Teaching Profession Opinion

An Open Letter From a 20th-Century Teacher

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 16, 2014 4 min read
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Our guest blogger is Dr. Madlon Laster. She is a retired 20th century educator who has written books on brain-based teaching and learning.

When I started my teaching career in Wooster, Ohio in the fall of 1956, there wasn’t much orientation. I was provided with a lesson plan book, textbooks for the five subjects, a box of chalk, and six clean blackboard erasers. There must have been a grade book, too. I had only to be sure the plan book on the desk was filled out for the next week before I left on each Friday. I remembered the principal, a woman, was retiring after 47 or so years the next June. She visited my class one day, and took over the lesson, in the middle of it all, to say what she had done with the topic.

I had to be five minutes early for the weekly faculty meetings because “some of us have hair appointments at 4.” There was another fifth grade teacher, but she just occasionally shared some classwork her class had enjoyed -- map drawing, I recall. And if I ordered a film to show my class, I signed up for a time in the auditorium, and the principal would run the projector!

There were growing numbers of cultures and ethnic groups represented in classrooms then as today. The responsibility for integration and inclusion remains an important responsibility that requires attention and must not be set aside. With varying cultures represented in schools, attention must still be paid to communicating with students’ parents who may view education in a different way than we do.

By the time I was to retire, my classroom in Winchester, Virginia had a television and a VCR tape deck, there was a computer lab across the hall, and I may have had one in my classroom. The overhead projector was my pet “device,” I showed slides and filmstrips, and then, three weeks before I left it all behind, they installed a wall phone with thirteen extra buttons and a blinking red light. I covered it with a box because the blinking light was annoying while I was teaching. Now, there are ceiling-mounted projectors attached to the teacher’s computer and the interactive white boards, films can be streamed on any and all topics “on demand,” and heaven knows what else.

Now, so much has changed; the technology, the Common Core Standards, assessments, and evaluations. There is so much for teachers and their principals to learn and do, it is possible to lose focus on the very important work that should be the basis of all work done in schools. No matter what their other mandates are, teachers need to always remember that students’ well being is their first priority and their principals need to support that focus. The pressure of the mandates teachers and their principals face today can easily pull attention away from the most important prerequisite for all learning for children. Some come to school overtired, upset, nervous or frightened, hungry, even feeling a bit sick, their emotional needs take over and learning is sabotaged or at least partially affected. They need your attention. No matter the pressure taking place in the profession, it is essential to remember to take note of students’ individual behaviors, who isn’t connecting today, looks preoccupied, won’t make eye-contact, glares at a classmate. It is the most important thing to keep the learning environment as safe, caring, and nurturing as possible, because the learning environment in the school and the classroom is what provides the most important foundation to learning.

Remember once students are curious and then interested, we all know what to do. If you concentrate on sharing a positive attitude, expect respect for you and each student, if you enjoy what you’re doing and want the students to enjoy it too, and allow for communal laughter (and quickly return to the lesson), the students will love you, and you will have as much fun as I did.

Amid it all, from the beginning of my career until the end, the students were “my kids,” and I focused on them. That was why I was teaching. I loved working with children, and I had loved going through school myself. So as many new teachers do, I began teaching the way I remembered being taught despite my degree in Elementary Education. And because I loved the projects we did then, we did projects in my fifth grade class. That was only the beginning. Things changed, challenges changed, just at they are now for you. However, the basics needed for learning remain the same. Classrooms will always need to be safe, encouraging environments that offer children opportunities for their curiosity to be ignited. No matter what else the 21st century demands of your teaching and leading, remember John Dewey of the 20th century who taught “learning to do by doing,” love your students, love your work, and remember there is nothing more important than your responsibility to your students. That knows no century...it is always.

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