In Praise of a Good Teacher

My experience with Neil’s fourth grade teacher was more than disappointing, and as a result, I started schooling him at home that spring and summer. Neil astounded me with what he could do once expectations were raised: not only was he an enthusiastic mathematician, he was a capable illustrator, a diligent scientist, a phenomenally persuasive writer, and a passionate historian. Both of us were actually rather half-hearted about his return to public school, but Peter kept reminding me that 4 of his 5 previous teachers at Hacienda had been great, and that if he was assigned to Mrs. Weir, the one 5th-grade teacher I’d interviewed and found open to what we wanted and needed for Neil, we ought to give her a chance.

He did end up with Mrs. Weir, and I was still nervous. We met with her again at the beginning of the year, letting her know our concerns and expectations for Neil, as well as the fact that he loves competition. She not only listened, she had some great ideas that we could use. Because of her encouragement, for his book reports, Neil read two Alexander Dumas novels (The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers), Frederick Douglas’ My Freedom and My Bondage, and Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. It wasn’t easy reading and it required long pages on the vocabulary learned. But they were great books, and Neil became an Agatha Christie fan in the process as well.

I’d resigned myself to taking responsibility for his math teaching, and just wanted a teacher who’d let him work on it in class instead of making him sit through the work the other children did. She was open to that, but did even better by getting him assigned to a math class at his level. Unfortunately, it was the class he should have been in last year, but we can’t turn back time. Presently, Neil’s happily working his way through high school geometry on his own. Plus his teacher loaned him this Teaching Company course, which he adores. For instance, after viewing one episode, with some of his toys, he recreated a three-dimensional version of a four-dimensional cube and explained it to Peter (who hadn’t seen the episode.)

But most of all, I am in awe of how passionate she made him about reading. Over the summer, I encouraged him to take out books to read for fun, but he’d only half-heartedly make a go at them, often with some pressure from me. He preferred to relax with computer games, or drawing, or building structures. After we told Mrs. Weir how well Neil responds to a competitive challenge, she started noting the top readers in her class on the homework sheet she passed out each week. Boy, did that ever get him reading! One boy, with whom he ended up being great friends, read over 1,000 pages the first week; Neil came in second with “only” 800 pages. I’d find Neil reading early in the morning, and in the afternoon every day, as he wanted to be the top reader. He didn’t always win that spot, but he sure wanted it. Neil read and read and read. He read Peter’s Ray Bradbury books, he read random novels I pulled for him from the library, he pored over math trivia and science book his teacher loaned him, he read The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy twice over, and still he asked for more. I’ve never seen him this enthusiastic about reading, and I don’t think he’ll fall back to being as blase about it as he once was.

This afternoon, as I picked him up from his robotics club party, I noticed he had a medal by his lunchbox. I picked it up and saw he’d won his class award for “Top Reader of the Year.” Neil had read more books than any of his classmates (and I have to say all of them were fifth grade level and beyond.) His friend, a lifelong avid reader, was only one book short of Neil’s accomplishment. I’m proud of Neil. And I’m happy he ended his elementary school education with a teacher who encouraged him so well academically.

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