Author’s Note: As a teacher, I sometimes found it soothing to call a beloved retired teacher and regale her with the funny and hard about my days. She could relate to so much, but, even more, she had so much wisdom to share. For those of you who don’t have a former teacher related to you to ask for expert advice, I share these words from Marilyn Martin, who taught in several small districts in Indiana.
What was your path to becoming a teacher?
When I was 6 years old, I went to first grade. I enjoyed it so much that I decided then and there I wanted to be a teacher. I never looked back. I got a scholarship to college (I was the first in my family to go.) I lived on campus, took elementary education courses, and went home every weekend to visit my family. I graduated in 1952 and was married 2 weeks later. Over the next ten years, I alternated between teaching and having babies.
I never had a real job interview. Someone always found out I was a teacher and offered me a job. I remember only one time where I visited the superintendent to introduce myself and ask for a job. He handed me papers on the spot and I became a 2nd-grade teacher. My loving husband supported me and the neighbors helped watch the children or drive me to and from school (I didn’t learn to drive until later in life.)
I taught for a total of 23 years and retired in 1986.
What was your greatest struggle as a teacher?
Ironically, it was teaching reading! Even though I had my masters in reading instruction, the few specialized courses offered for my degree were taught by a professor who announced, “I have no idea what to tell you” and took us on field trips instead. I read instinctively as a child and struggled to find ways to help students who didn’t recognize sight words. Phonics was a concept that existed but no one knew how to use it. This was why I ultimately preferred teaching 5th grade. I could teach them grammar and nuance to reading, but helping them decode “This is an A” baffled me. I was never instructed HOW to teach reading. I would have learned far more sitting in the room with an excellent teacher watching them work than I ever did taking college courses about teaching.
What was your greatest joy as a teacher?
*Happy sigh* The children.
I remember having a meeting with a principal who was going down his “checklist” and asking me how well I did on things. He looked up at me and said, “You love ‘em too much.”
I’d never heard that before. I didn’t know that was possible. My greatest joy was doing things that gave the kids joy. Not like giving them candy but teaching them something where their eyes would light up.
I loved 10-year-olds. They were trying to be grown up, but they weren’t yet. It was both maddening and sweet and oh-so-lovable.
Ever have a lesson plan go wrong? What did you learn?
The local paper would give teachers enough newspapers for each student in their class. I got that stack of papers the night before and culled through it, making questions up about the newspaper that students would need to answer: find the comics, find the want ads, who is the editor? etc.
I was shocked to discover they couldn’t do it! Most of the students’ families couldn’t afford the daily newspaper and they rarely saw them. They had no idea how to look for those answers! When students aren’t prepared for the assignment you’ve planned, the best action is to model the assignment for them. I found a few answers with them and we talked about how to think through the questions they’d been given. Then, they looked for the last few answers on their own. I realized I couldn’t expect perfection and chose not to grade them on the assignment. Learning happened, I’m sure of it, but there was no “measurement” taken on that day.
We have to stay flexible. I made my lesson plans out dutifully each week, but I always had to change them by Wednesday based on the student’s needs. The student is the barometer for how fast we move through the material, not the plan. If I pay attention to them and treat them as humans, not as machines, then we will accomplish our goals.
What expert advice would you give to a young teacher starting out?
Really want to do it. Really love young people. You’ve got to love the kids and have respect for them. And demand respect from them, too! Every class is different. You have to strike the right balance between your authority and respecting them as human beings.
If you stay in a job long enough to have younger siblings of previous students, never point out to them that you knew their brother or sister. They hate the comparison. Let them be themselves and see them as individuals.
Show an interest in whatever interests your students. I always asked the scores from the previous night’s little league game or whatever game might have been on TV (there weren’t a lot back then!). I needed to show them that I took them seriously. I tried not to act “above” the things they cared about. That could make the whole day go better if I remembered to care about their world.
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