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Education Humor
With Regina Barreca

The Best of the Best

(Editors note: In a previous column,, Regina Barreca wrote about two of the worst teachers she ever had. As promised, here is a look at her best teachers.)

Even in a lifetime filled with good teachers, Mrs. Pruitt is the one I remember best. Let me describe her. Mrs. Pruitt was a tiny woman, the kind of woman who was not very much taller than her elementary school students. Mrs. Pruitt had a crown of silver hair, wore bright pink lipstick, and mid-calf wool skirts. I now realize that she was out of central casting for a grade school teacher anywhere between 1920 and 1970.

Her bright brown eyes twinkled from behind large, tortoise shell glasses (You have to understand that it almost kills me to use the word twinkle in a sentence without being ironic, but, damn it, thats what her eyes did). She was perfect. She was a cross between Glinda, the good witch of the north, and Mary Worth. Unlike other teachers, she kept her classes for two years, leading them through both first and second grades. There was, in those days, a push to see if continuity in the classroom encouraged success; I also suspect that because she was unparalleled as an instructor, any other second grade teacher they could find would have been driven out of town by the loyal acolytes she found in the first grade.

It has become a commonplace for educators to talk about allowing their students to color outside the lines, but Mrs. Pruitts methodologies anticipated these theorists by several years. The class I best remember was her lesson on big versus small (I dont suppose they called it the Binary Oppositions course at Oak school Number 3, but thats pretty much what it was -- big versus small, dark versus light, etc.).

We were asked to draw, shockingly enough, something big and something small on a piece of yellow paper. Because one of my uncles had given our family a subscription to The National Geographic, however, I was, during the first grade, enthralled with the idea of planets and galaxies (like every other kid in our solar system, I particularly liked Saturn because of the whole ring action thing going on). I filled the page with big and little planets. So engrossed was I with seeing how many colors I could use, I didnt even look up from the sheet until Mrs. Pruitt asked us to hand it in.

It was only then that I looked around. Amy had drawn a big house and a little house. Cindy did a big dog and a little dog. Marty did a big car and a little car. I was horrified at what was clearly my own misunderstanding of the assignment. No doubt I had tears in my eyes, because my entire goal in life was to make Mrs. Pruitt proud of me, and it was obvious Id blown it. When she collected my piece of paper, however, (and now looking back on it, she was also probably responding to the horrified look on my face) she said, Gina! How wonderful. You didnt just do two things; you did everything all at once. I remember looking up at her face and saying, So this isnt wrong? Absolutely not, she said, It doesnt look like anybody elses and its wonderful. She gave me permission to live the rest of my life with a joy in creativity within the confines of that one sentence.

Thats what the best teachers do. They not only give you confidence, they give you permission. They are willing to extend their authority so that you are covered by its cloak. You can fight from behind their shield. You are protected by their aegis. In saying that it was wonderful, in not merely pointing out, for example, that it was different, she gave me a gift.

Think about how many times every week, perhaps even every day, we have the chance help students see that they can delight in the world as well as succeed in the classroom.

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Mrs. Avenbray in the fourth grade wasnt as warm and fuzzy as Mrs. Pruitt, but she had a wickedly sharp sense of humor, which at no time, however, was used at the expense of her students. Her eyes had a glint in them rather than a twinkle, but they also showed her sense of compassion and revealed her warmth. She would laugh at herself, at the world, even, in certain seditious ways, at the school or the curriculum, but she never did what is far too easy for many teachers to do, which is to use her kids as sacrificial victims to have a good laugh.

She would take us on school trips to odd places: she took us to a doll factory where we watched, with fascination and horror, as hundreds of doll heads rolled down a chute into a bin and irregular doll arms were popped off plastic bodies like a champagne cork out of a bottle (okay, so I wasnt drinking Moet et Chandon in grammar school, but Im telling you the sound was exactly the same). It was surreal. It was like being taken on a field trip by Salvador Dali (or in this case Dolly).

She took us to the recreation of a colonial village, which was sort of a standard issue trip even then, but I remember that she burst into belly laughs when one of the colonial re-enactors pointed out how long it would take for women to make their candles and their soap. I remember her saying something like, Heck, Id just walk around unwashed and in the dark. The fact that she couldnt imagine herself as the perfect colonial woman was as revolutionary as throwing tea into Boston harbor. It gave us a chance to say that we couldnt see ourselves as perfect colonial children either, what with all that sheep-shearing, not to mention playing with a hoop and a stick (to this day, it confounds me how chasing a hoop down a cobblestone street counted as a fun time during any point in history).

When we go into teaching, we always think well be as good as our best instructors. We use them as models, we use their classes as templates; we adopt their strategies and make them our own. When you ask students in an education course at the college level what their strongest motivations are, theyll tell you that they want to change the world, that they want to correct an educational system that remains unjust, and that they want to give their pupils a sense of intellectual, emotional, and spiritual achievement that will sustain them through the rest of their lives.

These are terrific answers, but once they really open up and lay their individual souls on the line, what theyll tell you is that theyd like to be the kind of teacher that Mr. A was, or Miss B was; theyll admit that it is the personal rather than the political that lights a fire under them. They would like to one day be remembered with the affection and the significance of their best teachers. Not that affection and significance necessarily go together, which is also something we need to remind ourselves.

I learned a lot from some teachers towards whom I felt nothing but trepidation and respect; and although I hate to admit it, there were classes where I felt affection for the instructor that left no impression on me except the indefinite sense that I had a good time. But when an instructor can make those two things come together, we know that theyre doing something right. If we can add to that mix a sense that teachers can help students reassess and realign their own vision of the world -- at whatever age -- then were on to something.

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