Reading, writing, and role models

Teachers should focus on academics," says my friend Kathy. We're discussing school funding, a perennial crisis in our state and in just about every other. "Their job is to teach my kids reading, writing, math, and science. The rest is my job. They don't need to be teaching my kids 'character,' " she says, forming quotation marks with her fingers, "they need to be preparing them for life."

I don't dispute the importance of academics, but do spelling and long division really prepare kids for life? I do wonder, though, how teachers are supposed to refrain from being role models, and why. Whenever I hear the debate about funding and program cuts and the role of teachers, I think of Mr. Russell, the teacher I had for fifth and sixth grades.

In the fall of my sixth-grade year, Mr. Russell had a question for the class one day: Would we like to go on a week-long camping trip in the spring? Before the words had even left his mouth, the room buzzed with excitement. A camping trip! For a whole week! This was before outdoor education was a common school activity.

Mr. Russell explained his idea in more detail: We, the students, would arrange the activities, which included deciding what they would be, and obtaining necessary materials and equipment. We would plan the meals, which meant coming up with a budget, developing a menu, and buying food. The most surprising detail was the news that neither the school nor our parents would foot the bill.

It would be up to us, a bunch of nonindependently wealthy 11-year-olds, to fund the trip. It would be our responsibility to organize fundraisers, solicit donations of money and materials, and arrange publicity for our efforts. We would have to account for our money and spend it wisely.

One boy's father, a banker, helped us open a checking account. A classroom aide from the local high school designed our checks, complete with a signature line for each person in the class. (Several months later, we had our picture taken for inclusion in the "Guinness Book of World Records" for most signatures on one check.)

During the next several months, we worked. We washed cars. We baked cookies and cakes, which we sold outside grocery stores. We pounded the pavement looking for donations from local businesses. We went door to door asking for recyclable cans and bottles, which we later sold for 15 cents a pound. We used donated wood and a nearby school's shop facilities to make toys and furniture to sell at our biggest fundraiser, an auction. We contacted newspapers and TV stations for publicity. What began as a seed in Mr. Russell's mind emerged as a community project.

Although our parents helped in no small way by driving, assisting, and chaperoning, we, the class, were on the front line: coming up with the ideas, making the phone calls, and ringing the doorbells. While Mr. Russell's own contribution was no doubt immeasurable, he didn't talk much about what he was doing. Instead, he was the voice of inspiration and encouragement, always there to congratulate us when things were going well, and to nudge us in a new direction when they weren't.

It came down to the wire, but we achieved our goal and went camping. The funny thing is, I don't remember nearly as much about the trip as I do about what we went through to get there.

I learned a lot from Mr. Russell. Not just about reading, math, and science, although I think of him every time I do a multiplication problem in my head or estimate the time of day by observing the position of the sun in the sky. He also taught me to take pride in my work by making sure I always did my best. He taught me how to think critically and make informed decisions, as well as how to shake off disappointment and look for a new way to succeed.

By taking our class of sixth-graders on a camping trip that year – and giving us the power and responsibility to make it happen – he taught in the most practical way about setting goals and working to achieve them, even if it means doing things one has never done or trying things no one has ever tried.

I use something I learned from Mr. Russell every day. Whether it involves important things, like character or making life-changing decisions, or ordinary things, such as making business calls or stretching a dollar, his influence reaches nearly every area of my life.

Mr. Russell's reputation as a teacher had to do with what he expected from his students: discipline, order, and achievement. Since my reputation as a student up to that point had mainly involved procrastination, disorganization, and slacking in general, I was nervous at first about being in his class. But when I look back over the years since then, I see his fingerprints alongside those of my family and friends.

Mr. Russell taught character by being himself, and he did more to prepare me for life than anyone except my parents, and it had nothing to do with long division or dangling participles.

My own kids – all kids – should be so fortunate.

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