Life is a strange, unpredictable thing. It took me longer to figure this out than it should have. Even so, by the time I was seven years old, I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up: I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to have a classroom with monthly bulletin boards and stacks of textbooks. I wanted to grade papers with glitter stickers, star stickers, any stickers, really. I thought the idea of standing before a group of students and giving them a list of nouns versus verbs sounded perfect. Had people come to me and told me I would one day be teaching in a classroom where these things were all but nonexistent, I would have told them right away that their idea was just crazy. With life’s twists and turns, though, I eventually found that this wasn’t a crazy idea at all.
From 2008-2012, I spent my time learning how to teach. I learned that children respond well to motivational rewards, that they thrive with hands-on learning, and that worksheets are damaging instead of helpful. As you can probably already guess, I don’t believe many of the things I learned in college are useful to the teacher I am today. However, there were ideas that truly resonated with me. These three ideas seemed to crop up in every class, and I was truly motivated to use these ideas in my student teaching. Giving rewards for good behavior—that would be perfect! Teaching with more hands-on experience—I could definitely do that. Getting rid of worksheets, no problem, that is an easy one. I was ready for the real world.
Unfortunately, what college professors teach as an ideal school setting and what the real world has to offer are two completely different things. I quickly learned this as I was completing my student teaching. I was assigned a sixth grade English class. I knew it would be a challenge to find engaging hands-on lessons for the group I was teaching, but I was determined. I presented my ideas to my co-teacher. She thought they were engaging, fun, educational, and, above all, impossible. They are too time-consuming, she said. Well, what if I modify them? Too unpredictable, she said. Standards need to be met, tests need to be taken, and lessons need to be done. Okay. That was a little discouraging. Sadly, it got worse. She handed me a packet of worksheets. These will get the job done she assured me. Great. I felt like a con artist. Worksheets? Lectures with no real experience? Where is the learning? This isn’t what I was taught to do! Then the ah-hah moment came: motivational rewards. I was assured the kids would love them. It seemed to work. It was classroom management and a reward system all in one. In hindsight, all it really did was make my wallet a little lighter and my students a little more focused on what they were getting, not truly what they were doing or learning.
I graduated in 2012 with an overwhelming feeling. I knew I wanted to teach, but how was I supposed to be a successful teacher within the walls of the current school system? I couldn’t afford to live off a private school salary, and I certainly couldn’t afford to silently rally against the public school system and just not work. My hands were tied. I began applying for the public schools in my area and hoped for the best. During my long days of school researching, I came across a school I had never heard of, and it was only 25 minutes away. Charter school? What the heck was a charter school?
I know I could have researched this, but I didn’t. Sometimes the unknown can lead to wonderful things. Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t. There is more negativity surrounding this school than is warranted or needed and I’m glad I didn’t walk in feeling jaded by the media. I applied, I waited, and I got an interview.
I walked in with an uneasy feeling. What if they asked me about this Charlotte lady? What if they asked me about my knowledge on charter schools? I took a seat, calmed my nerves, and faced my fears. The first question I was asked? “What is it you know about Gillingham Charter School and the Charlotte Mason philosophy?” Lie, Olivia. Make something up. That’s what interviews are for, right? I decided on the best answer my mind could come up with and I told her the truth: I didn’t know much. A smile spread across her face, she leaned back in her chair, and my heart rate settled. She explained the philosophy to me in a condensed, compacted version and I, too, leaned back in my chair. She told me children are persons. She said learning should be done with a purpose. She said education should be a part of their life, not something done for a few hours a day. For the first time in a long time, I felt like my dreams were back in my heart and finally within reach.
Even though I felt a fresh breath of air come into my world, I can’t lie and say I understood everything. What do you mean no rewards? NO rewards? How does one teach with no rewards? How can you manage a classroom this way? I accepted a job as a substitute and I substituted in many different classrooms my first year, and there was a lot I didn’t understand. Bribing for good behavior was always in the back of my mind.
I used questioning after every reading. That is what I was trained to do. Now you are saying that at this school, a teacher doesn’t ask questions? They what? They narrate? I was lost, but I was interested.
Not only did they narrate, but there was talk about habits. Slowly, I started picking up on different habits. I started noticing higher expectations set for the students. I also noticed the students rising to these expectations, not disregarding them. When I stopped questioning and started listening, I learned even more from the students than I did when I asked the children questions. They noticed things I looked past. They were living what they were learning. And the best part is that as a substitute I didn’t come across any worksheets. From my experiences I had throughout the year as a substitute, I didn’t even hesitate in accepting the position of a full-time teacher.
Now, let me just say having a classroom of your own is quite different than substituting. It was a challenge not to have a textbook to guide me, not to have a rewards system to bribe good behavior, and certainly a challenge for me not to jump up and down with joy when I passed a teacher’s supply store.
I changed a lot both as a person and as a teacher during my first full year at Gillingham Charter School. I became more patient with what the students were telling me. I found ways to assess their knowledge simply by listening to them speak. I stopped asking questions when I realized they answered them without knowing the question even existed in my mind. I discovered their ability to look at nature and see things I look past every day. I formed a relationship with the books we read as a class. I wasn’t just reading definitions or dates telling me when this guy discovered this or that with this or that group of people. With the children I was reading stories. They were stories behind the stories. I learned more in my year here at Gillingham than I probably did in all my years of high school. I know this because I can still tell you who discovered the upper and lower parts of the Mississippi River. I can tell you what the Wright brothers were inventing long before they had an idea of an airplane. I can show you how to successfully crochet, make a kite, or a sew on a button. I can tell you a lot of things that I learned along with my students for the sake of knowing, not for the sake of repeating on an examination.
Some stories I tell my friends and family still don’t resonate as true to them, such as the boy coming back after he was dismissed for the day to ask for math homework just because he liked it. There’s also the story how my fourth graders successfully read The Hobbit and liked it (9 year olds can read that!). No one understands how I could gain control and respect from students simply by taking the time to form good habits with them. There are countless stories of students telling me they loved school because it felt like home to them, and I will never forget the look in their tearful eyes as they hugged each other goodbye on the last day.
Have I got it all figured out? Not a chance. Do I still make mistakes? Almost every day. I am learning, though, and I am growing. This school has changed my life in so many ways and I couldn’t possibly be more grateful. I know these children will walk out of this building with a mind full of knowledge and a heart full of happiness every day. After all, education is a life.
© 2014 by Olivia Groody