A teacher's primary lesson

I am at that point in my college teaching semester when I am beginning to feel overwhelmed. Not with student papers, but rather with the accumulated and ever-accelerating gamut of woes, laments, and personal labyrinths my pupils get mired in. Sometimes their imbroglios are so complicated that I feel more like a social worker than a biology teacher.

Just last week I had announced that it was important that the students show up on time for a laboratory examination requiring a great amount of preparation on my part. One student didn't make it.

However, two days later, she did straggle in, to relate the following story: "Professor Klose, I was on my way to school when I was driving up that big hill in Charleston – you know the one. Well, at the top of the hill, I ran out of gas and rolled down the hill, but there was a cop at the bottom. He gave me a ticket for speeding backward. I was so upset that I had to go home and lie down. That's why I missed your class."

Of course, such an incredible tale had to be true. Still, it wearied me just to follow the convolutions of the student's narrative, and though I was willing to help her make up the work, a more skeptical angel of my nature whispered, "How come these things never happen to me?"

I was beset with these thoughts when I took my 5-year-old son to kindergarten the next day. I had a little time on my hands, so at the bell I accompanied him into the classroom.

As I hustled in with the bobbing, happy group of 20 munchkins, I felt as if I were wading in a sea of flowers. We entered the classroom, and immediately several of them ran to the teacher with their diverse concerns. Hmmm, I thought, so she has to deal with this, too.

But as I watched and listened, I could only smile at the "dire" nature of the emergencies, and the aplomb and efficiency with which the teacher handled them.

A 5-year-old boy held up his hand and whimpered, "I scratched it on the playground." The teacher nodded her understanding and said, "Ooh, then you'd better wash it."

Next was a little girl who had lost one of her mittens. "It will show up," said the teacher with conviction. "I promise."

She was followed by a tough little specimen of a kid who held back tears as he reported that he had forgotten to bring in his show-and-tell item.

"No problem, Matthew," said the wise teacher as she laid an affirming hand on his shoulder. "You can do your show and tell tomorrow."

In each and every case, the child went off beaming. I could do nothing less than wonder at the effectiveness of the teacher's approach. It was my impression that this was something of a daily ritual for her, requiring as much skill as the teaching process itself, and being no less important.

Her impromptu "clearing of the decks" every morning was a means of reaffirming the bond between her and the children, and of reassuring them that everything would be OK because she cared. I took this home with me and began to ruminate.

The very next morning, I arrived at my office to find three students waiting outside my door. "I left my notebook at a friend's house and couldn't study for today's test," said the first. Then the second told me, "I won't be able to hand in my lab paper today because my printer ran out of ink." To complete the triple threat, the next student in line lamented, "I don't know if I can finish the course, because I want to go with my girlfriend to Florida. Can I still get an 'A'?"

My first impulse was to marshal my forces for the counterattack and call these students to task for being so lackadaisical about their responsibilities in my course. But I had been doing this for years and never felt any better for it. In fact, remonstrating with them had changed nothing and only aggravated my frustration. And so I asked myself, what would my son's kindergarten teacher do?

Of course. She would kiss the boo-boos.

Facing the first student, I smiled knowingly and laid a hand on his shoulder. And then I intoned these words: "Don't worry, it will be OK."

I did the same with the other two students in turn, placing my hand on their shoulders and repeating the mantra, "Don't worry...." And that was that.

All of the students seemed relieved and went off, completely satisfied. Now it was up to them to captain their own fates in the course, rather than my wrestling them to the mat over it.

I felt pretty good, too. Of course, I have no idea how this new approach will work out in the long run.

I suspect that, eventually, I may have to return to preaching some degree of pedagogical fire and brimstone to motivate my students. But for now, I am willing to experiment, to place my harder line on hiatus until the results are in.

In any case, my son's kindergarten teacher has one thing right: Once all the boo-boos are kissed, the day's good work can begin.

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