If there is one important bit of knowledge that I can impart to new elementary school teachers, regardless of their assigned grade, it would be this. To reach a child's mind, you have to capture his or her heart. You have to get to know each child as well as to let each one know that you care. It is not to say that you need not know your subject matter or the curriculum. That is a given. However, I have known excellent teachers who focused too much on what they were teaching and not enough on who they were teaching. You can not fit a child to the curriculum. Instead, you must fit the curriculum to the child. I have embraced both of these concepts throughout my career and I believe that they have helped to make me a better teacher. How did I come about these bits of knowledge? I learned them through a "cipher". Webster defines a cipher as "one that has no weight, worth or influence." Let me tell you about my "cipher".
I had been teaching about seven years when a beautiful little blond girl joined my classroom around November. This sweet faced little girl barely spoke that day and was easily forgotten by all, including me. Days passed and each day she entered with such a sad expression on her face. The children and I would try to engage the child in conversation but to no avail. Weeks passed and it was as if this child was just existing. I kept praying that God would show me a way to get through to her.
One day some of the children began to tease her at recess about never wanting to play. Children can be unwittingly cruel, but this child just stood there and did not fight back. I stopped the taunting and brought the entire class back to the classroom. I said a silent prayer and asked God to help me handle this particular situation. Once inside, I told them that in no way could I EVER take their Mother's place, but while they were at school, I was their "School Mamma". I asked how many of them thought their Mammas would let another child taunt them or pick on them. Everyone agreed that not one Mother would allow such behavior. I continued by saying that they in turn were "a school family". I told them that as a school family, we had to look after one another and be kind to each other. My talk seemed to have an impact on them because I noticed them all trying to include the little withdrawn girl into a play group later in the afternoon. Even the class bully wanted to give her his cookie at lunch.
The most profound result came that afternoon at rest time which was near the end of the school day. This precious little "cipher" came up to my desk and whispered " Are you really my school Mamma?" I hugged her and replied that I was. She then said in an even quieter voice "Can you make Jimmy stop hurting me?" I was stunned and asked her who Jimmy was and how he was hurting her. It turns out that he was her Mother's boyfriend who lived with the family and babysat for her and her older brother while their Mom was at work. She told me he liked to make her take naps with him. I asked her to go back to her rest towel after I told her I would see what I could do. Brushing the tears from my eyes, I immediately reported this conversation to the school counselor. Things moved quickly after that.
The next day I learned that the man had been removed from her rental home. I have to admit that I was a little nervous when her angry Mother came charging at me that morning while I was in the middle of teaching. I steered her out into the hall and she ranted "How could you believe a five year old? How can you live with yourself if she made this all up?" I paused for a minute and felt the fear drain out of me before I answered "How can you live with yourself if he did and you let him stay?" I told her about what I had observed in her withdrawn little child and that by law I had to report it. She was angry when she left and said she would have me fired which I knew wasn't going to happen.
Her children were taken away from her during an investigation and eventually placed with a grandparent out of state. That child is a young adult now and I have prayed for her throughout the years.
From that year on, I have always told my students that I am their school Mamma and emphasize that our class is a school family. It has never failed to pull my classes together as a team.