Keep Your Eye On The Flag

I entered the profession in 1964 during another period, not unlike several more recent cycles, in which we were so desperate for teachers that states would credential folks on a provisional basis if (a) they had a degree in anything and (b) were breathing. I sort of hate to admit that because I find the short cuts into teaching very annoying and destructive to our profession. I want you to know that as a first year teacher I had virtually no experience with reading lessons. The last time I had been in a fifth grade classroom was when I was in Mrs. Marley’s fifth grade classroom in Gridley, California. But what I learned is that if you want to know what to do in a reading lesson, just ask the kids. By fifth grade, they know a lot about how reading lessons work. “No Mr Pearson, we have to do the vocabulary before we can read the story.” “Now you’re supposed to ask us questions to see if we read the story.” “Don’t you have any workbook pages to assign while you work with the other group?”

I must tell you how lucky I was as a first-year teacher. I had a wonderful class. In addition to the coaching they provided me in learning the cultural practices of the basal lesson, they were remarkably focused and well-behaved. They actually did what I asked them to do. by the way, I got extra pay for coaching sports–$25 per sport times 4 sports. At the same time, there was another first-year “pre-credentialled” teacher at West Putnam Elementary School, and she was teaching 4th grade. In contrast to my class, hers was the class from hell—spitballs, rubber bands, hair pulling, acting out, physical fights, the whole ball of wax. Even painted frog’s eyes on the glasses of their substitute teachers. Toward the end of that first year, Mr. Rankin, my principal came to me and said, “Pearson, you know that class of fourth graders who have built such a bad reputation? I bet you think that we are going to divide them up next year, give half to you and half to Mrs. Wilenius (she was the other fifth grade teacher)?

“Yes,” I said, “we had talked and thought that was fairest.”

“Well we’re not going to. We are going to give you the whole class intact…and I want you to shape them up!”

Well, I took that to heart. Went home. Talked to my wife Mary Alyce, who was fully credentialed, borrowed her basic ed psy text—the big, fat, green, Cronbach text, read everything I could that summer on behavior management and classroom control. And decided that I really needed to run a tight ship, a teacher-centered classroom, where I called all the shots. And when September came, I did. I really ran that tight ship. I was everywhere. Kids did not move but what I said so. I had eyes in the back of my head. Nothing escaped my vision and my control. I mean, I made General Patton look like a patsy.

On Friday of the first week, we were, as we did every day in California in those days, saluting the flag to start our day. And I am, as you can imagine, glancing backward to see who is and is not participating. And these kids are mumbling in their mush. That really upset me. While I am decidedly not a super patriot, I have always believed that anything worth doing was worth doing well. So I stopped right there, got on my soap box, and delivered a 5 minute oration on God, mother, country, the flag, apple pie, and probably Chevrolet.

At the end of my oration, complete silence draped the room. Not a sound. After about 10 seconds, petite Glenda Dorough, from the back of the room, sheepishly raised her hand.

“Yes!” I blurted out.

She timidly replied, “Mr. Pearson, I think we’d do a whole lot better job of saluting the flag…if we had a flag in our room.”

Well the story has a happy ending. Taken aback for an instant, I recovered, rushed to the back of my room to the small upright teacher’s closet, reached inside for the cardboard tube, and sure enough found the flag all neatly rolled up for summer storage. I pulled it out, unfurled it, jumped up on the library table, and, like the marines landing at Iwo Jima, planted it firmly in its holder.

The whole class cheered, I laughed, they laughed, and after that I forgot the lessons of tight ships and teacher control in favor of a more light-hearted and student-centered approach to teaching.

Besides reminding me of other personal embarrassments, that story says two things to me: (a) as a teacher, you need to keep your eye on the prize, on the things that really matter, and (b) that as a teacher, you have enormous power, control, authority, and influence on the lives of kids. Think of it—they saluted the non-existent flag for four days in a row before anyone had the courage to mention that we had no flag. Scary, isn’t it. I suppose if the emperor can have no clothes, then the teacher can have no flag. But the story is also reassuring because it says that students respect their teachers—maybe a little too much. And it reminds us of why we all went into teaching—to make a difference in the lives of students—students who look to us for guidance in their quest to make sense of their worlds, to become literate, contributing, constructively critical citizens of the countries we represent and the world we must all learn to share. Let’s all keep our eyes on that prize.

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