Kimberly: Portrait of a teacher

K

(Note: I know some of you are going to be intimidated by the length of this piece. I try to mix the lengths of my postings, but some stories need space to breathe. This one unfolds over twenty years, so it takes a while to tell. The good news is that it’s a story, not a scholarly study, and I’ve tried to tell it in the most engaging way I know how. After reading my earlier piece about Alex, another teacher in my life, a non-educator friend said, “I had no idea what went into a teacher’s work.” I hope Kimberly’s story will bring that point home even more dramatically.

            Kimberly dropped out of the sky. She called one day in the early spring to say that she was planning to return to the Chicago area to be closer to her family.  She had been teaching in Goshen, Indiana, a school district which, coincidentally, had been using the same literacy framework on which our work was based. That really turned the lights on for me- the idea that we could hire someone already trained in the area most critical to our work was an unimaginable gift. In fact, she came to us because someone in Goshen knew that we were one of the few- perhaps the only – school in Chicago which was pedagogically in sync them.

            Our offices in the church building out of which we operated those first two years were little more than coat closets. Most of our interviews, especially those involving more than two people, were conducted in Harris Hall, the large musty space with floorboards worn to dullness after years of service to the church. For us, it was cafeteria, auditorium, meeting room and gathering place for our early bird arrivals, beginning at 7 each morning.

            It was here that I first met Kimberly when she arrived for her interview with me and Mrs. Watson, our primary literacy coordinator. She was 25 or 26, younger than my daughters, and her close-cropped pixie-ish haircut accentuated her youthfulness. Her fashion model slimness would later be the envy of her weight and fitness- conscious colleagues.

            Interviews are such inherently artificial situations; they often provide very misleading perceptions of what the future holds. I’ve come away from interviews with the sure and certain sense that the me who surfaced before my interrogators during the interview bore no resemblance to the me who would really emerge if and when they let me in the door. I remember Kimberly as subdued and business-like, trying mightily to project an air of experience and maturity, a mere shadow of the buoyant, funny, fast-talking whirlwind that I now know as the “real” Kimberly.  There was little evidence of the enormous exuberance, the buzz of passionate energy that surrounds her like an aura as she strides into the office each morning three years later.

            What did impress me was her familiarity with our kind of literacy instruction. The math program in which she had been trained was less of a neat fit, but she was clearly both willing and smart enough to adapt. I would never hire a primary teacher without consulting with Virginia Watson, the wise and wonderful woman who was the soul of our primary program, but I was pretty certain after ten minutes that Kimberly was one of us. It’s like those science fiction movies in which creatures from another planet masquerading in human form somehow manage to signal each other that they are homeys. How many times have I suffered the excruciating opposite, when, five minutes into an interview you know there’s no match here, but out of politeness you need to play out the string until, blessedly, the allotted time expires.

            You can’t very well offer someone a job ten minutes into an interview and maintain any semblance of professionalism, so I played out the string by scanning the resume for conversation fillers. I learned about Kimberly’s stay in Mexico, where she taught in a primary school in Puebla and about her mix of poor white and recently arrived Latino kids in Goshen. We wondered together about the cultural adjustment she might have to make teaching our African-American students, who tended to be less compliant, less automatically deferential to their teachers than her Latino kids. I wondered how she felt about putting aside her hard-won Spanish skills, which were of little use at our school, but she was clear about not wanting those skills to narrowly define her options and her professional future.

            I left Kimberly and Virginia to talk together about how close the Goshen- Chicago fit actually was. Later Virginia tracked me down to confirm the fact that the gods had been good to us. However, I knew that Kimberly still had other interviews scheduled in the city, as well as some unresolved concerns about charter schools that her father, a professor of education at a local university, had raised with her. We weren’t in the clear yet.

            We had never lost a teacher to a competing opening, and I was confident that our record would hold with Kimberly. The opportunity to have a hand in shaping a new program, the clear signs of professional respect with which teachers could expect to be treated at our hands, the school’s connection with the University of Chicago and its resources, and its mission as a professional development school – in short, the opportunity which all too few teachers have to be part of a learning community – all these made for a very attractive package for a teacher with a passion for her craft and the requisite energy to survive in our hothouse environment. And sure enough, Kimberly chose not to resist our honeyed lure.

            As our school expanded upward and outward in those early years, we played musical chairs with our classroom space. Kimberly inherited the room on the first floor which had previously housed our fifth graders, the first group of “big kids” we had enrolled; they were moving upstairs. I had taught in that room for a year, so I was able to tell Kimberly that the room was not without its problems. It was separated by a narrow alleyway from a drug house which was doing a flourishing trade. Cars zoomed through the alley and honked their horns to call for their pick-ups. Sometimes loud arguments about a particular transaction invaded the classroom – all this in spite of the banner hanging on the exterior wall of the church announcing that “This is a drug-free zone.” Nobody had bothered to inform the dealers and their customers. After numerous complaints from us, the police set up surveillance of the alley from our top floor with no discernible effect until one particularly vicious, drug-driven argument led to a killing within sight of our children preparing to go home at the end of the day.

            In any case, Kimberly quickly transformed the space into a home for her second graders. Smaller desks and tables appeared, and a rich picture book library and a meeting rug sprouted in one corner. She placed small dry erase boards in front of the room on which she posted information about what was in the works for the day and the week. It was decent and functional work space, albeit aesthetically unremarkable. Truth to tell, in her attention to space and aesthetics Kimberly was more akin to our upper grade teachers than to her primary colleagues. Her energies went less into the physical space than into a verbal environment filled with conversation about books and discussions of the troubled relationships that pervaded this group’s interactions.

            Her room was a place for conversation and discussion. How many times did I walk in to find the kids seated on the rug engaged in conversation about the motivation of a fictional character that would have been the envy of any upper grade teacher. Just as often the conversation was precipitated by a classroom crisis – one of the incredible acts of meanness that kids are all too capable of, or a conversation prompted by Kimberly’s disappointment with the lack of seriousness with which her students were attacking their work, a reiteration of her relentlessly high expectations for her charges.

            After we moved into the newly renovated space, the appearance of Kimberly’s classroom received a welcome boost when she teamed up with a parent artist who played off Kimberly’s fascination with Chicago’s history and architecture by adorning two of the pillars of her room with murals of the Sears Tower and the Hancock Building.  The presence of these skyscrapers took on an intended ominous quality after September 11th.  When I took a friend, visiting from New York, to observe in her classroom, I introduced her and told the kids where she was from.  One child raised her hand to ask “Were you there?  Did you see the people falling out of the buildings?” 

            The doorway was painted in imitation of Louis Sullivan’s latticed entrance to the Carson, Pirie Scott downtown department store.  In the hallway outside her room were mounted a series of eye-catching panels portraying key moments in the history of the city – its early exploration by DuSable, the Chicago Fire and the Columbian Exposition of 1893.  These were researched, designed and executed by the students under the direction of our gifted parent artist.  The children were surrounded by the substance of their learning.

            During the first year, a disproportionate number of rug conversations were devoted to behavior and relationship issues.  Kimberly had inherited her class from Chris Keller, a capable and well-trained teacher who had been worn to a nub by a group which had come to us as first graders after starting their student careers elsewhere. They were an unusually troubled lot, and the chemistry among them was corrosive.  Small acts of hurtfulness abounded.  The children bickered, vied for attention, constantly drew each other off-task; two of the girls were prone to disruptive bouts of anger and self-hatred that drove them to seek shelter under desks and tables from which we were able to extract them only with difficulty.  Several of the boys showed signs of serious learning difficulties which sent sparks of frustration flying in every direction, setting off brush fires in a classroom full of angry and unhappy children parched for love and attention. 

            J. was a problem of another sort, but no less an obstacle to stability in that second grade maelstrom.  He was a bright, attractive young man, the only child of a single working mother who indulged him shamelessly and was immune to reports of any wrongdoing on his part.  Of these there was an abundance, sneaky stuff.  J. would poke another student and then claim that the victim was in fact the aggressor.  He would annoy, badger, distract, hum and mutter under his breath, invade other students’ physical and psychic space until they had no choice but to react, regardless of the consequences. 

            Kimberly’s attempts to communicate this pattern of disruption and distraction, this distressing and sad absence of the most basic social skills which were isolating J. from his peers, triggered a reaction from his mother, creating waves that almost engulfed Kimberly during her first year with us.  In her unwillingness to acknowledge and recognize J.’s culpability and, by implication, her own, Mrs. W. turned her wrath on Kimberly.  The behavior she was reporting was nowhere in evidence at home, so Kimberly must either be issuing false reports or provoking the behavior. 

            Mrs. W’s attacks on Kimberly took a particularly nasty turn when she suggested at a parent meeting that problems were arising in the class because this white teacher didn’t understand how to deal with black children; they would be better served by one of their own.  To the credit of the other parents, who even early on were able to recognize Kimberly’s passionate commitment to their children, they let that trial balloon deflate and fall to the ground unheeded.  Mrs. W. was left out there all alone with her allegations and never raised them publicly again, although they always seemed to lurk in the background of her continued attacks.

            Part of coming to full maturity is the experience of coping with a real enemy.  This was Kimberly’s challenge that first year, and it was making her increasingly more distraught.  The troubling encounters with Mrs. W. were preoccupying Kimberly more and more, draining energy from what was already a difficult task.  Yet, amazingly and somewhat unaccountably, the second graders continued to learn in the face of what could have been paralyzing turmoil.  The same had been true when they were first graders the previous year.

            However, the toll on Kimberly was mounting.  She probably should have been seeking professional help, and her fiancé (that summer to become her husband in a wedding ceremony attended by a number of the second graders) and her parents were encouraging her to resign her position.  We were eager to hold onto Kimberly but not at the expense of her personal wellbeing.  What could we do to make her teaching life less hellish? 

            Our original intention was to have Kimberly follow her second graders into the third grade while we hired a new second grade teacher.  In the current education lingo, this is called looping.  It is an arrangement which allows teachers and students to build on the accumulated social capital of a year together, to reach an energetic learning pace with a minimum of lost time and a maximum of efficiency. 

            But this otherwise efficacious strategy is what was giving Kimberly bad dreams.  Another year of mud-wrestling with Mrs. W. was going to send her over the edge.  The compromise we worked out was worthy of an international negotiating team: Kimberly and the new teacher would divide responsibility for the second and third graders, with Kimberly responsible for the third grade reading and social studies, but free from the direct responsibility of dealing with Mrs. W.  Tina, her new partner in the two-three cluster, would assume that role.  Although this was hardly a controlled experiment, we were curious to see whether the fact that Tina was African-American would have any effect on Mrs. W.’s response.

            Year two was lived on a different continent than year one.  There were many reasons for this.  First, one of the two desperately troubled girls left to live with her mother, who had moved to the north side.  As any teacher can tell you, a classroom is a strange and volatile creature.  Add or remove one child and the ecology shifts significantly.  In this case, despite the continuing pressure of many troubled children, the emotional volume was turned down a notch, somehow bringing it into a range of manageability.  In addition, for whatever reason, Mrs. W. had backed off, at least temporarily.  She had taken a new job and was distracted by its demands.  My wise co-director, Barbara Williams, had also had several conversations with her, helping her to see the harm she was doing to Kimberly, to J., and to herself.

            Kimberly is one of the most tenacious and determined young professionals I have ever known. In spite of the time she spent on the mat that first year, she returned for year two determined not to be laid low by it. One of the discouraging aspects of that troubled and troubling first year was, as Kimberly said, the fact that she had done so little teaching. The struggles to equip her students with the capacity for self- control, to build some semblance of a civil community consumed all the available oxygen. But with that groundwork in place, with the small changes in circumstances I’ve described, and Kimberly’s blossoming personal and professional maturity, learning was the order of the day from the opening bell in August.

            Charts sprouted everywhere in the room detailing the rich conversations taking place about reading and writing. In the midst of a conversation on the rug about the day’s read- aloud, she would ask the students to “turn and talk”, the signal for a controlled outburst of conversation among partners about some aspect of the day’s reading. “Boys and girls, what do you think is going to happen next in the story? Turn and talk.”

            The Readers’ and Writers’ Workshop structures that she had tried to put in place the first year were taking hold now. Children were taking advantage of the opportunities for choice these formats offered. They were sprawled on the rug, reading books they had selected for astonishingly long chunks of time, giving the lie to the current shibboleths about children’s limited attention span. The same was the case with their writing: they spun long strands of narrative – fiction and memoir – which they eagerly shared with each other from their perch on the author’s chair.

            In the afternoon math time, I watched the second graders gather around Kimberly as she led them through an activity from our newly adopted math curriculum – a coin lesson or a problem involving geometric patterns – demanding their full attention to the images the overhead projector threw up on the wall. By now, only traces remained of the semi-saccharine teacherly manner of addressing her students, one of the few things that rang false about her early work. She was on an upward spiral of success; her confidence grew as her children responded to the incredibly stimulating intellectual feast she was setting before them, which in turn emboldened her to be even more daring. She challenged her students to assume the professional personas of writers, architects, literary critics. And as they responded she addressed them less as children and more as colleagues on an exciting journey.

            Adversity can breed compassion or callousness. Kimberly had spent a good portion of her teenage years in a back brace to correct a scoliotic condition. If you’ve read Judy Blume’s Deenie, you have a vivid sense of the scars scoliosis can leave on the psyche of an adolescent struggling through a period when body image is virtually everything.  But here she was, a graceful woman with a dancer’s bearing and a long loping stride which propelled her up the stairs each morning, ready to lead her beloved children toward another exciting day in her classroom.

            There’s no doubt that Kimberly’s early adversity contributed to her passionate advocacy for children who need special help and support. During her second year with us, her classroom seemed like a holding pen for undiagnosed problems and unsupported needs. She badgered us relentlessly to have these students evaluated. There was W., who participated brilliantly in classroom discussions but who could not produce written work or perform on tests. There was Emanuel, a sweet earnest boy whose limited ability to cope with intellectual work translated into a perpetually frightened and bewildered look in his eyes. And there was D., a boy burdened with emotional problems that contained the seeds for future problems of sexual identity.

            As our special education machinery lumbered along at its frustratingly slow pace, Kimberly became increasingly more shrill in her insistence that something had to be done for these children.  Parenthetically, there were already several special education students in the class, representing a wide range of emotional and cognitive problems. In the end, more than 25% of the group was identified as having special needs.

            The time for standardized testing was approaching, a time when many schools cynically tried to dump as many students as possible onto the special ed roster to exempt their results from the school’s aggregate scores. (ed: under new testing guidelines, this doesn’t work anymore.) No third grade teacher is free of concern about test scores in Chicago; it is the first hurdle in the diabolical steeplechase of high stakes testing we have designed for our children. Kimberly was no exception, but her deeper concern was to spare these students the frustration of facing further evidence of their inadequacy. Even if she couldn’t exempt them from the test, she could put them in a position to take the test under more humane conditions. The more significant long term gains would come in the form of special supports they would be entitled to for as long as their school years required. Kimberly, the squeaky wheel, got what she was after and those of us who were annoyed by her stubborn advocacy loved her all the more for it in the end.

            Advocacy and compassion are companion dispositions. Strong teachers care deeply about the lives of their children, in school and out, without ever allowing the difficulties they face to stand as an excuse for expecting less of them. Twice I accompanied Kimberly on missions of compassion for present and former students. In that turbulent classroom which she oversaw for two years, Nina was a blessed oasis of intelligence, purposefulness and gentleness. She was a tiny girl with a glorious head of thick hair which her mother plaited every day into a long rope of a braid which hung off-center from the back of her head; it was Nina’s trademark.

            Her wonderful mother died suddenly one weekend of an undiagnosed brain tumor. By then, Nina had passed out of Kimberly’s class into the fourth grade, but she and Tina, her cluster partner, joined me in paying a condolence call to the Arthur home. It was a snowy Chicago evening, so our cars moved slowly along the surprisingly long route the family took to school each day.  The trip underscored for us how much the family had invested in Nina’s presence at our school. This trek represented a huge commitment on their part and the long hours Mrs. Arthur had volunteered on top of her regular job at the very funeral home where she would be memorialized later in the week.

            The house was full of family and friends.  There were no tears, only the assurance in this deeply religious family that God’s will had been done and that Mrs. Arthur had made the “transition”, as her funeral program said, to a better place.  Nina had laid out all the wonderful condolence cards from her classmates on the living room coffee table and lingered halfway up the stairs to catch as much of the adult conversation as she could.

            Throughout the visit I felt very close to Kimberly and Tina, fortunate to have the gift of teachers who recognized that the work of a fully engaged teacher extended far beyond the classroom. Kimberly’s car had developed some troubling noises on the way over, so the evening ended with me following her home to be sure she didn’t get stranded in the snow. For us as well, the caring needed to extend beyond the school building.

            Toward the end of Kimberly’s third year with us, we learned that Brandon, one of her second graders, had been hit by a car on the first day of summer vacation and was in the ICU at a local hospital. When we heard from his mother that he was out of intensive care, conscious and talking, we arranged to leave school early to visit. Our car talk was filled with summer plans, family history, accounts of Kimberly’s Mexican experiences, culminating in her recognition that she needed to get beyond the quest for the exotic that had diverted her fellow expatriates. Immersing herself deeply in the lives of her children delivered as much of the exotic as anyone could handle.

            We found Brandon in a wheelchair, surrounded by his mother, a baby sitter to keep watch over him and a therapist in the midst of evaluating his current functioning and progress.  He was able to greet us by name and engage in appropriate, if monosyllabic, conversation, but there was something wooden about his emotional tone; it was still too early to tell whether the damage extended beyond his shattered leg to his brain. Brandon soon left for testing elsewhere on the ward as we settled in for a long conversation with his mother, who was actually his guardian. She had been growing increasingly frustrated with Brandon’s behavior and had even considered returning him to the foster care system, but the accident had changed all that.  She had taken a leave from her job to devote herself to Brandon’s care. “Brandon has been a bad boy,” she said with mock sincerity, “but I want him all back now.”

            I was mostly a listener to the conversation between Kimberly and Mrs. T.  There was an openness and trust between these two, born of many phone conversations, hallway chats and formal report card conferences. This was particularly striking because so much of the previous year in the 2/3 cluster had been marked – marred, you might say – by encounters with disgruntled parents. It was Tina who had been the unfair target of many of the grievances and dissatisfactions the parents were voicing, but Kimberly had stepped into the line of fire to support her partner and to share whatever responsibility she might have for the unfolding situation.

            Along with her burgeoning confidence in the classroom, Kimberly had grown into an admirable and unique posture vis a vis her students’ parents. While never descending into disrespect or unproductive antagonism, she was also unwilling to allow unwarranted criticism or slights to go unchallenged. She was able to confront parents with the responsibility for addressing their child’s problems which they must share with the teacher. Kimberly had traveled a long distance from the anguish she had endured at the hands of Mrs. W., no longer willing to turn the arrow of blame for these troubling encounters back on herself.

            This strong, self-assured stance toward parents was proving to be a necessary quality as the nature of our school was changing. Contrary to our mission, our school population was becoming more middle class or, more accurately, aspiring middle class. Parents of that class bring great assets and strengths to a school, but they also make demands on teachers that can be debilitating.  They challenge, question, require a kind of attention that calls on skills that not all teachers possess – a combination of undefensive openness and a willingness to “push back” when the demands exceed the boundaries of appropriateness and realistic possibility.

            I saw Kimberly handle this group of disaffected second grade parents with stunning adeptness at a meeting we arranged early in the year to hear their concerns and to try to counteract some of the misinformation which fueled their grievances.  She was articulate in explaining the 2/3 cluster curriculum and in explaining the reasons behind many of the decisions she and Tina had made in planning their work.

            It turned out to be a short-lived victory, since several of the parents chose to withdraw their children from our school at year’s end, but what Kimberly demonstrated in the face of this crisis was not only how effective she was with  parents, but what a steadfast colleague she was. The relationship between Kimberly and Tina had deepened during their two years together in ways that were a joy to watch. Kimberly was the younger of the two, but the more experienced, because Tina had come to teaching after some years of child rearing. Kimberly was white to the roots of her blond hair. She and an African- American friend on our staff had taken to referring to themselves, with all the appropriate self-mockery, as the ebony and ivory princesses, and there was no question which half of that mantle Kimberly wore. She was proud of her rich Germanic background, which grounded her in a way that allowed her to appreciate and honor the African- American culture of her students, their parents and her teaching partner. Together they had managed to serve their children in a way unaffected by race, by age or by the formal authority invested in Kimberly by her role as the cluster leader. They knew how to laugh together in the office they shared or in stolen moments in the hallway; they shared important information and observations about the children they passed back and forth between them over the course of the day. They managed to reinforce in each other a deep commitment to the emotional and intellectual lives of their students.

            Good teachers are not always good colleagues. I once was part of a start- up team for a new school in Houston. We were given a free hand to hire the best teachers in the city and we succeeded in doing just that. Yet the whole proved to be less than the sum of its parts. Teachers who had been superstars in their previous schools or who were inclined to operate freelance failed to gel as a team and many were gone by the end of the school’s first or second year.  This was not the case with Kimberly. In addition to her close and unique relationship with Tina, she occupied a special place among the rest of the staff. I looked forward to the moments in our staff meetings when her turn came around to report on some successful teaching moment or to recount what she’s been up to over spring break. Her remarks always emerged as a rapid-fire, amusingly self-effacing monologue that left everyone at the table imitating the infectious smile that accompanied her delivery.

            Kimberly’s contributions to the professional life of our staff were even more notable. They grew out of the unusually rich professional development opportunities we were able to offer our staff.  At the end of her second year, Kimberly and a colleague (the other half of the ebony and ivory princess team) spent a week in Bennington, Vermont attending a program which is devoted to the close examination of individual children and their work– writing and drawing, in particular.  Some professional development experiences for teachers serve to validate their deeply held beliefs. Although Kimberly reported on her return that it had been a transformative experience, its real value lay in confirming her belief that children must be seen as more than the sum of their test scores. They were spiritual and artistic beings as well, as would become abundantly clear if we allowed them to create and then respected their products by holding them under an uncritical magnifying glass to capture their every nuance. 

In small but significant ways, these lessons found their way into the fabric of her own classroom. Every Friday afternoon the desks were covered with newspapers, tubs of water were strategically placed on tables and desks, brushes were distributed, and the students created water color paintings against a musical background free of conversation and far from the week’s academic exigencies. In another classroom these might be filler activities designed to give teachers a respite from the bully pulpit they occupy all week. In Kimberly’s class, it was an opportunity to signal to the children that she valued this side of their beings as highly as what they produce when they’re seated around the kidney-shaped table at which she conducted her guided reading lessons.

On other days, I found her students completely absorbed in building architectural models out of toothpicks and gumdrops. Although they were exploring structural principles connected with their study of Chicago skyscrapers, the models became works of art in their own right, reflections of their unique personalities in their zany lopsidedness or their pleasing symmetry. These Buckminster Fuller knock-offs grew out of work Kimberly was doing with the Chicago Architecture Foundation which resulted in an impressive collection of cross- disciplinary curriculum materials relating to the architecture of the city for which she and her fellow teacher consultants were honored at a downtown reception for their publication. It’s the kind of reaching out beyond the bounds of their own classrooms that serious professionals do, making thoughtful connections in the outside world that enrich children’s learning. There’s nothing more exhilarating for a teacher who is on her game than to come upon something which seems initially unrelated to the task at hand, but which can be woven into the learning tapestry they are weaving. Kimberly’s teaching was full of those aha moments, semi-religious in intensity, which fortunate teachers are blessed to experience.

Beyond her own classroom, Kimberly’s interest in what is known as the Descriptive Review Process had become a key element in fueling a school-wide move to create a portfolio system which would reflect both students’ individual development over time and their mastery of various skills. One memorable milestone in igniting her colleagues’ interest in Descriptive Review was a presentation Kimberly did at a Monday staff meeting about Jeremy, one of her current third graders. In addition to written work Jeremy had produced, she also had access to video footage of his participation in conferences and class discussions over the course of the year by our uncannily sharp-eyed videographer, LeAnne Sawyers.

Jeremy had been with us since kindergarten, so many of the staff had either worked with him or engaged him outside of class. Engaged is the operative word for interacting with Jeremy. All his classmates and many adults had been drawn into his voracious enthusiasm for anything and everything relating to dolphins. He was a bright, curious and articulate young man, but as we studied the video of his work, we were able to see clearly some of the struggles that lay beneath the surface — the difficulties he had reaching beyond the concrete information he was so adept at gathering to create syntheses, his discomfort with stepping out into the unexplored realms of his imagination. When the lights came up we were all seeing Jeremy at another level of complexity, which would help us appreciate his unique gifts and think about what it will take to extend them. Kimberly had helped bring us to this point through her incisive, but non-judgmental, portrait of Jeremy and his work.

NKO was a professional development school, a learning site for other teachers. Many of our staff had responsibilities beyond their own classrooms, duties which called on them to function as teachers of adults, as well as teachers of children. As young as Kimberly was and as many gaps as she felt still existed in her own practice, Kimberly performed amazingly well in this role. At some point we invited her to share a video of a literacy lesson with a support group of new teachers who met regularly to discuss their current struggles and slowly expanding moments of success. I was overwhelmed by her ability to articulate the basis for the pedagogical decisions as they unfolded on the screen, the animated passion about her teaching which was inspiring her and her audience to persevere in the hope that they too might survive their current classroom management travails to achieve some moments of real instruction. Kimberly reminded them that the same purposeful learners they had just seen on the tape had, just a short time ago, brought her to the brink of quitting. Take heart.

Another aspect of the school’s professional development work was what we called the Professional Development Laboratory (PDL) – an opportunity for teachers from other schools to do extended residencies alongside some of our teachers with the aim of bringing back to their classrooms new practices they had observed and perhaps tried their hand at. It was our attempt to emulate the work of a teaching hospital where residents learn their craft alongside senior practitioners. Kimberly hosted several residencies in her classroom, a process which calls for a significant investment of effort in briefing, debriefing and, most challenging of all, forcing oneself to articulate the rationale for doing what many good teachers do without ever being pressed to explain just why they are doing it. These residencies were enormously successful, in some cases life-changing, for the visiting teachers. In some ways Kimberly’s youth and relatively short years of experience worked to her advantage with the younger residents. They could easily identify with her, see her accomplishments as within their reach in ways that might not be true of an intimidating thirty year veteran.

One more snapshot. Kimberly’s mentors in Descriptive Review workshop invited her to present a case at an annual conference of professional educators known as the North Dakota Study Group, although – don’t ask why – it met in Woodstock, Illinois. I had been attending these conferences myself for many years and was delighted to introduce Kimberly to this admirable group of kindred spirits struggling to uphold a vision of education increasingly under siege in this era of standards and high stakes testing.

Kimberly chose to do a case study of Dominique, whom I had had the pleasure of engaging in some unusual circumstances. He was a born architect, forever cranking out designs for a variety of structures. Once he discovered how intriguing I found these, he began to call me over to his desk to present to me one of his latest creations: a re-design of my office; a design for a new White House, including, appropriately enough, a Money Room; and finally a plan for a sprawling day care center, replete with pet room and plant room. He also appeared in my office once with a list of questions about sex he thought I might answer for him, like Can a Man Have Babies? He asked each question, pencil poised, and when I had delivered an answer to his satisfaction, he checked it off matter-of-factly, muttered “Uh huh,” and proceeded to the next question.

Unfortunately, Kimberly’s presentation conflicted with one I was making, but my wife and daughter, who were both attending the conference and were tired of hearing me, decided to take in Kimberly’s session. They returned with a glowing report of the way she had led the group through an hour and a half long examination of a single drawing of a room which Dominique had done, full of elaborate electrical connections, color-coded furniture and a sense of spatial relationships that were the trademark of his style. They were so intrigued by what Kimberly had helped them discover about Dominique’s thought processes that when they attended an assembly at school months later, they insisted on having me point him out. In their eyes he had become a celebrity, as all children should be, thanks to Kimberly’s gift in spotlighting his unique gifts.

Kimberly went off on maternity leave, opening a huge void in our teaching and learning community. Such is the reality of school life. Our work is built on shifting sands. Just when we feel we have dug a secure foothold, the tide washes in and undermines it. We unsheathe our shovels and begin digging in again. But the good news is that although she would not be there every day building community, probing literary characters, dispensing toothpicks and gum drops, she agreed to return part time to mentor and coach the new third grade teachers who joined us next year. This was her opportunity to apply all that she had gleaned from the unique professional development experiences she accumulated at NKO. It was the beginning of a new professional chapter for her.

I realize that  this compressed account of Kimberly’s years with us reads like the longest letter of recommendation on record, In a way it is – or perhaps a cross between that and a mash note to a young teacher of enormous gifts. It was a privilege to watch her grow at such a dizzying rate.

When I read this to her, as I soon will, and as I must before it reaches your eyes, she will not be entirely pleased. She will find it burdened with fulsome praise. In the past she has been impatient with those who bring her nothing but kudos. “ That doesn’t help me grow,” she would say, and with those words she will prove herself once again to be the kind of professional all our children deserve to be taught by.

          Kimberly – Post Script

            When Kimberly left our school to raise her family, I assumed that her career as a classroom teacher was over. It seemed even more certain when, once her two children were school age, she took a part-time job coaching teachers in the use of a literacy assessment called STEP which was the cornerstone of the reading work at our school. Now schools in many parts of the country were using it and the demand for professional development had created a mini-industry offering professional development in the use of the assessment. Kimberly was in demand and was on the road to places as far away as New Orleans on a regular basis.

            Teachers rarely returned to the classroom from the position she now found herself in, but Kimberly was no ordinary teacher. She was convinced that after this immersion in STEP she knew so much more about what good instruction should look like that she wanted another go at it. One of the school districts that had contracted for her services was her home district in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. This seemed like an ideal place to bring her new expertise to bear, so after a dozen or so years away, Kimberly once again found herself in a second-grade classroom. Both the school and the district in which it was located were small, and the possibilities of making a larger impact than just her individual classroom seemed promising.

            When I heard about her decision to return to the classroom, I rashly offered to help her as she got her sea legs back. I would visit periodically to help her reflect on her work, and occasionally to remind her of some of the extraordinary things she had done when we had worked together. It’s presumptuous to think of being a coach to someone as gifted and as experienced as Kimberly. We came to think of my role as that of a thought partner, with whom she could send up trial balloons and from whom she could solicit comments on her work without worry about being judged or evaluated in the process. This is a luxury available to few teachers.

            The arrangement was mutually beneficial for several reasons. First, I was desperately in need of what I called my “classroom fix.”  In my retirement, I had been visiting the classrooms of former students in our teacher education program. After more than fifty years in and around classrooms, it would have been unbearable to simply step away. The visits gave me purpose, that mysterious element which drains away for most people when they retire. In addition, Kimberly’s situation offered me opportunities for new learning, something which is also in short supply in the lives of retirees. For almost the past 30 years, spent in Houston and Chicago, my work was exclusively in urban schools. Kimberly’s suburban setting opened new worlds for me and shattered some stubborn stereotypes. The first time I stepped into Kimberly’s classroom three or four years ago, I was greeted by the faces of 18 lovely LatinX students who looked like they had been transported en masse from a Chicago public school in the core Hispanic Chicago communities in Pilsen or Little Village.  Except for the outermost and wealthiest suburban communities, most other suburbs had grown more diverse in the past few decades and the children in Kimberly’s room were the beneficiaries of schools that were better resourced than the schools they might have attended in the city, particularly in the way they enabled smaller class sizes.

            During my years in Kimberly’s room, the LatinX students have been joined by African-Americans, Eastern Europeans, Middle Eastern students and an occasional White student. The suburbs are no longer the suburbs, but Kimberly is still Kimberly, mostly. She knows her students intimately and lavishes much affection on them. She continues to grow in new areas, particularly math, an area in which her school offers particularly strong coaching and support. She continues to be a fierce advocate for her special needs students, just as she was at NKO, but the intensity of her commitment to those “diverse learners” has been reinforced by her efforts as a parent to wrest from the school district the supports her own two children need. And there’s the school garden which absorbs more and more of her energy and passion. Since it happens to be a passion of mine as well, I’ve been spending time on my visits planting lettuce and broccoli or picking herbs to brew tea the likes of which her kids have never sipped before. The garden has also become the site of meditation sessions Kimberly offers when the weather allows.

            The planning is a bit more improvisational and the writing is a little less well developed by Kimberly’s own admission. That’s what she’s looking to me for help with. She’s got lots of energy, but her classroom now has to share that bounty with a family with two teenage kids and all the usual problems that beset anyone no longer in the stage of life she was in when I first met her as a single young woman not yet blessed with family. What has been most gratifying is to watch Kimberly relearn how to trust her judgement about what is best for her children. During the years she was away from the classroom, the testing culture has grown like an algae bloom, choking off the nourishment that is needed by the living organisms in a pond. She is becoming liberated from the chilling effect of testing that causes teachers to self-censor the choices they make and, in the process, deprive their children of the emotional and intellectual sustenance they need to thrive. I would like to think she is leading the way for other teachers who are ready to declare, ENOUGH!

About the author

Marv Hoffman

Add comment

Follow Me

Recent Posts

Archives

Categories