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 My talk seemed to have an impact on them because I noticed them all trying to include the little withdrawn girl into a play group later in the afternoon.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.

22 comments

  1. nothingprofound // February 14, 2010 at 7:16 PM  

    I love your philosophy of teaching. There's so much pressure these days, even in kindergarten, on curriculum and academics but I think kindness and understanding and recognizing the individuality of each child will have the biggest impact in the long run. To gain a child's trust, as you did in this case, is such a marvelous thing. The School Mama idea is simply brilliant.

  2. Edie Parrott // February 14, 2010 at 7:51 PM  

    Beautiful story! I think your philosophy extends to all grade levels, not just elementary school. While it's true that motivated high school students will learn even if the teacher fails to show his or her concern or interest in students, they absolutely thrive when they think the teacher cares. Don't we all? I also try to turn classes into big families. Kids really respond to this, regardless of age.

    I love your blog!
    http://www.gladlywoulditeach.com/

  3. L Avery Brown // February 14, 2010 at 10:44 PM  

    Amazing story and so very true. I think this particular post might be what you call a 'break thru' piece...serious but soft and has great meaning to everyone who reads it. Sure your funny ones are fabulous but every now and again it's important to show all sides of your writing self and not let yourself get pigeon-holed as just 'that funny teacher'.

    And as a former teacher myself I know the value of hearing about the darker side of teaching that we all experience. Because when we have our first real one, it hits us at our cores.

    Why? Because when teachers are learning to teach in the confines of a college classroom it's always so darn positive. Honestly, who'd want to do a job where you know there will, without a doubt, be the random emotionally unsettling days? But hearing stories like this one that's presenting in your kind, school mama voice can really help a newbie know that those rough days are nothing when compared to the bounty of smooth days.

    I think this was an A+ post.

    Most cordially,
    Avery

  4. Dan // February 15, 2010 at 9:47 AM  

    This was a very important piece of information. Ironically I just saw a report on bullying this morning, And when it's an adult... I have always said that anyone especially an adult who hurts a child is the lowest form of animal

  5. VKT // February 15, 2010 at 11:07 AM  

    I agree Dan. Thanks so much for your comments!

  6. VKT // February 15, 2010 at 11:08 AM  

    Avery,

    Thanks so much for your comments as well. I so admire your writing and appreciate your comments.

  7. VKT // February 15, 2010 at 11:09 AM  

    Thanks a bunch Edie. I am enjoying yours as well.

  8. VKT // February 15, 2010 at 11:11 AM  

    Thanks so much NP. As always, I appreciate your feedback.

  9. Rachel Heath // February 15, 2010 at 8:56 PM  

    How very sad. I can't believe how many this happens to. Thank God that it seems to be a topic we can talk about now. If anyone ever touched my child, God help them!! Thanks for sharing this touching story.

    Sincerely,
    Rachel Heath

  10. Dina // February 15, 2010 at 10:14 PM  

    I'm so glad that you were there for that little girl. I wish more children had someone like you in their life.

  11. VKT // February 16, 2010 at 4:07 PM  

    Rachel, it upsets me to this day to remember that child. Dina, I am glad I was there too. Thank you both for your comments.

  12. Jan @ bobbypinsboardwalk // February 16, 2010 at 7:02 PM  

    Wow -- this story is so moving and tragic, yet, thankfully it ended well (or as well as it could have). You did a wonderful thing and I believe that your prayer invited God's involvement, as well. What kind of a mother...well you know what I'm thinking.

    After reading this story, it's difficult to do an about-face and discuss something completely different, but I will do just that.

    Thank you for your kind comments on my blog. One thing about decorating is that when a person has been living in a home, it is difficult to see it in a totally different realm. As a designer, I rely on pics that I take myself of my rooms, trying to get a different perspective. It does seems to be falling together in this room, but a large part of that is luck.

    I started with painting the white forest wall and then just let it grow with no particular plan. I believe that would be referred to by some as an "evolved" look.

    I hope you visit me again, and I would be happy to look at some photos and give you some overall impressions and suggestions. In fact, I could even make a post of it.

    God's blessings!

    Jan

  13. VKT // February 16, 2010 at 7:09 PM  

    Thank you so much Jan! I might just take you up on that! I love teaching but I am not much at decorating!

  14. Me, Myself and Pie // February 16, 2010 at 7:10 PM  

    wow. Sometimes I wonder what kind of world we live in. Your teaching style really came through for you. Well, that and God of course. =) I hope she is doing well now.

    Thanks for stopping by my site by the way!

  15. kristi // February 16, 2010 at 7:57 PM  

    This could not be more true, especially for my special needs son. Thanks for visiting my blog, I have two if you would like to check the other one out!

  16. Bonnie // February 17, 2010 at 9:59 AM  

    Thank you for helping out your young student. Lots of people don't want to get involved. You have heart.

    Bonnie

  17. Ellen // February 17, 2010 at 12:23 PM  

    Oh, I have tears in my eyes. You are an angel, you know that? It is the best way to make children feel at home and feel attached to each other. You are having a talent. That poor, poor child and her brother. You saved them, you realize that? I see you have changed your blog a lot and it looks great, my compliments!!

    Ellen

  18. VKT // February 17, 2010 at 7:17 PM  

    I really enjoyed your site Me, Myself and Pie! Yours too Kristi. I will definitely check the other one out.

    Thanks for your kind words Bonnie. I do feel my little people deserve an advocate.

    Since I so admire and enjoy your site dear Ellen, thank you so much for your comments!

  19. kimberly // February 17, 2010 at 8:27 PM  

    i have worked for years in early childhood and nothing is sadder than a sad child. i have found and truely believe that they only way to "teach" a child is to gain their trust and some children are so hard to reach, but they are all worth the effort. thank-you for finding a way to touch the lives of the students you teach!

  20. VKT // February 20, 2010 at 8:01 AM  

    I agree Kimberley! Thanks for visiting!

  21. Kamala // February 24, 2010 at 5:13 PM  

    Thanks for your comment on my blog, I looked up to Mr. W a lot and at first, when I was in 6th grade he was pretty intimidating. Of course most adults were to me. I just found I could connect with him, he later disclosed to our drama group that he had been hurt when he was younger by a female baby sitter, I guess that's why I wrote what I did. I guess 'cause I didn't say anything out right he couldn't do anything...he's always been one of my favourite teachers.

  22. VKT // February 25, 2010 at 11:04 PM  

    Kamala,

    Thanks so much for sharing! I am so glad Mr. W had an impact on you!

    Blessings!