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April 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 7

Voices: The Teacher / The Third Year

      Since February, I had sensed an unrest in the children. As the semester progressed, the frequency of little demonstrations of anger steadily increased. I first became concerned when Eliazar and Luz began to miss four to eight assignments a week. Then, during a group discussion, Eliazar grabbed Chung's pencil and cut off the eraser. Pressed for an explanation, he answered, “I don't know.” Later that day, he excitedly steered me toward his groups' optics experiment, only to throw a stick into the colored filters and lights, destroying their creation. Again, he could give no reason. Seeing his excitement become apathy, I felt bewildered.
      Like Eliazar, other children were exhibiting behavior that wasn't like them. BJ, who prided himself on his ability to articulate his point of view, now became inexplicably teary-eyed.
      What was happening to my students? Why were they so resistant to doing the assignments that they enjoyed? Why had they become unusually silly, rude, argumentative, disruptive? The entire class seemed to be sulking. Could it have something to do with leaving my class? We had been together now for three years. In September, they had asked me to keep them another year, and I had told them that this year had to be the last.
      After school, I conferred with Eliazar, “Why did you cut off Chung's eraser and throw the stick into the light show experiment?” When he again replied, “I don't know,” I asked, “Are you upset because this is our last semester together?” He assured me he had no trouble with that, yet he seemed troubled.
      I wasn't sure what was wrong. Separation might be difficult, but surely, to a 3rd grader, not traumatic. I had taught several ungraded classes for two years, but never for a third year. Is the third year harder? What could I do to help us appreciate our three years together and move on?
      I explained to Eliazar that people react differently to separation. One person might cry and hug. Another person, impelled by anger, might hurt with vicious words. Both, however, care. I pointed out that human beings can have two conflicting emotions at the same time.
      I asked Eliazar what he felt about me, hoping that he would find some relief in telling me. He shared those special feelings that students have for their teachers. I told him that if he felt angry with me because of the separation, he could talk with me about his anger, but he could not act it out. Furthermore, when he went on to his new class, and I went on to teach another, we would have our memories to sustain us. After our talk, he became himself again—attentive, caring, and intellectually engaged.
      Hoping to help the rest of my class to regain its equilibrium, I convened a forum to discuss the separation. My plan was to discuss the activities that might help the separation process. We would make autograph books, with a picture of each student, and a kachina doll. I would explain that to the Hopi Indians, the doll's very form captured a powerful idea or feeling. The students could make a kachina doll that embodied what our class meant to them.
      At first the children refused to talk about the separation. When I insisted, they moaned, groaned, and became uncontrollably silly. To help them gain some objectivity, I told them a story about my friend, a nursery school teacher. “Last week, three five-year-olds who were going on to kindergarten tied her up and poked her with their fingers, teasing her. When she asked them how long they were going to tie her up, they screamed, `Forever.' When she asked how long is forever, they yelled, `Thirty days.'” Delighted by the five-year-olds' naiveté, my students chuckled.
      Then suddenly Eliazar exclaimed, “Let's tie Mrs. Higuchi up!” I was taken aback by their thunderous cry, “Yeah!” I asked, “How many want to tie me up?” Twenty-six yeas out of 28. Alarmed, I asked, “How many are angry with me because we have to separate?” All raised their hands. In rapid succession, the students expressed their anger by describing the horrors they would inflict upon me. They weren't serious, but the intensity of their feelings discouraged me. They hadn't let go yet.
      A week later came a ray of hope from Luz. She was furious that I wasn't going to be her teacher. During one difficult conference, I asked, “What would help you accept the change?” She replied, “If I had another teacher for three years.” Relieved, I knew then it wasn't just me the students were holding on to, but it was the total experience. The entire school should have been organized in ungraded, heterogeneously grouped classes.
      My students taught me the cohesive power of that third year. When they finally accepted that I was not going to be their teacher, they asked if they could remain together. They had learned to appreciate both the sunny and shadow sides of their classmates. They hurt and healed, criticized and supported, betrayed and befriended. They had learned that they could work out their differences openly. The unique kachina dolls they created embodied these values; they were a community.
      From Liu's mother I learned how the three-year program also touched some of the parents of the limited-English-speaking students. I had hoped that my style of teaching, in which I didn't use textbooks or workbooks, would be acceptable to the newly arrived immigrant parents, but only on the last day of school at the end of the third year did I have an inkling. When Liu's mother picked him up, she thanked me and left. Fifteen minutes later, she returned to my classroom, sobbing, embracing me. She said that he learned so much that he constantly surprised her. When she asked him, “Where did you learn that?” he'd answer, “In school.”
      The following year, most of my former students adjusted smoothly. Eliazar, Luz, Liu, Chung, and a few others had some difficulties, and they asked if they could visit me. I remembered that sometimes children who left nursery school needed to go back for a visit to take care of unfinished business. So every day they stopped by my class to check the bulletin boards, read the daily schedule, play with our pet rat, Princess, or drop a cricket into the cage of our tarantula, Pounce. Their parents came by my room to pick them up after school.
      By April, the visits were less frequent. Students, parents, and teacher had moved on, looking for another experience to make school a dynamic part of their lives.

      Charlotte Higuchi has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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