Thoughts by Richard Bleil
Although chronologically I was not born premature, I weighed all of four pound and five ounces when I was born. My mother, as it turns out, was a smoker when she was carrying me. I don’t know if it’s a genetic predisposition, but I never really outgrew that rather smallness. Eventually I would bulk up when I joined football (for one preseason until I realized that I’d rather sleep in the summer than get up early to puke). This, and my quiet demeanor, made me the perfect combination for bullies.
But this isn’t about that.
Sometime in elementary school, fourth grade or earlier, I decided I wanted to learn to play drums. I signed up for band class, and my parents rented a snare drum. But, for a tiny little guy like me, that snare drum was huge and cumbersome. Unfortunately, the school I went to was rather large and had multiple floors, so to get from my class before band, which was on the other end and two floors up from the band room, I had to drag that beast that was not much smaller than I was down two flights of stairs and across the school.
I usually made it to the room technically in time to not be late, but by the time I made it everybody else was already set up and ready to go and would begin playing as I was still struggling to get the drum onto the stand. And my teacher was so sweet and would chastise and embarrass me every single time for not being ready when she was. At one point she even compared me to my sister who played clarinet two years earlier and suggested that I quit since clearly I’ll never be as good as she was.
No, I didn’t keep with it.
First chance I had, I quit and never looked back. This is the power teachers hold. And it’s a power we all have to some extent over others. She never tried to help me solve my problem, such as suggesting that I set up the drums before school started and just leave it in the music room. Instead she saw fit to point out that I couldn’t cut it for the entire class to hear.
Here’s the reality. Even if we have older siblings in school, we are all unique, with different abilities, and different struggles. I’m guessing that these days, teachers would never be allowed to treat students the way she treated me, and yet, teachers still have that power to engage, excite or depress the students and their natural curiosity.
As dean, I worked with a very experienced teacher who lost her room as the building she used to work in was, well, condemned. It wasn’t her fault, but neither was it the fault of anybody else. It was just dumb luck. This was the first year that I was dean, and she was looking for a new room. The dean of liberal arts was kind enough to offer one of his classrooms, and I stood in the room as she insisted on a multitude of physical changes, including chalk boards instead of white boards, and chalk boards all around the room including where the projector displayed because it was how she did things. The dean of liberal arts, and I completely agreed with this decision, pulled his offer.
Teachers, good teachers anyway, need to have a certain degree of flexibility and problem-solving skills. I have never had the audacity to walk into a room with a dean and demand changes to the room fits my style. Every time I taught in a new room, I would walk into the room a couple of weeks earlier and assess its resources so I could adopt my style to those resources of the classroom. I cannot imagine ever telling a student that they should quit because they’ll never “get it”. Instead, I make appointments with students and help them figure it out. I’ve had students sit in my office doing homework so, if they had a question, I was right there. That’s okay with me as I believe teachers should work with students who are struggling.
Teachers hold incredible power over the minds of their students. Often, teachers in elementary school teach multiple subjects, and being that most teachers are human (except for my former music teacher), they have those subjects that they enjoy more than others. But, if they show those personal proclivities, the students will probably pick up on it. If a teacher doesn’t like chemistry, and if they show this preference when they teach it the students will learn not to like it.
Don’t get me wrong, most teachers are great. I know many teachers and I’ve no doubt they do an outstanding job. But remember, parents are teachers as well. Be enthusiastic. Be proud. Be helpful but not to the point of doing their work for them. Remember, you kids learn what to like and what to dislike from you.