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Back to School

Getting to Know Them

August 13, 2014

             Another school year has just begun bringing a brand new group of children into my classroom.  Undoubtedly, they have arrived enveloped in the same cloud of wishes, wonders and worries that wrapped around my own brain the last few days of summer. 

            I freely admit to being a big fan of the great songwriters, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.   Every August, their 1951 song, "Getting to Know You," from the musical, "The King and I," rises to the top of my cerebrum and circulates endlessly through the rest of the gray matter beneath my gray hair.  Sung by the main female character - Anna, a teacher hired to teach the King of Siam's many children during the mid-nineteenth century - the lyrics wonderfully, accurately describe the hopes and fears of all teachers on their first day of school:

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            "Getting to know you,

            Getting to know all about you,

            Getting to like you,

            Getting to hope you like me."

            Perhaps one year on the first day I will burst into song with those words and get the kids to sing along with me.  Bring a little Broadway class to my classroom...

            Lyricist Hammerstein was not an educator, yet he identified one powerful truth about effective teaching - getting to know the children as more than simply information absorbers.  His words were penned in the 1950s when educational philosophies were significantly more rigid than those of our current era.  Hammerstein hinted at addressing the "whole child" long before such a concept was ever developed. 

            Perhaps his song should be played on the first day of class in every education college.  I'd gladly sing along...

            Getting to know them, getting to know all about them is extremely beneficial in our educational setting today.  We talk about teaching the whole child, so we ought to actively, passionately learn as much as we can about the whole children sitting before us every day.  We must know much more than the academic data connected to their names on the never-ending spreadsheets provided to us during our staff meetings.  What are their interests, their dreams, their fears?  What family issues, medical concerns, and financial worries rest heavily on their minds?  How do they best learn?  Who exactly are these children?

            Paying attention to such detail is not a waste of time nor are the teachers who adhere to such investigation "soft," "weak," or "misguided".  These educators are indeed wise as they glean the most valuable data regarding their pupils, and they are arguably most able to provide appropriate differentiated instruction for these students. 

            Getting to know one's students takes time...and effort.  I know from my own experience as a teacher in the elementary, secondary and post-secondary worlds how difficult it is to get students to share about themselves. But I also know the rich benefits of breaking through their armor so that I can know them as human beings. 

            As a high school teacher (many years ago), I volunteered for every extracurricular activity possible.  The pay was minimal, but the rewards I gained were huge.  During those years, I guided several classes through numerous food drives, pep assemblies and fundraising projects.  I sold tickets and took tickets and faked my way being "security" at football games, basketball tournaments, and wrestling matches.  I stayed up until midnight every night during homecoming week assisting teenagers in the construction of some pretty impressive floats for the annual parade.   I sweated alongside eleventh-graders in the snack bar slopping popcorn and nachos with cheese.  I even learned how to change the lines on a soda machine.  Through it all, I had millions of conversations - outside of the classroom - with my kids and learned a great deal about what made each of them tick.  Those conversations gave me a better impression of my kids when they sat before me during the daylight hours.  Likewise, my students had a much fuller understanding of who I was as they sat taking notes.  I worked harder for them.  They worked harder for me.  There was a deeper level of respect...because we knew each other as real people.

            Teacher Anna sings of getting to a point where she likes her kids and the kids like her too.  I believe most good teachers long for this type of harmony in their classrooms.  Yet I can hear the naysayers mumbling, "You aren't supposed to be their friend!"  I currently teach fifth grade and, no, I don't want to be their friend nor do I need ten-year-olds as my friends.  But there is nothing educationally (or morally) wrong with being compassionate, caring, concerned, accepting, and - gasp - friendly adults in their lives.

            The new year has just begun.  I am beginning to get to know the new kids now sitting before me.  They are still trying to figure me out as well.  But we are off to a good start.  Many of them follow me out the door each afternoon on my way to do my 3:10 duty shooing kids toward the gates and on their way home.  They give me hugs, they shake hands, they give high fives, and then they run to catch up with friends and siblings.  Students from last year's class greet me.  They give me hugs, they shake hands, they give high fives and then they too run to catch up with their friends and siblings. 

            Together this year, we will learn.  As Oscar Hammerstein II  penned many years ago:

            "It's a very ancient saying,

            But a true and honest thought -

            That if you become a teacher,

            By your students you'll be taught."

            Indeed.

Copyright, Tim Ramsey, 2014.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we've preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer's own.

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