The right teacher at just the right time

In an age when teachers have come under fire for not maximizing "student learning results" - as if the students themselves have nothing to do with their own learning - I find myself pleasantly satisfied with the people my kids are turning out to be, thanks, in part, to the teachers they've had.

My two sons, ages 17 and 7, have always seemed to wind up with the right teacher at the right time. I adopted my older boy, Alyosha, from Russia as a tender 7-year-old. Two months after his arrival, I plopped him straight into second grade and into the capable hands of Mrs. W. As Alyosha still spoke mostly Russian, I realized that the first few months would be hard slogging as he worked to catch up with his peers who had been marinating in an English-language environment all their lives. I hadn't, however, anticipated all the pressures he was dealing with.

One day, when I went to pick him up, I found Mrs. W. rocking him in her arms as he shed gentle tears. "He said he misses Russia," she whispered. In short, she was sensitive enough to give Alyosha exactly what he needed when he needed it. Not every teacher would have been so willing to comfort my child in my absence.

After the tender mercies of Alyosha's second grade experience with Mrs. W., he went on to a series of "right" teachers. The third grade brought him the more formal Miss J., who taught him that, little by little, school would become more serious business; the fourth Mrs. G, who calmed disruptions in the class by reciting poetry; and the fifth his first male teacher, Mr. M., who did a crackerjack job preparing my son for the heightened challenges of middle school.

My little boy, Anton, hit the ground running in kindergarten. Also an adoptee (from Ukraine), he started school with absolutely no English and often resorted to physical means of expressing himself. His teacher, Miss B., was young, energetic, and understanding above and beyond the call of duty. The effect was to give Anton room to grow and adapt during the slow process of acquiring both language and people skills.

Sometimes she made allowances for him that I myself might not have permitted, such as when I went to pick him up on the last day of school.

"How was he?" I asked Miss B. as Anton stood by, nibbling his lip.

"Oh, just fine," said the teacher with a smile. "Even when he spat in the cake batter."

"What?" I gasped.

"Oh, don't worry," she demurred, waving me off. "We talked about it and he now knows why it was wrong. It was the last day of school and one of the other kids had a birthday. Anton was just excited."

How many other teachers would have been so understanding? But perhaps Miss B.'s forgiving attitude was the answer, for Anton never ventured such a stunt again.

I didn't fare as well as my sons when I was in school. Although I chuckle about it now, woe was certainly me in those days, when rare was the teacher with whom I saw eye to eye.

I still remember Miss C. of fourth-grade fame, who chronically mistook me for another, notoriously disruptive student, apologizing only after I had paid his consequences. And then there was Mrs. J. in sixth grade, standing over me with arms akimbo, berating me for doodling spaceships during the math lesson. Then, in eighth, Mrs. J. again, who on the first day beheld me, threw up her arms and exclaimed, "Why me?"

I am thankful that my sons have had far smoother sailing than I. From my own experience as an instructor, I know that interested students make learning profitable and enjoyable in part because they bring out the best in their teachers. Even when the teacher isn't a perfect fit, there is a lesson in that, too: that we still need to learn to deal with people, even those with whom we seem not to "click."

The other night I was mixing a cake batter as Anton looked on, licking his lips in anxious anticipation of the finished product. It occurred to me that if Mrs. B. had not coped so well with his awful behavior that day, he might now be preparing to ruin the whole effort. The most basic, most important lessons are those imparted by parents; but as I mixed that batter I acknowledged that the right teacher, at the right moment in my son's life, had probably spared me a most unpleasant experience.

And then, as a gesture of quiet thanks, I let Anton lick the spoon.

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