A Teacher Tallies Lessons Of Three Decades' Work

Student needs have changed a lot since the days of 'midi' dresses

Her desk is empty. Third-grade teacher Susan Pulford jokes that summer is the only time it is ever clean. But that is starting to change as the first few weeks of school get under way.

This will be her 27th class in Portland's public schools, a career that began when "midi" dresses were in vogue, "Flipper" hit TV, and 100,000 demonstrators marched on Washington to protest the Vietnam War.

The years have taught her what works: Give kids tons of responsibility and trust; act positive beyond a level you thought possible; use every tool available to make learning fun.

"If you don't change with the times," she says, "you're fighting a losing battle."

Ms. Pulford's classroom at John Jacob Astor Elementary looks very different now than when she began teaching in 1970.

Back then, desks sat in neat rows, and teachers faced them omnipotently. Now students group themselves at tables, where Pulford often joins them. Such intimacy is a world away from the parochial-school classrooms she learned in.

"I thought the teachers prepared the lesson and then corrected the papers," she says. "But gosh, you have to do so much more. You have to be a counselor, a referee, a nurse at times."

Pulford has juggled those roles for 25 years at Astor, which sits in a predominantly white, lower-middle-income section of north Portland. The modest, 47-year-old, beige and tan building, fronted by an unkempt lawn, blends into a neighborhood whose homes and yards are equally worn. Almost half of Astor's students use the federal lunch program.

Astor is one of 62 elementary schools in the Portland school district. With 57,266 students enrolled last year, the district is the largest in the Pacific Northwest.

Recent budget cuts have left many worrying that the district's reputation for quality education is on the wane. But achievement scores for Astor's kids, at least, are higher than state averages.

Pulford has been teaching at Astor long enough to teach the children of some of her early students. But her second generation of pupils is dealing with problems today that she never dreamed of when she started out.

Eight-year-olds miss school because they're babysitting siblings. Kids witness violence in the streets, violence at home. Many come from broken families. Some have parents in prison. "There are very few 'normal' families any more," Pulford says.

Kids don't get as excited about summer vacation, because it sometimes means leaving the only stable environment in their lives - school.

Pulford was lost without a textbook her first few years of teaching. Just out of college, she often felt like a failure, because her classrooms reminded her little of those she had left behind.

It was the mid-1970s, and families were changing. One day in her fifth year, a student brought a Baggie filled with white powder for show-and-tell. "This is cocaine," she recalls the eight-year-old telling the class.

"I'm sitting there with my mouth hanging open," she recalls. "I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what cocaine looked like." Pulford had to find a way to tell the class that drugs were wrong without putting down the child's parents.

The rules you set for one child, she has learned, don't always work for another. Being a good teacher, she says, means making concessions.

Every year, Pulford attempts to make learning something it wasn't when she was in school - fun. She has learned that kids no longer relate to "Little House on the Prairie." The "Goosebumps" thriller series is more on their pace.

And primary ed has gone high tech. Where once she used film strips - slide shows timed to records - now she uses videos. Typewriters and messy mimeograph machines have become computers and high-speed photocopiers. And textbooks have been tossed in favor of literature-based lesson plans. Kids still learn the three R's, but they also get AIDS education.

With a master's degree and almost three decades of teaching experience, Pulford earns top pay in the district - $50,000. That's more than eight times her salary in her first year. Back then, female teachers were required to wear dresses. Pulford barely had enough money to buy pantyhose.

Teaching has become more complicated. Politicians and others have made a sport out of second-guessing educators, she says. Children are being tested at younger ages; there is talk about basing teachers' salaries on student achievement scores.

"It used to be when people asked me what I did, I was proud to say I was a teacher," she says. "It was a respectable job. I don't feel that way any more. You don't read a lot of positive things about teachers and schools any more. It's all negative."

The eldest of seven children, Pulford believes she was always meant to teach. But while she loves her students, she never wanted to have children of her own. Pulford, now married eight years, has two teenage stepchildren.

Her workdays begin at 6 a.m. She arrives two hours early so she can work uninterrupted. She tries to leave at 4 p.m. On a good day, there are no disruptions, no student gets into trouble. But there are very few of those.

The daily obstacles wear her down: A late bus carrying 10 of her kids. Fire drills in the middle of an important lesson. Bad weather that keeps kids inside.

But every so often, a student comes back and tells Pulford how much she meant to them. Several of her former pupils are going into teaching because of their experiences in her class. "You wish you could touch every life," she says, "not just a few."

Pulford's desk will soon pile high with papers, the work of the high school class of 2006. "The main thing is being there with the kids," she says. "It's a neat feeling to be a part of a kid's life for nine months."

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