Enchanting teachers among us.
Childhood Education; 3/22/2004; Richards, Jan
The word enchanting brings forth images of flying joyfully among the stars to Never Land with Peter Pan, powered by the magic of Tinker Bell’s sparkling fairy dust. Or our imagination conjures up an exciting world of elves, witches, and enchanted forests. In the magic worlds of fantasy, we are mesmerized; we are charmed. But enchantment is not a descriptive limited to the world of Disney or Harry Porter. The amazing power to enchant students often is a defining hallmark of great teachers.
Enchanting teachers, those who make learning exciting and attractive, are all around us, and each is effective and inspiring in his or her own unique way. Wonderful teachers generally weave their magic behind closed doors, however, where only their students can experience their charm. I wanted to open those doors a crack and peer inside, even for a day, to try and capture a little of the wonderment they dispense. And so I spent the day with two such teachers: Gilbert Navarro and Debra Nisius. They teach different levels and different student populations, yet both contribute something wonderful to the lives of their students. Both offer inspiration to the rest of us!
Gil Navarro: 1st- and 2nd-Grade Teacher
Gil is in his sixth year of teaching 1st and 2nd grade in a southern California middle class suburb. Oswalt Elementary is a clean, open, student-friendly school where the staff proudly hangs children’s work on office bulletin boards. It was easy to find Gil’s room. You can’t miss the sign on his door, welcoming all visitors with pictures of grinning dinosaurs–a theme that is carried throughout the classroom. Blown-up dinosaurs hang from the ceiling and sit watching from book shelves. Plastic dinosaur models rest by each of nine computers, and three small ones are on the sink board. A box of balls, hoops, Frisbees, and other equipment waits just outside the door, ready for play. Certain touches, such as the step stool by the too-tall sink and the laminated name tags on yarn necklaces for trips to the computer lab or the library (making calling each child by name a breeze), are testimony to the care and effort Gil brings to his work.
This theme of care is evident in every corner, wall, and surface of the classroom. There are boxes of books and tapes, each in envelopes with individual cassettes that Gil bought himself. The students can practice synonyms and antonyms on small computerized machines that give instant feedback and register a score with happy little dings and clicks. Most of all, Gil’s love for his students is evident in the monthly newspaper called the Caring Times. Gil has taught them to write articles on people they care about, go to Kinko’s to get their newspapers printed, and sell the papers for a quarter to each teacher in the school. Once a month, these 2nd-graders don their special newsperson’s hats and shirts and proudly sell their monthly masterpiece. The confident looks on those faces as they line up at the door, ready to do business, present a true Kodak moment! This unique opportunity is just one example of the excitement for learning that Gil Navarro generates.
Gil is a master organizer–a quality that succeeds in giving the class mood a kind of effortless flow. While he works with one child perfecting her story of the week (a result of Writers’ Workshop training), four groups of rive work in their “centers,” rotating every 15 minutes. The children move confidently, noting the chart on the board. Group 1 starts with the listening center. Group 2 works on antonyms. Group 3 sits at the library table. Group 4 works on “Word Muncher” (a computer game) with earphones. There is a peaceful feeling of productivity in the room. Gil’s children know what to expect and seem focused and engaged in their own learning.
One student talks too loudly and is called over for a personal chat about appropriate behavior. “How could you have solved the problem?” I hear Gil ask. “Did you talk to the person in the mirror?” There is a mirror at the children’s eye level next to the sink. Gil has emphasized character and values in his class, and one of his key messages is that you don’t want to let yourself down with rude or unkind behavior. You are expected to apologize to the person in the mirror and try to do better next time.
The tone in this room is one of excitement for learning, pride in accomplishment, and the power that comes from feeling capable and cared for. Gil’s students appreciate his caring, as they express here:
“Mr. Navarro is a good teacher because he always thinks
about us before himself…. He bought some computers so
we can have fun. He is the funnest teacher I ever had! He
knows a lot of jokes; also, he works very hard so we can be
smart and happy.”
“He doesn’t scream at us.”
“He makes it fun to learn.”
“Mr. Navarro teaches us very fast. He always loves us.”
“He is a funny teacher and he is very kind.”
Debra Nisius: 7th-Grade English Teacher
In contrast to Gil’s middle class neighborhood school, Debra’s school is in a low socioeconomic area. As I stand watching Debra’s 7th-graders form two lines and ready themselves to enter their language arts classroom, I hear the following daily ritual:
Debra: “Carpe Diem.”
Students, in unison: “Seize the day!”
Debra: “Are you ready for your finest hour?”
They enter the classroom according to their positions in their “Corporation.” Debra calls the “CEOs” to step forward, and gives them a directive before entering the room. Then the “officers” and “board members” follow suit, each given a particular task. There is no lag time. When students get to their respective groups, they immediately begin to tally their points on their corporation cards. They receive points for attendance, punctuality, materials, homework, productivity, and cooperation. Thirty-eight smiling students jam into the room, hustling because their teacher is giving them only seven minutes to complete their task. The timer rings, and Debra’s soft velvety voice reminds them to finish up. “The bus is leaving” is one of her favorite ways to cajole them into finishing up. She points to the agenda on the board, reviewing yesterday’s work and introducing the work of the day.
The class is working on a poetry unit. After passing out a poem (actually, the words of the song “I Think It’s Going to Rain”), she asks why the title is not underlined. The group that knows the correct answer is awarded 10 bonus points. (Scores are kept for two weeks. Then it’s “prize” day.) Debra continues the lesson by reading the poem dramatically while music plays softly in the background. She gives students five minutes to discuss the poem’s “mood” with their group; she then walks around the room and listens to their comments. Their explanations are perceptive. “I think he was betrayed,” says one. They read the poem, this time listening to Bette Midler’s version of the song from the movie Beaches. Debra asks whether the song is in a major or a minor key and explains the difference. The group discusses the poem’s meaning and why the singer’s voice rises or falls at various points. “I think her voice uses lower tones to express sadness,” says one student. “Her higher tones show when she wants to help other people,” says another. One of the leaders summarizes his group’s ideas: “When you are sad, you feel like everything is sad. You want to be alone…. It is raining.” Another group leader contributes: “We feel like she is lonely and doesn’t know what to do. Everything is scaring her.” Everyone in the group is expected to stay on task and talk about the poem. When students share their observations, other students are expected to listen. Debra insists that they show respect for one another. Their next small-group assignment is to write unfamiliar words in their “Word Bank” (looking up the meanings) and to write their responses to selected lines in their dialectical journals.
Their two-day assignment is to decide how they will present the poem in a way that is pertinent to their lives. They talk about issues commonly important to students in the 7th grade–loss of friendship, moving, breakups, or the death of a family member. The students are supposed to present this poem by acting it out, reading it aloud, or creating a painting or other work of art; these presentations will be videotaped. Creative projects fill class bulletin boards: unusual book reviews, posters that represent themes and the story line of “Phantom of the Opera,” or original poems.
When I ask the students why they think Debra is a great teacher, they are eager to share. As was the case for Gil’s students, the recurring themes of love, care, and encouragement typify their responses:
“She makes everything seem easy and possible to do…. Ms.
Nisius cares and loves every one of her students and doesn’t
want anyone to ever get hurt. She makes sure we understand
what she is teaching us. This shows that site cares about our
education. She is a great teacher, and I don’t know what the
school would do without her!!!”
“She’s an extraordinary teacher that I know I’ll always
remember because when I grow up and get a career, I’ll know
that I got there because of her.”
“She makes us think a lot about life.”
“She sets an example for all her students. Mrs. Nisius
inspired me to be a teacher when l grow up. I want to be a
teacher and be able to teach the way she teaches us.”
Children (whether age 7 or 13) are quite clear about the teacher qualifies that matter most. Gil’s and Debra’s enchanting effect on their students is most evident in the students’ loving and positive descriptors: Mr. Navarro “loves us … he is kind and works hard so we can be smart and happy. He makes it fun to learn.” Ms. Nisius “makes everything seem easy and possible to do.” She “cares and loves every one of her students.” “She inspired me to be a teacher when i grow up.”
Capturing the essence of these teachers’ magic is an elusive task. Despite differences in teaching style and student population, some common characteristics undergird their effectiveness. Simply put, Gil’s and Debra’s successes in the classroom are, for the most part, a result of the positive actions and attitudes they have embraced.
Actions of Effective Teachers
* They come prepared for the day. The learning centers are ready to go. The scissors are out, the paint is mixed. Student groupings have been deliberately planned. These wise teachers know that a myriad of classroom problems are prevented by being prepared before they enter the classroom.
* They are organized. Knowing where everything is kept is an enormous time-saver when there is an unexpected disruption in the schedule and you need to find materials quickly.
* They are flexible. Rare are the days that go exactly as planned. These effective teachers are prepared to switch gears if a lesson is hot working or if the fire drill alarm sounds without warning! They do not allow disruptions to upset their day.
* They connect with positive teachers who enjoy sharing their wisdom about the craft of teaching. They take every opportunity to observe lessons given by excellent teachers in order to add to their own repertoire of successful teaching strategies.
* They reflect regularly on their classroom performance. What went well? Why did a lesson go wrong? What part of a lesson should be changed next time? They file these ideas with the lesson’s directives in their lesson plan book or as a “Post-it” in the textbook for future reference.
Attitudes of Effective Teachers
Becoming an effective, enchanting teacher requires more than acquiring a collection of successful strategies and behaviors. One of my favorite writers, Parker Palmer, maintains that “we teach who we are…. Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher” (Palmer, 1998, p. 10). Great teachers know their subjects–but more than that, they know their students and care deeply about their welfare.
* Enchanting teachers demonstrate love, care, and encouragement. These nurturing traits are visible to the students in the form of smiles, hugs, and humor-even in the extra effort it takes to plan those exciting classroom experiences that go beyond the required standards-based lessons. When asked what makes these teachers great, nearly every student in both age groups mentioned feeling reassured that they are cared for.
* Enchanting teachers go beyond the subject. Both Gil and Debra aim to produce hot just good readers or scientists, but good people who are empathic, cooperative, and responsible. They model these traits daily and give students opportunity to practice. They know that the best learning is that which connects with a student’s own feelings and life experiences, and they structure lessons accordingly.
* Enchanting teachers hold high expectations for all, emphasizing pride in accomplishment and a belief in students” capabilities. Their joy in life and enthusiasm for learning give their students a sense of confidence and hope for the future. The words of Debra’s students are a tribute to her: “She pursues us to work hard and do well so in the future we can be very successful…. She inspires us to keep up and be the best that we could be.”
* Enchanting teachers view themselves as creative professionals. They look for opportunities to grow and improve and are always willing to modify, adapt, or fine-tune lessons for their students’ benefit. They understand that learning to be a great teacher is a journey–not a destination.
Effective Into Enchantment
What is the connection between the descriptors effective and enchanting? The word “effective” relates to what you do as a teacher–your strategies, organizational skills, or successful use of flexible grouping for reading or math instruction. The word “enchanting” connects with who you are, your willingness to share yourself, your warmth, and your humor. Those teachers who are both effective and enchanting combine their unique mix of practical skills and strategies with a passion for the act of teaching, for the subject, and for their students. Knowing the dance steps is effective. The art of putting those steps into the flow of an effortless performance is enchanting. You will know that you have succeeded in enchanting your students when:
* They reluctantly drag their feet out the door at lunchtime–unwilling to leave their work
* Your students’ parents report that their children come home each day bursting with enthusiastic reports about their classroom activities
* An embarrassed 6th-grade boy catches himself calling you “Mom” or “Dad” one day late in the year.
Gil and Debra are just two of the enchanting teachers among us, and we would do well to take a moment to honor the many teachers who quietly model greatness. They do hot view the classroom as a steppingstone to something more prestigious; rather, they look upon teaching as a calling. They stay for the love of kids. That’s it. They have different teaching styles, and teach children of different ages, ability levels, and types–yet all make school an exciting place to be. I spent the day behind closed doors with two such professionals and watched them work their magic. They, like many other teachers, have succeeded in making their classrooms a place of promise, hope, and possibility.