By Laura Sumner-Coon — Take one step into a school classroom and an invisible collection of people follow you into the room, haunting you with sometimes positive, sometimes negative memories about learning and school.
It’s a notion that Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot discusses in her book, “The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Each Other.”
No one enters a classroom without some preconceived notion about what happens there. Typically, there is a whirling mix of emotional reactions to learning and the classroom that follows anyone into the room. As students, those emotions swell to either catapult us into a desire to learn or drag us to a depth of fear about our potential and ability. As parents, these emotional memories either prompt us to put on a defensive, confrontational demeanor when it comes to parent-teacher relationships or have us at ease knowing we’re partners in the efforts to educate our children. As teachers, we may approach teaching like those who have taught us or strongly veer from past practice because we detested a teacher’s approach.
Like most people, my “ghosts,” as Lawrence-Lightfoot calls them, have a significant impact on me as student, parent and teacher. The most powerful memory about the student-teacher-parent relationship was one of my earliest experiences.
As a six-year-old entering first grade in a small, Catholic school, I knew little about classroom decorum. I talked out of turn, forgot to raise my hand or couldn’t sit still during the first few weeks of school. By the time parent-teacher conference rolled around in November, my teacher, Sister Timothy Marie, knew she had to find some way to corral my enthusiasm into constructive learning. She also knew that I loved music – singing it, listening to it and playing what I could on the piano.
My parents had no idea what was coming when they visited my first-grade classroom. They were surprised to learn that I had earned an “F” in conduct because I just couldn’t contain myself. While most parents would have been puzzled about what to do, Sister Timothy Marie already had devised a solution.
She encouraged my parents to hold out a carrot. If I could get an “A” in conduct the following quarter, they would take me to see “The Sound of Music,” which was about to be released in theaters (I know, this certainly dates me!). When my parents arrived home that night, I was shocked to learn I had an “F!” I loved school! But then, they told me what I had to do to change that and held out a reward I could earn if my efforts were successful.
I don’t know if it was my love of music or my determination to prove to them I was not an “F” student that motivated my behavior. Both parents and teacher supported my determination, too. Each week, Sister Timothy Marie sent me home with a hard-cover, brown-paper wrapped music book that she used to teach our music class. She told me she knew I was taking piano lessons and loved to sing during our class. She said she thought I could learn to play some of the songs. Now, I only had learned where Middle C was located and had only advanced to two-note songs, but I carried that coveted book home each week as if it were made of gold.
With the trust she had bestowed upon me and my parents’ encouragement, I quickly learned the rules of the classroom, and indeed, went to see “The Sound of Music” with my parents when the next quarter ended. In fact, I memorized the whole musical, as most of us did that year.
Although I have not seen Sister Timothy Marie since the second grade, I searched for a way to contact her a few years ago when our church choir was embarking on a trip to Austria and a performance in the Salzburg Folk Festival. I wrote her to thank her for making a wonderful memory from what could have been a very difficult lesson. Her trust follows me into the classroom still.