Originally I was thinking that I would start featuring the blogs that I’m following, and I will get to that, but in the meantime I thought it might be a good idea to establish a new category called “What Makes a Good Teacher?”
My mother used to say that good teachers were born and not made. She thought I was probably headed for the classroom from very early on.
We used to live in a teeny tiny apartment not so far from the train tracks in Woodstock, Illinois. The house is on the street that Bill Murray, in the movie Groundhog Day, sees out the window of the B&B on the morning of the day that turns finally into February 3rd. If you look down the street in that scene you’ll see a van backing out of a driveway, and that van has to be within a door or two of our old house. So one day, in that apartment on the second floor of that house, when I was about two and a half or so, my mother came out of the kitchen and there I was with a small book in one hand and a toy wand in the other. All my dolls and all my stuffed animals were arranged in a couple of not-so-neat rows in between the sectional couch and the teeny tiny TV. Babbling away, I was gesturing with the wand towards what seemed to Ma to be an imaginary blackboard.
I don’t remember that, of course. But I do remember spending endless hours playing school in the house in the country we moved to when I was seven. I remember arranging and rearranging chairs in a row in the unfinished basement; bending over poster board with crayons, drawing up seating charts, and filling up grade charts with made up names, columns of assignments and lots of gold stars. I also remember teaching Chatty Cathy, Tiny Tears and Raggedy Ann and, apparently, a whole legion of unseen students given the length of the charts, all of whom — I imagined — were watching me dutifully as I chalked up the concrete basement walls with lessons.
I was always playing school. And in my mind at least, it was partly Maud Desmond’s fault.
I knew from second grade that I wanted to grow up to be Maud Desmond. She was the most amazing teacher I had growing up (and I had a few great teachers). When I met her, she was willowly and tall with white hair, an energetic lady in her 70s. It was 1958 and there were a lot of us in that second grade classroom. Maybe 40 kids or a bit more. She had retired from the Public School system where she’d spent pretty much her whole life teaching and had come to the Catholic elementary school to teach some more. I think in retirement she probably spent another 10 or 15 years teaching.
A classroom with 40+ kids didn’t put her off. She had strategies and they weren’t so far off the strategies that online teachers use today to turn near-Mooc size online classes into functioning community-building clusters of learners. One of the first things Maud did was to put us into groups. There were three or four of us in the “I already finished what else?” category, and then another group just on our tails, ranging down to the group of folks who needed help. I remember that she paired us up: the first group with the last group and so on, so that on a normal day, half the class was teaching the other half. Maud would stride through the room, keeping the peace, encouraging folk, stooping to comment, basically orchestrating the learning.
Maud also ran games that included everybody, versions of baseball where we all lined up on either side of the classroom. A correct answer was a home run, an almost right answer a base hit, and a good guess a ball. A really wrong answer was a strike. I remember being happy there was latitude in the answers because while I was a whiz at anything that had to do with language or reading, I most definitely was not a whiz at a lot of other stuff.
As I got older I talked to her a lot about teaching. She had started her career as a teenager with a high school diploma, teaching a one room school with kids from the first grade to the eighth. One room school teachers were at the mercy of the stresses of the agricultural season when all the boys and some of the girls would disappear to do farm work. Smart kids, talented kids, hard-working kids could get swallowed up by family businesses. Kids with needs might come and go from the curriculum depending on what was happening in the world. That couldn’t have been easy on teachers.
I think Maud finished her BA after her one room school house days and perhaps her MA after she was married and had raised her children. I’m sure she had no problem with transitioning from an ungraded schoolhouse to a graded classroom in a bigger school. She just seemed to be fearless, a bundle of positive energy and great ideas.
Knowing how to customize learning across a boisterous crowd of learners — that’s what was in evidence when I was in second grade with Maud. I never saw another teacher organize a class in such a way that students became teachers. I don’t remember such a wide variety of activities with any of my other teachers. So many classes, even with terrific teachers, were taught the way I taught my dolls when I was little, everybody sitting in rows, eyes straight forward, and either somebody wonderful or somebody not so wonderful chalking up the blackboard.
Maud Desmond was a great teacher. Whether born or made, she was flexible and caring, effective and engaging, and always willing to trust students to be teachers too: a good answer to what makes a great teacher.