Monday, September 3, 2012

The Ultimate Master Teacher

English: Site of the "North Pole" As...
Site of the "North Pole" As described in the Winnie the Pooh stories by A.A. Milne - situated in Ashdown Forest. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Teresa Meehan Ph.D.

What Makes a Master Teacher? Current thinking among educators looks toward seven key characteristics. They are as follows:

1. Create an atmosphere, an environment, and an attitude for learning
2. Establish a reason to learn
3. Train students how to learn
4. Inspire students to achieve
5. Establish accountability for learning
6. Continually check learning gains
7. Celebrate new learning

While educators and politicians scramble to instill these attributes in teachers and teachers-in-training by offering pay increases for continued education as incentives and threatening jobs of teachers whose students fail to meet standardized testing goals, perhaps we should consider the possibility that the answer to improving the quality of education lies in our past.

It used to be that teachers could teach. They had goals and objectives to meet, but they weren't forced to read out of a curriculum guide that doesn't allow for any spontaneity or creativity. Young children used to be able to learn by exploring their environment.

Today, kindergarteners sit at a desk and complete worksheets all day. When they can't sit still for the long stretches between recess, they get in trouble.

The following short story is a personal reflection on what it was like to grow up in a household where our mother was a master teacher, and how her expert modeling inspired my youngest brother, Robert Meehan, to become a teacher as well.

Captain Kindergarten

An elementary kindergarten classroom has a certain smell about it. A white-paste, pencil-wood, book glue kind of smell that just makes you want to learn something. My mom's kindergarten classroom had that magical smell, along with the sound of a productive bee hive, and the warm feel of acceptance, but that was just the beginning, just the stage where the magician put on her show.

My mom was a brilliant kindergarten teacher. The word "kindergarten" literally means "a children's garden," in German, and my mom was like a gardener who provided only the richest soil for cultivating her students. She nurtured the seedlings until their young roots ran deep, providing a strong foundation for future growth.

Watching my mom at work in her classroom was like a ship's deck hand watching the captain and realizing that he is watching his own future. Thenceforward the deck hand moves through life with a focused purpose: to become a master at the calling that chose him; to grow and learn, and to become just like the admired captain. My mom was my captain and I her deckhand.

The 13th century German legend of the Pied Piper of Hameln is a "Grimm" one, indeed, about a vengeful magician luring hundreds of children to their death with a Siren's call played upon his pipe. My mom was like a beneficent version of the Piper of lore. She used her expertise at playing the piano as a tool for helping her kindergarten students to learn. 

Like the Pied-Piper of Hameln, she could play a little ditty on her piano, and her twenty-five young charges, as though enchanted, would follow the call, moving in unison: sometimes to the A-B-C carpet to sit in a circle, awaiting their next direction, sometimes to their next center activity: the playhouse, the blocks, or the sand and water table, and sometimes to work on math, handwriting, or reading; their movement guided by the notes. Her students quickly learned to love music, to love learning, and to love their teacher as well.

At least twice every year I would sit among a rapt audience watching her classes perform wildly fun and complex musicals where every child had a part. My mom would take up her accompanist perch in front of her piano next to the stage, and with maybe a nod of the head or the lift of an eyebrow at her students, she'd begin to play, and her students would begin to sing. They would sing with all their hearts. 

Parents took pictures, chuckled, and sometimes pointed or waved at their child. But mostly they would just beam with pride, smiling from ear to ear as they watched their kindergartener bloom upon the stage.

My mom was a choreographer of special moments like this for so many kindergarteners and their parents. She directed and accompanied at least two major kindergarten musicals each school year for both morning and afternoon classes for 26 years. Parents should be so very grateful when they come across a teacher like my mom.

She also loved Winnie-the-Pooh; anything to do with Winnie-the-Pooh! Her room was adorned with large likenesses of Christopher Robin and Eeyore, Tigger and Rabbit, Piglet and Owl, Kanga and Roo, but most of all ... of course, Winnie-the-Pooh!

Her students would write letters to Pooh, sing songs about Pooh, and practice writing P-O-O-H in their 6-year old handwriting. My mom would even dress up as Winnie-the-Pooh for Halloween. She loved the pure, childlike innocence and authentic sense of wonder expressed by A.A. Milne's beloved characters. She worked very hard at crafting that same warm and inviting atmosphere in her classroom for her kindergarten students each year.

As much as she loved Winnie-the-Pooh, though, she loved her students more. She just loved kids, and she especially loved watching them learn and grow. Her nurturing instinct has always been very strong. For a while in her 20's and 30's, my mom even took in foster babies to give them the love and care they needed before they were provided a permanent home. She loved those babies like her own.

Several decades have passed since I watched my mom cultivate her students' love of learning using the characters from Winnie-the-Pooh and playing those alluring melodies on her piano that moved children into learning like the Pied-Piper. 

The deck hand has been a captain himself now for the better part of 25 years, and after all those years of working with hundreds of wonderful teachers in numerous school buildings myself, I've never come across another teacher quite so nurturing, quite so talented, quite so accepting, or quite so magical as my mom: the master cultivator of the children's garden, the kindergarten. I feel so fortunate to have spent time on her ship.

The American school system is drowning in a sea of bureaucracy. All the science points toward the importance of hands-on learning and learning in a natural environment, yet the political movement, not surprisingly, is geared toward fiscal prosperity under the guise of a plan to create master teachers.

The following are the federal highly qualified teacher provisions that apply to the public school K-12 teachers of core academic subjects. To be considered highly qualified, a teacher must meet the following three requirements:

  1. Hold at least a bachelor's degree. The degree must be obtained at an accredited institution of higher education.
  2. Obtain full state certification either through a traditional or alternative route. Teachers who have certification or licensure requirements waived on an emergency, temporary, or provisional basis are not considered highly qualified.
  3. Demonstrate subject-matter competency in each of the academic subjects he or she teaches. The competency may be demonstrated in a number of ways depending on whether teachers are new to the profession, experienced teachers, or special education or rural teachers.

No where in the provision does the federal government require the critical affective qualities of a master teacher. Qualities such as being friendly and congenial, having good interpersonal skills, being a good communicator and being s a good listener make the difference between a teacher who can connect with students and one who can't connect with students. Students who connect learn. Students who don't, don't learn.

The keys to fixing the American education system are not a mystery. They simply challenge the current status quo. Like my brother, I too am so grateful I had the opportunity to be raised by the ultimate master teacher. Kudos to all the master teachers who have influenced my life.

Teresa Meehan, PhD

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