I met with a graduate student today, whom I interviewed for a study I’m conducting on the poster session. At one point in the interview he paused in answering a question about himself and interjected, “I’ve got to give a shout out to my Dad.” And then he told me something he had learned from his father, a professor.
Today is my father’s birthday. My father is a teacher, too. Although I am not aware of following exactly in his footsteps (he taught math), I’m sure I often tiptoe in them.
In honor of him, I share with you an excerpt of a reflection I wrote in 2003 for a grad school course on teaching writing. If you stick with it for a few paragraphs, you’ll find out how powerful it is to grow up with a teacher in your very own home.
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First, a few words about my beloved third grade teacher, Mrs. Eva Doyle. I remember three things I learned from her: the multiplication tables up to a factor of eight, all the state birds, and crocheting. The state bird project sticks in my mind because of the pure pleasure for me in colored pencils, detailed work sheets, characteristics of each bird (a yellow throat, for example), and beautiful bird names. Multiplication memorization and crocheting are also vivid, because of how Mrs. Doyle used the promise of a needlework lesson to reward math mastery. When every student in the class had made his or her way through the tables, she told us, the class would learn to crochet, as a group. Eventually, after some duration of time I do not remember, Mrs. Doyle brought in a bag of yarn balls and a crochet hook for everyone to keep. We pulled our 20 or so chairs into a circle, and our teacher walked around our perimeter, leaning over our shoulders to give help. In this manner, Mrs. Doyle taught us girls and boys how to make a chain, then a daisy chain, and finally, a granny square. The ambitious kids went on to make five granny squares, with a grab bag of colors provided by Mrs. Doyle (from her own money probably), and stitch them together to make a hat. I made one of those hats.
I’m sure I was not the first student to master those multiplication tables in that third grade class. I may have even been one of the last. There’s no memory or record of that. However, I do recall vividly that a year later, in fourth grade, I was the last person to memorize the tables up to “the twelves.” Why I remember offers a lesson to all teachers in the wrong way to administer an incentive or reward program.
Mrs. Hendrickson, our fourth grade math teacher, opened the big bottom drawer of her metal teacher’s desk one day and called us up to peek inside. It was filled with an uncountable number of dime store toys, like cap guns, plastic soldiers with parachutes attached to their shoulders with string, paddle ball sets, jump ropes, and jacks and balls. She issued a promise that, as each student mastered the multiplication tables up to “the twelves,” that student would be allowed to reach into that drawer and select a toy. The motivation was tremendous; my desire for a new set of jacks and balls gave me butterflies. In those days (the mid-70’s) and in my town, parents did not regularly treat children to purchases of little toys and paperback books and sodas and candy as is prevalent today. Like most of my friends, I received gifts on my birthday and Christmas, candy on Halloween and Valentine’s Day. That’s it. So, the chance to earn a present at an off-time was irresistible.
Giddy with hope, I worked on those multiplication tables almost every day. My father made me some flash cards from white index cards and a thick black felt pen, and he sat across from me at the kitchen table every day before supper and flipped slowly through the cards. The 11’s and 12’s were excruciatingly difficult for me. At school, know-it-alls like Carol and even big shots like Kevin correctly recited the tables for Mrs. Hendrickson and got their hand-picked prize. I tried almost every day, and almost every day I stumbled over “eleven times eleven” or “eleven times twelve.” The names of more and more kids were added to the success list on the board, and the prizes blossomed in greedy little hands. At some point, I was the only one left who had not reached the milestone. Still I tried, and every day my father helped me with his homemade flash cards.
Finally, one day I succeeded in correctly reciting the tables. I’m sure I was shaking with joy, flushed with embarrassment, and sick with anticipation. Mrs. Hendrickson called me up and routinely opened the big bottom drawer without even looking at her hand or the drawer; her eyes were on some quizzes on her desktop that she was correcting. I looked in the drawer before she did. It was empty. I stood there. I couldn’t even say anything: how does one speak at such a moment without crying? How does a 10-year old girl reproach a teacher? My lengthy stillness must have finally caught the teacher’s attention. She looked at me as I stood near her desk without moving, my head down, staring into the empty drawer. She rolled that metal drawer shut, looked at me and said she “ran out” and would get me something next week, and asked me to sit down. Not unkindly, just matter-of-factly. I waited a few days for my prize, hoping for some jacks, but no prize came.
I understand, as an adult, that Mrs. Hendrickson was a busy teacher and probably had children of her own. She was distracted by larger matters. In her mind, the lesson was over. Her entire fourth grade classes had mastered the multiplication tables up to 12. Here’s what I learned: prizes distract students from the satisfaction available in the learning process itself. Mastery of a skill cannot only be tied to the winning of a prize (or even a grade). There must be some intrinsic, personal satisfaction in the task. Imagine if the teacher had said to me, every time I attempted the recitation: “Wow! You are working really hard. Thanks for sticking with it. Those elevens are so hard!” I would have glowed. Here’s a secondary lesson, that only occurs to me now, decades later: there are appropriate and meaningful ways for parents to be involved in their kids’ schoolwork. My father really helped me, and stuck with me, over a difficult patch in school for me. I was the student, I was doing the learning, and he patiently flipped over those flash cards for me as many times as I needed, without goading me or rushing. He was a friend in a lonely task. He did not take over the process or my work. I have a good feeling, although no specific memory, of getting encouragement and feedback from him as I mastered those tables, over many, many days.