This week my wife decided to throw a graduation party for my youngest son, who despite his best intentions to sleep and play X-Box through most of his teen years – well when he wasn’t playing football – managed to graduate high school even after earning the senior superlative for the student with the greatest display of “senior-itis.”
My wife and son spent many an hour with furrowed brows trying to determine who should be invited to this little celebration. I was expected to keep quiet and happily pay the bill.
Yes, I know my place.
Of all the people invited, my son only extended an invitation to three teachers – two of them from his high school and one who was his fifth grade teacher.
The fifth grade teacher also shares the distinction of being the only person invited to the graduation parties of all three of my sons who are 18, 22 and 25-years-old.
He isn’t the only teacher all three of them have in common, but he was the best. He is now retired and I won’t embarrass him in this column by naming him – he didn’t seek the limelight. He merely wanted to be a teacher and he was universally seen by my three sons to be the best teacher they ever had.
That’s quite an accomplishment. My sons had many different teachers in their twelve years of primary and secondary education. They had teachers they enjoyed and a few they couldn’t stomach. They had teachers who challenged them and teachers who encouraged them. They had a few who pushed them – unmercifully in their eyes but not mine – to better themselves. But the one teacher they all agreed upon was a fifth grade teacher who, according to all three of my children, “made us love going to school.”
Their teacher had some creative ways of appealing to the fifth grade mind. A little thing called a Carrom board – which I believe you can purchase for a little less than $50 online was the keystone to the magic.
For years the teacher (In a nod to the anonymity offered in the movie “Men in Black” we’ll call him Zedd) had a Carrom’s tournament in his class. This little board with a cue stick and plastic rings became one of Zedd’s greatest motivators. The children in his class would toil through their daily chores with the promise the last 15 minutes of the day could be devoted to a fun, competitive game.
My sons, notorious for their ability to invent arcane and unheard of illness in order to ditch school – seriously there is no such condition as a headache in your toes making you sleepy – never wanted to miss a day of school in the fifth grade.
While my youngest son set a school record for tardiness and absence from school his senior year in high school, all three of my sons missed a grand total of four days in fifth grade. That’s four days divided by three children. Do the math and thank a teacher if you can.
Mr. Zedd taught hundreds if not thousands of children during his tenure in the Montgomery County Public Schools and he was often one of the reasons I mentioned the county public schools as among the best I’d encountered in my many travels.
He was quite different than the teacher I encountered when we lived in Kansas City for two years in the 90s and my oldest son was called a liar in class and I was hauled into school to answer to the accusation that my son was a “tall-tale teller” because he claimed to have visited the White House and Europe. Sigh.
Mr. Zedd got my sons interested in learning. They enjoyed reading for the first time in their young lives because of this teacher. They lobbied to know more about science, nature, math and music. At the precise time in their lives when they were awakening to the world around them they met a teacher who encouraged and promoted the simple art of thinking.
I am forever grateful to him.
Now a funny thing happened to this teacher. He retired a few years ago after a new principal came to the elementary school. This principal banned the most useful tool Mr. Zedd used in his arsenal of academic discovery – the carrom’s tournament.
Why? Perhaps it was right thinking. Perhaps we had to teach to the test. Perhaps the principal had a wooden head. Whatever the reason the action lead to my sons’ favorite teacher finally throwing in the towel and retiring.
When people want to know what’s wrong with public education I often point to this act for the simple reason that good teachers know how to reach students. It can’t be codified and it can’t be written into curriculum. It simply can’t be measured. But a good teacher finds a key. It is up to the rest of us to let those teachers do their jobs.