is the needle’s eye that does supply the thread that runs so true...

But what is the thread that runs so true? Bill, Emma, and my father taught me that the thread that runs so true is natural learning--genuine experiences that extend children’s inborn curiosity. It is the kind of learning that has always been around, but lately, seems to be missing. I am firm in my belief that a teacher lives on through her or his students--young and old. Good teaching is forever.

Donald Bartalo is a nationally recognized instructional leadership consultant, coach, and literacy specialist. He is the author of Closing the Teaching Gap: Coaching for Instructional Leaders (Corwin Press, 2012). Donald is currently the instructional system analyst in an urban school for young men in grades 7-11 in Rochester, New York. Email dbartalo@rochester.rr.com; he is on Twitter @don bartalo.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.