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Still Learning: Lessons from a lifetime in the classroom — September Song

by Julia Sneden

Labor Day has come and gone, and from now until next summer, one quarter of the United States — students and teachers — will be in school almost every weekday. The rest of us will probably think about our schooling at least once a day, whether in anger or gratitude or love. Our teachers have marked us, happily or unhappily; our studies have enlarged us or frustrated us; our classmates have had a profound effect on how we perceive ourselves. Every American who has been there considers him/herself an expert on the subject of school.

And why not? You can't spend six to eight hours a day, 180 days a year, for a minimum of ten to twelve years in a school system without having an opinion on its good and bad aspects. Unfortunately, many of us dwell on the latter. I spent a lot of time disliking school when I was young, even though I was a good student. My husband, who was an even better student, adored every school he ever entered, even when his teachers were not charismatic. The difference seems to be that his schools had smaller classes, and curricula that included art, drama, and music, which brought an amount of joy into his schooling.

Teaching is almost our family business. I'm the daughter and stepdaughter of teachers; I'm married to a teacher; I am the mother of a teacher, the sister of a teacher, and I myself am a retired teacher. I came to the profession through the back door, having asserted my independence early on by announcing that I would never be a teacher. I managed to hold out until I had developed a fairly successful separate career and had borne three children, but then I discovered the rewards of watching my own offspring learn. I was not, I hasten to add, home schooling them. I was just being their mother. But parents are a child's first teachers, and they're probably the most important ones. By the time my youngest son was ready for school, I decided to be paid for what I'd learned to love: the process of teaching and watching little children learn. I never looked back, and taught for 25 years, and loved it.

My youngest granddaughter started kindergarten a couple of weeks ago, and I look forward to what she'll have to tell me about school, not because her ideas will be "cute" but because they'll tell us if she's on the right track, in the right class. Fortunately, she has parents who are similarly attuned, and who will know what to do in case there is not a good fit between child and school.

I think that the first five years of school are absolutely the most important part of a person's education. By nature, humans have curious, questing minds. As long as their confidence isn't damaged or their curiosity squashed early on, children will love school even if the teacher isn't particularly inspiring. And if they have learned to respect the rights of others and to take pride in their own ability to learn, children will thrive during those early years. The carry-over should take them well through the rest of their formal education and out into the great world beyond.

I wish that I could pass on to my granddaughter all the things that I have learned during my long years in school (as both teacher and student), but she is too young to absorb or withstand long, philosophical ramblings. I'll leave it to her parents to deal with the day-to-day stuff. But perhaps someday she'll have children of her own to deliver into the hands of our public education system, and if she does, here are the few things I think are most important to know about school:

  • Education isn't something done to you. It's a process and a partnership. No one can open your head and put in the knowledge. You're in charge of your own learning, even at five, and if you're not willing to put forth some effort, no teacher can help you.

  • Education isn't a commodity that can be bought, and it doesn't end with a "terminal degree." It's a process that continues all your life. It started with your first breath, and will end with your last.

  • There is no "correct" way to teach or to learn. What works for one child may not work for another. What works for one teacher may not work for another. You will have a variety of teachers, and if you're determined, you can learn something from all of them, even the ones you don't like.

  • Don't hesitate to use "old fashioned" methods like memory and drill; they train the mind and can provide a rich resource if ever you find yourself unable to read or listen. Your great grandmother has whiled away many an hour reciting great poetry to herself, since she became blind and deaf.

  • Don't forget to include the physical in your learning. Sports of all kinds, dancing, even cleaning a house will keep your muscles and nerves alert and strong if you do it with vigor.

  • If ever you find yourself in over your head in a subject or class, ask for help in a loud voice. There is no shame in not understanding something. The only shame lies in trying to cover up your distress.

  • Fast learners don't necessarily learn more than slow learners. They just learn more quickly. One of the men who uncovered the double helix structure of DNA has a decidedly average IQ — which demonstrates nicely that speed of learning doesn't have a whole lot to do with good thinking.

  • Not everyone is going to like you. You won't like everyone, either. But as my friend's grandmother says, "You don't have to get thick to be nice."

  • Tests test only the facts you have learned. They have nothing to do with your value as a human being. They show only what you have or have not learned yet.

  • The most important word in education may well be yet. I learned that when a four-year-old greeted me on the first day of school with a worried: "I can't tie my shoes." Her mother, who was standing nearby, leaned over and said gently: "You mean you can't tie your shoes yet." That one little word held the entire mission of school. It implied that success would come at the proper time. It held out hope, and offered the challenge. And it made it all right not to know. Yet.

Dear Julia, I hope that you will love school, and that no matter what you choose to pursue in life, you will always hold a fond spot in your heart for your teachers, especially for the old teacher who happens to be

Your Grandma.

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