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"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day. . . ."Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"
"Real isnt how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "Its a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."
Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit
During my years as a student teacher supervisor in the Michiana area, I had been in and out of a number of the schools in Debbies district, but never the middle school. When I noticed the words "junior high school" on the side of the building, I wondered whether the school had adopted the middle school philosophy or if they clung tenaciously to more traditional curriculum and instruction. I found myself feeling both curious and surprised when a university professor recommended that I contact Debbies principal as a possible site for my research study.
Of the middle schools that participated in my study, Debbies school is the largest with 735 students in Grades 6-8. The school recently completed an expansion project which allowed for larger classrooms, increased student experiences with technology, and an attractive media center. During a tour of the school with the principal, I was impressed with his enthusiasm about the building and programs available for students.
This schools transition from a junior high to a middle school approach to education began in the mid-1990s and was made slowly, with careful training and thought. Initially various speakers addressed faculty, and faculty members had the opportunity to visit other middle schools. The next step involved piloting a middle school program for the sixth graders. After a successful pilot, the seventh-grade team began the formal transition. The year of my research study and visits to Debbies school was the year of transition for the eighth-grade team.
Though Debbie has been teaching for 12 years, this was her first year in this district. This created extra challenges for her and she talked about how hard it has been to, in essence, go through another first year. She mentioned things like making new friends, getting used to different personalities, preparing things for the "copy machine lady" (Vol. I, p. 70), learning the quirks of the school, and even which way to turn the key to unlock her room as things she needed to adjust to.
I got the sense that this was also a year of transitioning loyalties and relationships from one school to another. Debbie still kept in touch with her colleagues from the school she left last year and was disappointed when she was unable to meet them for dinner because Lent made her week extra busy. I saw and heard Debbie reaching out to the teachers at her current school while also maintaining previous relationships. One evening when I tried unsuccessfully to reach her at home, she later told me she "went out with the girls" after parent-teacher conferences (Vol. I, p. 1).
Debbie was bothered that she had not yet unpacked all of her boxes since transferring to this school and periodically had to rummage through them looking for things she wanted to use in her classes. Debbie and her husband also bought and moved to a new house during Christmas vacation which added more stress to her personal life. In spite of this sense of upheaval, Debbie willingly opened her classroom and life to me.
Debbies life has created a cheerful, welcoming house. It is bright and sunny inside with large windows and a pleasant decor. Her house is overflowing with love and care for others. It reaches out and welcomes all who pass by, freely giving of its abundant love to nurture others.
Debbie was born and grew up in the Michiana area and has always called this home. When I asked her to explain the life map she drew for me, Debbie said,
I first thought of my two loving, supportive parents and just the many, many memories I have of special times. Just feeling loved and supported, basically unconditional love. [I remember] a lot of special times when I was alone with them doing different things or we were together as a family. . . . I always felt very much like they always had time for me. I was never imposing upon them. I was an only child. I guess I got a lot of special times with them because I was the only one. Maybe that was part of it. I had a lot of time with my parents and feeling like they [loved] me no matter what, supported me no matter what I did. (Vol. I, p. 90)
Not only did Debbie experience a lot of love and support from her immediate family, but her extended family was also an integral part of her world. She said, "Were a close-knit family where I would visit and do things and have a lot of interactions with my other relatives that were close by" (Vol. I, p. 75). These relatives included her grandparents and uncles and aunts. This extended family had "a lot of reunions, a lot of family vacations, and getting together for holidays and all kinds of happiness" (Vol. I, p. 90).
Debbie called her parents her "two main teachers" and said "they taught [her] how important it was to be excited about things and to enjoy life and be happy and have fun [and] to explore the world" (Vol. I, p. 41). Part of exploring the world included spending a lot of time with her dad:
I would be outside when my dad would come home from hunting if he went without me. Hed bring home animals and hed clean them himself. . . . When I got a little bit older he would show me things and teach me how to clean fish. (Vol. I, p. 77)
A big part of Debbies love for science she attributes to the time she spent with her dad "being out in the woods and walking around hunting [and looking at] plants and animals" (Vol. I, p. 29). Debbie said, "Whenever [Dad] would do something, he would always show me" (Vol. I, p. 30). From her dad Debbie learned a variety of things ranging from changing oil in the car to gutting fish.
Debbies mother did not enjoy the outdoors as much as Debbie and her father, but she provided different experiences for Debbie: "My mom encouraged me in . . . gymnastics and jazz and those kinds of interests, but she wasnt an outdoorsy person" (Vol. I, p. 30).
As a team, Debbies parents encouraged her to become involved in various activities and modeled this type of lifestyle for her:
My mom and dad were real active . . . and definitely encouraged me to pursue different interests, lots of different interests (Vol. I, p. 30). [My parents] made the activities I was involved in . . . really important to them. They always showed interest in what I was doing and they were always there for me, to help me to feel successful. . . . They also were real good role models in terms of the way that they lived their lives. . . . They read the paper, they . . . modeled things like making sure that reading was important and watching the right kind of TV shows, like Discovery [Channel] and . . . learning type of programs. (Vol. I, p. 74)
During Debbies teenage years, she was active in a number of service activities. She volunteered with the Brownies and tutored through the National Honor Society. During the summer she was a camp counselor and a leader at cheerleading camp. Being a camp counselor allowed her to be close to and explore one of her main interests, nature and science. At a young age, Debbie gave of herself to others just as she saw her parents give to her.
An active, giving lifestyle coupled with the encouragement to try new things that Debbies parents provided for her has shaped who she is today. She said,
Being involved in a lot of different things when I was little helped to make me open to new . . . and different things when I was older. I always could see the benefit of trying something that . . . I might not have been extremely interested in, but I was encouraged to try to see how I like it. . . . Having that exposure as a child to a lot of variety and learning that sometimes you try something that you initially arent going to think that [you will] like that well and then you try it and you actually do end up enjoying more than you thought you would has helped me as an adult to try new things. So opportunities present themselves and Im generally one to say, "Oh, Ill try that and see how it goes." (Vol. I, pp. 30-31)
Debbie has always felt unconditional love and support from her parents; they were not, however, parents who allowed her to do whatever she pleased. She recalled,
My fathers a real strict disciplinarian so I grew up with a lot of discipline. I knew right from wrong. I knew where the boundary line was and so I wasnt really in one of those situations where I had to make a lot of choices because I knew there would be consequences for inappropriate choices (Vol. I, p. 78).
I always knew where I stood as far as what I was expected to do and yet I always knew I had help to do it. They held up high expectations . . . [but] not unreasonable expectations. (Vol. I, p. 74)
These high expectations Debbies parents had for her included making school a priority. They expected Debbie to do well, but there was "always a willingness to sit down . . . and help . . . out with whatever it was [she] was doing in school" (Vol. I, p. 74). Debbie recalled, "If I was having problems . . . I knew I could go to [my parents] and theyd help me solve them" (Vol. I, p. 74).
Debbies middle school years were challenging years for her "even though [she] had a really good set of parents" (Vol. I, p. 78). She described these years:
Just like all kids, [I struggled] with so many things. Fitting in: Where do I belong? What do I want to do? . . . I remember [being] a cheerleader, but yet I wasnt quite like the popular crowd. I was a cheerleader which to some people meant that I was kind of in that crowd, but I never really felt like it. Its kind of a part of being popular but sort of not at the same time, kind of an awkward spot to be. . . . Its just a difficult time in life. Youre dealing with so many friendship issues and so many issues that are just so painful. You dont like your hair, you dont like the way you look, just all those things. (Vol. I, p. 78)
Debbies parents are not college graduates, but they valued higher education. Debbies parents
come from families where their siblings are not college graduates. They also come from large families so I think that when they were growing up there was always a kind of struggle and it was hard. Then when they had me . . . they saw the opportunity to provide me with a lot of experiences by only having one child versus maybe six or seven siblings the way that they grew up. It was always a real priority for them to see me go on to college. I think they had that in the plans right at the beginning. (Vol. I, pp. 74-75)
To summarize the role her immediate and extended families played in her life, Debbie commented that "everybody was just a really good role model in terms of no alcoholism, good work ethic, everybody had a job, everybody valued church and valued helping others" (Vol. I, p. 75).
Not only did Debbies family influence her as she was growing up, but she also recalled several teachers who impacted her life:
[There were] a few select teachers along the way that I can remember and really loved. The one thing that I always remember about those teachers is that I really cant remember specifically what they taught me, but I remember I liked them and that I enjoyed being in their classroom. I cant really remember curriculum-wise what exactly I learned, but I just know that I respected them and enjoyed them as individual people. I knew that they cared about me and that they were really interested in me beyond just a student but about my life in general. (Vol. I, p. 75)
Most of these teachers who touched Debbies life were science teachers. She specifically remembers teachers bringing in animals and things from nature to show the class. Since Debbie has always loved living things, she found this fascinating. These teachers were more interested in utilizing teachable moments rather than sticking closely to the textbook. Debbie remarked, "[I had] science teachers that were just really dynamic and real fun and easy going. I just loved their classes. [We did] a lot of hands-on [activities] and they were just neat people" (Vol. I, p. 29).
One incident involving animals which Debbie remembers was not a pleasant one. It was her first snake experience and she recalls,
It was terrible because [the teacher] passed around a box and in the shoe box was a snake. [This teacher] was a real crack up; he was just hilarious.
. . . He put the snake in the box, [but] he didnt tell us it was alive so I assumed it was dead. So Im like poking it and its hissing and Im just like ahhhhh! I didnt know it was alive! (Vol. I, p. 76)
When Debbie got close to graduating from high school, she realized that she needed to make decisions regarding her career. Concerning this decision she said,
I talked to my parents about what I like doing. [I thought], What do I like doing? What do I enjoy doing? Where do I see myself in ten years? I always loved science and I always loved working with kids. I always liked being outdoors. And I just thought that teaching was something that would give me an opportunity, especially being a science teacher, to take my class outdoors and do things hands on. The main thing was the science and yet I wasnt really interested in being some of the things that would go with science like [being] a nurse. . . . So I felt like teaching was a good [choice]. . . . I just had some teachers I really respected and I thought that they seemed like they loved their jobs. I just had a lot of respect for them and I thought, boy, [teaching] would be just a neat thing to do. (Vol. I, p. 29)
Debbie also sees her interest in teaching middle school students as beginning in high school. She recalled,
Back when I was in high school I was a cheerleader and just involved in a lot of different . . . groups. If I had an opportunity to work with kids younger than myself, I always took those opportunities, like cheerleading camp. . . . I always just thought it was fun to work with . . . middle school kids. (Vol. I, p. 28)
Debbie recalls her undergraduate years as difficult because she missed her family. She did, however, "[travel] home quite a bit on the weekends [and] brought home all the laundry" (Vol. I, p. 81). Missing family was made a bit easier since Debbies best friend from high school went to the same college she did and the two were roommates. Debbie recalled, "That was a real strong help having such a close friend there. [College was] busy. I worked . . . odd jobs to help pay the cost because my familys not real wealthy. Fortunately I had some scholarships" (Vol. I, p. 81).
Student teaching was a positive experience for Debbie. She said,
I student taught with third graders who were so cute. . . . My only problem with student teaching was . . . a 50-minute commute. That made it tough.
. . . It was hard to be that young and be on the road that long. I wished I would have gotten placed closer. . . . But I enjoyed [student teaching]. . . . I had a really good supervising teacher and good staff I was working with and great kids. (Vol. I, p. 81)
After graduating from college, Debbie moved even farther away from her family and worked as a substitute teacher. She said, "I was kind of like a building sub . . . and then I was also their assistant track coach" (Vol. I, p. 81). Since she was so involved with this one school, she was confident of being offered a position when the school had an opening. That did not work out for her, however, and she took a job in a different district teaching seventh- and eighth-grade science.
Debbie began taking graduate classes once she secured a full time teaching position so her life became very busy. She said,
I was teaching and going to school at the same time. It was tough. That was a lot of work, but I felt it was really important. I gained a lot of science knowledge because I got my masters in elementary ed but I had a focus on science. All my electives . . . were science related. It was great [because] I got a lot of information that I shared with the kids and a lot of hands-on science that I was able to bring into the classroom. (Vol. I, p. 31)
Though Debbies career was well underway she missed her family and continued traveling 4 hours to be home on weekends to spend time with her parents. She would also spend the entire summer with her parents.
Debbie has taught a variety of grades during her 12 years as a teacher. After beginning as a science teacher for Grades 7 and 8, she got transferred to teaching third grade. After she got married, she needed to relocate and find a another job. This job began as fifth- and sixth-grade science, but then she took a fifth-grade self-contained classroom. For 6 years Debbie commuted almost 2 hours per day to teach. Periodically during this time she would go through the process of applying for a teaching position in districts that were closer to her home, but it was not until the summer before I met her that Debbie found her current position.
I asked Debbie what kept her in teaching during her first few years, times of upheaval, missing her family, and energy expended on graduate classes. Debbie replied,
I always really enjoyed working with kids. I . . . enjoyed the satisfaction I got from my job. . . . I had a really, really supportive staff that I was working with, fellow mentoring type of teachers. [I had] people I could go and talk to and know that I could [tell them] the truth. [I knew] they werent really going to judge me or act like I was a bad teacher because I made a mistake or I did something that maybe I shouldnt have done with a parent or a child. I had people that I could really call friends and [felt] like I could spill my guts. (Vol. I, p. 84)
During her years as a teacher, Debbie has seen changes in her approach to students:
Ive learned a lot about kids over the years . . . and that you can get more out of a bee with honey than you can with vinegar! . . . [Earlier] I had a "These are the rules [attitude]." . . . I didnt really care if [the students] liked me or they didnt like me because I was trying to teach them the curriculum. [I] wasnt extremely compassionate. (Vol. I, p. 38)
Debbie saw some of her students pass from one grade to the next, having the same problems each year. This motivated her to reach out to students. She explained,
Ive gone that extra mile or done extra things for them. [Ive had] a lot of discussions with them and Ive seen some changes in their behavior and improvements that are gratifying. . . . I may not be able to move mountains, but if I can just help a little bit to change some of the negative things that they do or some of the problems that they have [Im pleased]. It makes so much more sense to try that than to always beat your head up against a wall because theyre not doing exactly what you tell them to do.
. . . Ive learned that if you try . . . theres a lot you can do. Sometimes it takes a lot of time and energy, and sometimes it doesnt work either. . . . You have to realize that when kids go home and their environment doesnt support what youre doing that sometimes its very, very, very difficult to make a change. . . . Sometimes its really hard that you just dont know how to help. (Vol. I, p. 39)
Debbie now takes time to get well-acquainted with her students and seeks to understand what is happening in their lives. Now she seeks answers to questions, "Why are they having difficulty in my class? Why are they unhappy? Why are they misbehaving?" (Vol. I, p. 39). Finding answers to these questions has helped Debbie understand "why [her students are] making the choices theyre making" (Vol. I, p. 39).
It was not until Debbie met and married Jim that she moved back into the Michiana area. She said,
I was thrilled because I had an opportunity to move back which was wonderful. . . . All along I really wanted to move back, I just needed that road, that avenue. Then it was hard to think about leaving all the people Id developed such close relationships with, but I desperately missed my family . . . and I did want to be with Jim! (Vol. I, p. 83-84)
Jim plays an integral role in Debbies life and she credits him with shaping who she is. She said,
Getting married . . . was like finding my best friend in life. [I feel] very fortunate to know that no matter what happens in my life, he will be there for me. I think its rare to find somebody that you can count on that much. I am very, very fortunate to have somebody like [Jim] in my life. (Vol. I, p. 90)
Debbie surprised me by saying, "I think one thing that makes me a good teacher is that I have a good marriage" (Vol. I, p. 44). When she elaborated, I understood her comment:
I can come to work and I dont have any kind of personal issues outside of my job that maybe would cause me unhappiness. [Jim] comes in and he helps me a lot if I need something done here. For instance, Im working on my computer and I need my grades entered, hell come and hell read the grades off so that I can just type them in without having to look back and forth. Hell grade papers for me or help run off dittos. So thats kind of a nice thing too that helps me be a better teacher, having that extra crutch of help. . . . He also respects my need for . . . time when I come home. [My need for] not watching TV and having quiet time to do my work. He respects my need to bring my job home. He supports me in that. . . . [A good marriage] helps [me] to be a more energetic and good teacher because Im not bringing issues from home or having any kind of personal [crisis]. (Vol. I, p. 44)
Jim shares Debbies love for the outdoors and her desire to be part of his interests have motivated her to broaden her interests. Debbie said,
Weve gone deer hunting, pheasant hunting, [but] not rabbits. I like rabbits too well. . . . It was interesting, not because Im interested in hunting, but because Im willing to try something new. . . . I went to enjoy his passion.
. . . I think he hoped that I would become a huntress, but I didnt enjoy [his] passion that well. I like to go for nature walks and things like that, but I dont really enjoy the hunt the way that he does. . . . It was fascinating to be out there and it was real interesting too to be in the woods on the first day of gun hunting season and hear all the shots. I was petrified because you hear all these shots and you think, "Geez, I hope that bullet is not coming any closer!" (Vol. I, p. 42)
I found Debbies love for animals and her compassionate, nurturing nature to be contradictory with her attitude toward hunting animals. I asked her about it and she explained her reasoning:
I look at it from the perspective of we eat meat, and some animals in the wintertime struggle for survival because theres only so much food available. . . . We eat all the meat and we tan the hides. . . . [Jim] makes things out of the hides. . . . I look at it from a practical standpoint. . . . A lot of the stuff that he gets in the woods we bring into the classroom. Ive [got] his turkey feet. . . . Ive got the turkey feathers. Ive got a deer head; Ive got some of his antlers. So a lot of the stuff I can bring in and talk to the kids about. . . . [Jim is] extremely accurate so I know that when he takes a shot, its a very good chance that its going to be a quick kill type of shot. . . . I accept hunting. Its not my favorite thing, but I accept it. (Vol. I, pp. 42-43)
It was with Jims help that Debbie was able to deal with her fear of snakes which began during her elementary school years. When one of Debbies students chanted, "Girls are afraid of snakes; girls are afraid of snakes" (Vol. I, p. 77), Debbie decided that she needed to deal with this fear. She explained:
I went home and had my husband catch a snake because hes very unafraid of snakes. . . . We sat down for probably three hours and he helped me overcome [my fear] by . . . in little increments getting me to the point where I could handle the snake. I was able to go into my [classroom with a snake] after I had [one] at my house for awhile, and I got really accustomed to handling it. [It] was extremely hard because I was drop-dead frightened of snakes, as frightened as any kid that Ive ever known. I was deathly afraid of snakes. I overcame my fears and I was able to confidently come into the classroom and handle the snake. Since then Ive been able to help a lot of . . . kids overcome their fear because I know what that fear is like.
. . . Thats why I really like having a classroom snake for a pet because I think that a lot of kids are just naturally afraid of snakes, but when they see other kids handling it they [think it is] no big deal. (Vol. I, p. 77)
When I asked Debbie if she talks to Jim about school, she laughed and said, "Oh yeah. The poor sucker!" (Vol. I, p. 85). She went on to say,
He helps me a lot by making me laugh about something that maybe I needed to laugh about, to just let it go. [He gives] me some ideas on how to deal with things. Hes a supervisor [at work] so he deals with people all the time too. Hes real good at saying, "Well, you know, maybe you should have done this." Hes a good listener. (Vol. I, p. 85)
The way Jim lives his life has challenged Debbie. She explained, "He lives his life . . . just savoring every day. [He has helped] me to realize that I need to be that way too. . . . He just treats people well and does things for people" (Vol. I, p. 84)
Debbies classroom is one of two science rooms in the sixth-grade wing. When entering the sixth-grade wing, one is welcomed with a banner, "Oh, the Places Youll Go," announcing this years theme for sixth grade. Inside Debbies classroom I see a connection to the theme on one of her bulletin boards; there is a picture of a scientist and the phrase, "Oh, the chemistry we will do." Other items in Debbies room include character-building posters and things unique to a science classroom. Some of the posters I saw read: "Tolerance is seeing with your heart," "Success comes in CANS not in cannots," and "No one is a failure who keeps trying." Debbie also identifies the scientific method on one wall: Purpose, hypothesis, experiment, analysis, and conclusion.
Several large cabinets with glass doors hold the skulls of various animals and other animal artifacts. Charlie, the pet snake, has his own terrarium with an easily removable lid, allowing students to play with him during the day. Debbie also has some goldfish in her classroom.
Debbies room appears to be divided into two sections though there is no actual divider. On the one side are individual student desks resting on the inside of bright yellow tennis balls. The second half of the room has lab tables surrounded with chairs. White boards run the entire length of the room, making it easy for Debbie to use the board regardless of where students are sitting. An over-stuffed chair rests in one corner of the room; however, I never saw anyone sitting in this chair during my visits. Tall windows opposite the classrooms entrance allow natural light into the classroom though they face another wing of the building. Debbie also has her own storage room and an office with doorways into her classroom, but I only occasionally noticed her using them. She always seemed to be in the classroom or hallway surrounded by her students.
On several occasions, I noticed unusual additions to Debbies classroom. In the dead of winter she had a vase of cut flowers brightening up the raised lab table she uses as a desk. These flowers quietly performed the task of cheering up the classroom, unlike the Furby who visited her classroom another day.
Furby belonged to one of the students and Debbie had the task of babysitting him while the student was absent. His presence got the students excited even though he began the period by sleeping. In the midst of Debbie making an important announcement, Furby awakened and began talking. With some difficulty Debbie quieted the students down and said with laughter, "Ill talk about Furby in a second" (Vol. I, p. 49). When she did turn her attention to Furby, she told the students that she was "excited to actually see one" because the only one she had seen until now was on TV (Vol. I, p. 49). Debbie then told the students she does not know much about Furby and got them to share about Furbys they have at home by asking them who owns one, what they look like, and what they do.
Debbie begins each day with an advisory group of sixth graders, teaches five sections of sixth-grade science during the day, and then teaches an exploratory science class the last period of the day. Throughout each responsibility assumed by Debbie, I saw her caring, nurturing, motherly nature reaching out to students.
I rarely saw Debbie sit down during class times. She was always where the students were. In the morning as students filtered into the classroom, she was available to welcome them, between classes she was busy answering questions or chatting about a students personal life, and during class she was roaming the room. When Debbie told me her favorite quote, "One on her feet is worth three in her seat" (Vol. I, p. 45), I recognized how effectively she embodies this truth.
As I look back on my experiences in Debbies classroom, I feel like there was always something unusual happening. When I contacted her in December she talked about special holiday activities the sixth grade team was planning, there were a number of field trips, a video to go with a trade book they read, special reviews for semester exams, an interdisciplinary Medieval Times unit, job shadowing, and science fair projects. I finally concluded that the unusual must be the norm in Debbies school.
Debbies view of her advisory group falls well within the purpose generally identified in the literature. Cole (1992), This We Believe (NMSA, 1995), and Turning Points (Carnegie Council, 1989) discuss the need for middle schoolers to be known well by at least one adult who is in touch with students personal and academic needs. Through a variety of activities, Debbie works to establish relationships with students in her advisory group. She explained her goals:
I think that it is a really important quality for a teacher to show interest [in kids] beyond the classroom setting, to show interest in what kind of life they are leading at home and what kinds of things they do outside of school, to get to know them beyond just [the classroom]. Advisory helps with that . . . because that is the first group I have in the morning and I tend to talk to them a little bit more and get a little bit closer to them. (Vol. I, p. 75)
The written curriculum is important to Debbie and she works hard to ensure that students are prepared for the next grade level. I asked her what guides her curriculum and she responded:
We have a list of objectives that were [developed] by a . . . science committee. . . . How you meet your objective is up to you, but there is a list of objectives that we are responsible to teach so that when the kids get into seventh grade and the seventh-grade teacher mentions . . . "kingdoms" the kids have some preknowledge. When she gets the kids in seventh grade, she will assume that they have had exposure to that concept, classification, and that will not be all new information. So there are things that I am supposed to teach this year to help lead them in seventh grade. Of course that all ties into MEAP [Michigan Educational Assessment Program] testing. (Vol. I, pp. 36-37)
Debbies ultimate goal for her students, however, is not merely preparing them for the next grade level or covering a textbook. She explained:
I think that you can teach science out of a book or you can teach science by exposing the kids to science. Those are really two different ways of teaching. We have a book . . . and we look at the book as something that we have as a tool, but if I did not have a book that would be okay too. It is something that we have that is available to us, and it is not that we do not use it. We do use it because there just are some kids who benefit from the security of knowing that they have a book. But I think it is more important to do science and to see things and do labs, talk about it and experience [science] more than the book can provide (Vol. I, p. 36).
I have . . . a real big responsibility to [help] kids to love science, not to learn science, but enjoy science and want to . . . pursue science. I think if they are bored or they are not exposed to a lot of exciting things that they may see science as kind of a boring . . . not very interesting sort of area. (Vol. I, p. 37)
As their teacher, Debbie seeks to teach her students much more than science content. She wants them "to be excited about learning new things, to see what they are really capable of, [to take] responsibility for their own actions and learning, and [learn] that they can control their behavior" (Vol. I, p. 41). Debbie said, "The most important gift I can give them is just the gift of enjoying school and wanting to be here" (Vol. I, p. 41). As I watched Debbie relate to her students, I saw her making individual students feel welcome and part of the classroom. Her easy-going cheerfulness creates a warm, accepting atmosphere in her classroom.
Debbie is a strong proponent of utilizing teachable moments in the classroom. She saw this in the science teachers she admired and from whom she learned the most. Having Charlie, the pet snake, in her classroom provided an opportunity for such a moment. One weekend Charlie shed his skin, so, on Monday, Debbie showed her students the skin and talked about what had happened. Even though it did not fit into Debbies written curriculum, she chose to discuss this with the students because Charlie was their pet and they were interested in the fact that he had shed his skin. Debbie said, "If you can get off tangent you can sometimes [teach] more than just sticking to the pages [of the textbook]" (Vol. I, p. 76).
When Debbie first told me her sixth graders needed to take semester exams, she mentioned that she feels sorry for them. This would be their first experience in taking semester exams and the students were pretty scared and nervous about it. Debbie and the other sixth-grade science teacher worked together to make up the science exam, they prepared review packets for the students, and were spending class time reviewing and preparing for the exam. The entire sixth-grade team voted to have exam scores account for only 10% of the students grades though the seventh and eighth graders semester exam scores composed 20% of their semester average.
One of my visits to Debbies classroom coincided with a review day for the semester exam. This topic was of utmost concern to students and they immediately began discussing the exam when class began. One student complained, "[The information] doesnt stay in my head that long" (Vol. I, p. 18). Debbie chuckled at this comment and began giving students mnemonic devices for recalling information. She sympathized, "It is a lot to remember" (Vol. I, p. 18). Another student asked, "If I fail [the exam], will I go to seventh grade?" (Vol. I, p. 18) and again Debbie chuckled sympathetically and referred to students review packets. She kept telling them that there would be no surprises on the exam and if they studied the things in their review packets they should do well. She also mentioned that paying careful attention while the class played bingo would help them prepare for the exam.
Debbie asked students to write vocabulary words from the list she distributed on yellow bingo boards while she took attendance. After students finished writing the words on the boards, they were to move over to the lab tables where they would play bingo. Throughout this time, students continued to express concern about their semester exam and Debbie kept reassuring them, "You will be in good shape as long as you study right. I promise" (Vol. I, p. 18).
Once students arrived at the lab tables, their first task was to cut green strips of paper into small squares to use as markers during the bingo game. When the class was ready to begin playing, Debbie explained the rules. She would read a definition to students and they were to search for the vocabulary word on their bingo boards and cover the word with their green squares. Students were allowed to quietly share answers with others sitting in their group. Winners would be allowed to choose a goodie out of the treat box. Since Debbie wanted as many students as possible to be winners, only winners would clear their boards when they had bingo and the rest of the class would simply leave their squares on their boards.
Debbie sat on the edge of an empty lab table to read the definitions to students, and she kept putting the pencil she was holding behind her ear. When a student yelled bingo, she got excited herself. At one point a student said, "I think I got something" to which Debbie responded, "So you say?" (Vol. I, p. 19) while gesturing wildly with her arms for him to say bingo. To another student who got bingo, Debbie said, "So you are a winner! You were so worried about the science exam!" (Vol. I, p. 19). Once students said "Bingo!" Debbie asked them to read off their words and checked to see if they had covered the correct words. She also asked students to pick a treat out of the treat box and soon I saw students eating treats.
Periodically during the game Debbie walked around the room to see how students were progressing with their bingo cards. She made encouraging comments, "I see some people that are pretty close" (Vol. I, p. 19) and "Be real good listeners right now" (Vol. I, p. 20). At one point an entire group of girls yelled "Bingo!" and Debbie stepped back in astonishment. Another time a student thought he had bingo, but when he read off his words, Debbie said, "We have not used atoms yet. Bummer! I am sorry" (Vol. I, p. 20). One student eagerly told Debbie that he was close to getting bingo, and Debbie responded, "I have my fingers crossed!" (Vol. I, p. 20).
I was intrigued by Debbies facial expressions and gestures during bingo. She smiled and nodded at students reading off their bingo words, when she read a definition she looked around the room with a hopeful expression, and she often said, "Yeah!" when someone got bingo (Vol. I, p. 20). Throughout the entire game, Debbie communicated with her body language and words that she genuinely wanted students to be successful.
At the close of the period, Debbie told students she had four things to tell them before the bell rings: Please remember to go to bed early tonight, make sure you eat breakfast in the morning, make sure you take your review packet home and study, and do not let yourself get stressed out. She reminded them again that there would be "no surprises" on the exam and the information covered in the review packet is what would be on the exam (Vol. I, p. 20). As she dismissed the students she said, "I want each and every one of you to walk out of here with an A+ tomorrow" (Vol. I, pp. 20-21). After the students left, Debbie confided in me that it makes her sad to know that some of the students will not do well on the exam because they will not take it seriously and study for it.
Medieval Times unit
I have to admit that when Debbie first talked to me about the sixth-grade teams plans for a Medieval Times interdisciplinary unit, I wondered how science fit into this type of unit. I had forgotten, however, about the Bubonic Plague. Debbie used this opportunity to introduce students to using microscopes and they did a simulation of the plague which the students enjoyed and I found fascinating.
Prior to the simulation, Debbies students learned about the possible causes and cure for the plague. A video they watched showed how peoples reactions to the plague ranged from extreme fear to viewing it fatalistically to assuming it had supernatural causes. I was impressed with the way Debbie attempted to make the Bubonic Plague something students could understand and relate to; she and the class concluded that people in the Middle Ages must have had the same feelings about the plague as we do today about AIDS and cancer. We are afraid of them and we want someone to find a cure.
For the simulation students were given different roles that villagers would have had during Medieval Times. Each student was also given a bag with his or her job description and a list of villagers to visit. On the inside of the bag were 10 beans. The bags of students playing select roles contained seven white beans and three black beans. As students visited their fellow villagers, they needed to take a bean from the villagers bag. If a student got a black bean from someones bag, they needed to roll a die to find out how many of their white beans to exchange for black beans. Once a student had 10 black beans in his or her bag, he or she had died because of the plague and had to lay motionless in the morgue located at the back of the classroom.
Students enjoyed the simulation tremendously though there was a problem keeping those in the morgue quiet. Debbie told me she also enjoyed the simulation but that next time she would do things differently. She said she would like to ask either parents or older students to help because there were a number of things in the simulation which needed monitoring such as exchanging beans, keeping students focused, and keeping the "dead" quietly contained in the morgue. The other thing Debbie regretted was that they had a field trip planned the following day which did not allow her to discuss the simulation with students while it was fresh in their minds.
Since this was Debbies first year teaching sixth grade at this particular school, there were several established sixth-grade traditions for which she was unprepared. One of these happened to be a science project. In her conversations with students, Debbie struggled to use the words "science project" instead of "science fair." In the past she had her students do projects for a science fair and the new vocabulary was difficult for her to adjust to. In this particular school all sixth graders were required to do a "science project" but only those who specifically wanted to entered a separate "science fair." My visits to Debbies classroom ended before the students completed their projects, but Debbies response to the beginning of the projects speak to her caring nurturance of students and her desire to help them experience success.
To help stimulate students thinking about possible topics for their science projects, Debbie and her fellow science teacher gathered a number of science books for students to peruse. The first step was to simply look through the books, record ideas, and note the book and page number in which they found the idea. While looking through the books for ideas, the students were also instructed to ask Debbie questions and discuss their ideas with her.
Students struggled with the process and Debbie empathized with them. While students were looking at the books, Debbie seemed to be everywhere at once helping students. She was virtually swallowed up by the students because of her petite stature. Even so, Debbie patiently and persistently questioned and probed students. Though the deadline for making a decision was at hand, Debbie stressed that she wanted students to work on something they found genuinely interesting and did not want them to make a hurried decision just to meet the deadline.
Since students needed to do these projects individually or in pairs, Debbie was constantly jumping from one conversation to the next. She went from discussing a project which involved planting beans in different types of soil and warning the girls that the seeds might die, to a male student who wanted to do something that would explode. Another student told Debbie that his aunt is "into chemistry" (Vol. I, p. 58) and would be visiting him that evening. Debbie suggested that he browse through the chemistry books for ideas and then talk to his aunt for more direction. One girl informed Debbie that her mother told her she was not allowed to hatch baby chicks. Debbie commented that baby chicks would be a big investment and that giving them up after the project is hard. It is easy to get attached to baby chicks, but chickens do not make good pets. Two girls were interested in doing something in the medical field so Debbie suggested they test for the amount of fat in various foods. When one of the girls asked if they could test for fats in pizza, Debbie called that an "original idea" (Vol. I, p. 51) and suggested they include their parents in the project. Though Debbie gave suggestions, probed students thinking, discussed possible problems, kept the students on task, and heaped encouragement on the students, she made it clear that students, with the approval of their parents, needed to make their own decision concerning their science project.
I asked Debbie to describe the difference between the exploratory class she offered and her regular science classes. In response to my question she said:
The academic expectations are a lot lower. . . . It is just supposed to be a little bit of an introduction to spark some interest in an area. . . . There is not a test; there is not a quiz. Generally there may not be any homework at all. It is a real relaxed high interest, get them to talk, get them to learn something about the topic [class]. . . . Normally everybody walks away with an A. It is more of a participatory sort of experience. . . . You have to really mess up not to do well in exploratory. . . . It is a high success feeling class which is great. They walk away feeling like they did a great job in exploratory. . . . It is a good way to end the day because it is real high interest. I think by seventh hour when you are 12 years old and youve been going through the day you are tired by seventh hour. You are kind of overwhelmed. Youve got a lot of homework, maybe you have a lot of things on your mind . . . so it is kind of nice to come in and do something that is real high interest and fun. . . . It is pretty safe . . . and the teachers love it. (Vol. I, pp. 32-33)
In the exploratory class Debbie offered, 1 day in each cycle was spent dissecting lungs. When I told her I really wanted to observe that day, she warned me that the students get very excited and rather wild because this is usually one of their first dissecting experiences. She also told me that I may want to wear old clothes because it is a bloody project. Debbies warnings did not deter me, and I doubted that I would find the cow lungs she talked about disgusting since I grew up on a farm and as a child had watched my dad and neighbors butcher a cow. In retrospect, I should have taken Debbies cautions more seriously because I was unprepared for what I witnessed.
When I walked into the classroom, students and Debbie had already donned black garbage bags with holes for heads and arms. Everyone was wearing white latex gloves and the lab tables were covered with black garbage bags. After giving students, who were too excited to really listen, last-minute directions, Debbie calmly reached into a large plastic garbage can and began distributing huge mounds of cow organs to each of the four groups of students. Students began groaning, some ran to the opposite side of the room, others began touching and exploring their specimens, and some students began predicting which of their peers would throw up sometime during the period. Debbie continued passing out specimens, merely chuckling at students reactions.
Eventually students got busy following directions on their lab sheets and Debbie offered assistance as needed. As she circulated among the tables, I heard her comment to various students: "Oh, good job!" "That is the awesome part!" "I am so proud of you! You could be a doctor or a veterinarian." "Look at you! You are [still] here!" (Vol. I, pp. 8-9). That last comment was made to a student who was squeamish and had been uncertain about participating. Debbie again reminded students that the purpose of this dissection activity was so they could see what the inside of lungs look like.
One part of Debbies lab instructions asked students to
cut a chunk of lung off. Raise your hand and I will bring you a straw. Place the end of the straw firmly against a larger hole in the lung. Blow into the straw. Do not inhale . . . unless you are a vampire!!! (Vol. I, p. 13)
This activity generated an additional stir of excitement in the classroom which was already brimming with enthusiasm. When students followed Debbies directions carefully, they were able to inflate the section of lung they had cut off of their specimens. Debbie responded by smiling and celebrating students success and commenting, "You are amazing!" (Vol. I, p. 9).
One group of boys surprised everyone in the room by shouting for Debbie to come to their table because they had found the "poop cord" or as one of them chimed in, "the anus" (Vol. I, p. 9). Debbie chuckled a bit as she made her way to their table and said, "I am so glad you know your science vocabulary so well" (Vol. I, p. 9). She then used the opportunity to explain to the boys and the other students who rushed to their table that they had found the esophagus which leads to the cows stomach.
Clean-up time came very quickly and Debbie blew a whistle to get students attention. Students were asked to toss the garbage bags they were wearing into the trash cans, their dissected specimens went into large yellow garbage bags, and they were to thoroughly wash their hands with soap in the restroom. After going over her expectations, Debbie addressed a few of the students as "honey" and commented on the clean-up process: "You did excellent!" and "I am very proud!" (Vol. I, p. 10)
One male student had not been able to find the bronchial tubes in his groups specimen so he asked Debbie if he could work on it after school since his mother would be picking him up. When his mother arrived, Debbie spoke to her about the student, calling him "Dr. Jones." The mother laughed and commented that "Dr. Jones" needed to get better grades, and she and Debbie then discussed the students work.
Later I discovered that Debbie drives as much as an hour to visit butcher shops willing to donate the specimens she uses in exploratory class. Generally she is able to get more specimens than she needs for a given class so she stores the extra ones in her freezer at home. The day prior to dissecting, she thaws the specimens in her bathtub and rinses them to remove as much blood as possible. She then drags them to her car and into school so the students can dissect them. When I asked her why she does it, she explained,
Its fantastic for the kids. They love it! I think so much learning takes place [during dissection]. They go from having one concept of what they think a trachea is or esophagus or what the inside of the lungs are like . . . to seeing what it is [actually] like. . . . [I have] had kids that have walked away and said, "Oh, I want to be a doctor now" or "I want to be a nurse" or "I want to do something with science." It is just really, really neat to see. (Vol. I, p. 34)
Debbie did admit that the cow specimens were much more of a challenge for her to handle than when she used pig specimens. Pig specimens are about half the size of the cow so they weigh less and students are not as easily grossed out by them; Debbie said, "[The cow specimens] were nasty. They were big. I would not do cows again. They were gross" (Vol. I, p. 35).
I asked Debbie about her caring attitude toward her students, and she replied,
What it has to really come down to is that you really have to care about them. Its not so much the science Im teaching as it is being happy at school, getting along well with others, interacting, cooperating, the basic life skills. Its not going to be so important that they remember what a "protist" is as its going to be [whether] they like science. . . . I think that being happy at school and just enjoying learning is just paramount to success. If theyre unhappy because theyre always getting in trouble and theyre not doing their work, its just like this vicious snowball. . . . Sometimes kids come and they feel like theyre dumb or they cant do [schoolwork] or other kids dont like them. There are so many issues that they come with. Maybe their parents are getting divorced or they come with a lot of unhappiness from home. Their parents get in a fight; things arent everything [they] should be. I think its so important to have them feel like school is a safe, fun, enjoyable place to be and that they can overcome. Theyre not dumb. They can participate. Other kids can work well with them. Sometimes they just need to be shown how though or helped [with] making friends or helped in different ways that make them feel successful at school. (Vol. I, pp. 40-41)
Debbie expressed enjoyment and an understanding of middle school students. She described her students,
Twelve year olds and 11 year olds are just so full of energy and are so anxious to learn. If you can tap into that, they are thrilled about school and theyre so much fun to work with. There are so many things they dont know and yet theyre ready to learn. . . . Its just a really fun, energetic kind of quirky sort of weird group to work with. Theyve got . . . things that you have to be so tolerant of. Theyre bouncing off the walls and they can hardly contain themselves. Their little bodies are just everywhere and [their stuff is] all over the floor. . . . Most of them are so disorganized. . . . The things that we find so incredibly important they just dont get. They just dont get where our perspective is coming from. . . . Theyre just these fascinating creatures. I just really enjoy the age group. (Vol. I, p. 28)
In my very first conversation with Debbie, she commented that she feels sorry for middle schoolers whose teachers do not understand them. Empathy toward students is an essential characteristic for teachers to have. The teachers roles in the middle school classroom go far beyond merely teaching academic content. Debbie believes teachers need to help students get organized and learn how to conduct themselves. She said, "If they already knew how to discipline themselves they wouldnt need us" (Vol. I, p. 2).
When relating to her students and determining how to deal with a given situation, Debbie said,
I think . . . "If [this] was my child in this classroom, what would I want for them? . . . If I was a parent and I was in this classroom watching the teacher, Am I doing what that parent would want? Am I interacting? Am I building the esteem? Am I giving the positive strokes? . . . Would that parent be happy that I was treating their child that way?" I try to teach that way. . . . If Im having a private conversation with a kid I always try to think to myself, "If the parent was standing right there listening to this [conversation], would this be the way they wanted me to approach their child and help their child?" . . . By thinking about it from other adults perspective, especially important adults to that childs life, I think that helps me maintain my composure and my patience in the . . . things I say to the kids. (Vol. I, p. 37)
In addition to establishing trusting relationships with her students and looking at them through the eyes of a parent, Debbie also seeks out a few students who seem especially troubled and with whom she senses she can make a difference:
Every year I try to make a special connection with somebody that I know is really floundering and that maybe I can help. . . . I can tell we have a good match in personalities . . . and that maybe I can make a difference. I try, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesnt. . . . Sometimes its a couple, two or three kids, that I think I can maybe help out in some way. I just really try to give them a lot of positive strokes and put notes in their lockers and just really try to build them up. (Vol. I, p. 39)
The fact that students are constantly milling around in Debbies classroom before and after school presents evidence that they feel welcome in her classroom. In many ways, her classroom environment feels like a homey kitchen with a stay-at-home mom whose entire life is devoted to her children. Debbie laughed and talked comfortably with her students about their day and events in their lives. To a student who kept repeating that she had "thrown up" after dissecting the cow lungs, Debbie placed her arm around the girls shoulder and suggested they call it a "tummy rumble" (Vol. I, p. 10). At the same time several students were playing with Charlie, Debbies snake, and the goldfish in the classroom. These students were also involved in easy conversation with Debbie.
Recognizing how important appearance is to middle school females, Debbie frequently compliments her girls. These compliments range from noticing a new barrette to an entire outfit. One day Sandi, a petite female, walked past Debbie, Debbie commented that she liked her dress and asked if it was new. Sandi remarked that the dress belonged to her sister, but she herself had never worn it before. Sandi elaborated that her sister gave her permission to wear the dress to school, and Debbie remarked that she must have a nice sister. A few minutes after the conversation with Sandi, Jackie walked past Debbie. Jackie was wearing a long, light blue, flowered skirt with big, clumsy sneakers. One of the sneakers was untied. Though Debbie and I exchanged amused glances, Debbie complimented Jackie on her skirt which was indeed an attractive article of clothing.
Debbie not only relates to students at school but also in her home. One of her students lives on the same street as Debbie, and this student is a frequent visitor at Debbies home. Other students also know where she lives and periodically come by to visit.
The students respond to Debbies love and care for them in kind. One student bought a rose for Debbie and brought it over to her house. It was at the end of a particularly stressful day for Debbie, and she had a cold at the time so the gift from her student was especially meaningful.
Some of Debbies previous students continue to keep in touch with her. A student Debbie had last year called to tell her that she had just gotten a dog. Earlier when Debbie was her teacher, this student was devastated because she thought she was going to get a dog, but then it did not work out for her. She called Debbie long distance to share her excitement.
Debbie discovered that one of her former male students developed an unusual reaction to a Hepatitus-B shot he received. He was paralyzed and in the hospital. His prognosis was uncertain and Debbie lamented the fact that she lived too far away to make a trip to the hospital to visit him and his family. She did, however, find pictures she had of him and his class from a weekend they had spent at Debbies cabin by the lake. Debbie mailed a card and the pictures to the student.
Debbie manages student behavior by building relationships with her students. Understanding students lives, their personal situations, and challenges is a top priority of hers. This requires extra effort and time on Debbies part, but she does it because she cares deeply about each student and wants to make school a safe, enjoyable place for them. She said,
Its just really important . . . when we see stress [in students lives] or we see that maybe something is on their minds to try to reach out and find out whats going on and talk to them. . . . Sometimes it can make a really big difference. (Vol. I, p. 80)
Finding those few minutes for one-on-one interaction with students is a continuing challenge for Debbie. She commented that when she taught in a self-contained classroom, it was much easier to find time to speak with individual students. In the middle school where she sees students only for a 44-minute period it is much more difficult to establish individual rapport with students. There are times when Debbie gives up her lunch time and asks students to come to her classroom so they have some time alone to talk about the students personal needs. Understanding if students troubled behavior is the result of a dying grandmother, a dogs death, a fight with a friend, or a conflict with a parent allows Debbie to deal with deeper issues in students lives rather than attempting to merely change inappropriate behavior.
Debbie is quick to build up her students with positive reinforcement and expressing appreciation and praise for their behavior. After the lung dissection project, a student was helping Debbie clean up the classroom. As he was carrying the large, heavy yellow garbage bags of leftover organ parts, Debbie complimented him on the job he was doing and expressed her gratitude for his assistance.
There are times when Debbie addresses specific behavior with her class. During a discussion about students science projects, the students excitement outweighed their desire to listen to Debbies directions. While she was addressing the entire class, the students began a number of conversations among themselves. Debbie interrupted their conversations by saying, "Excuse me. I am talking. Are you going to listen?" (Vol. I, p. 58). Even when Debbie does decide to be confrontive, she does it in a polite, caring manner.
One morning a male student came speeding into the classroom. As he passed Debbie, she said, "Are you in a hurry to get to science today?" (Vol. I, p. 62) and chuckled a bit. Debbie was able to communicate her message about his need to slow down in a positive, relaxed manner rather than allowing herself to be upset and confrontive by his choice of behavior.
I was intrigued by Debbies method of getting students to clean up after themselves. When they had completed reviewing for the science semester exam by playing a bingo game, the students left the lab tables where they had been playing the game in a mess and moved back to their individual desks. Debbie asked, "Did you like bingo? Do you want to play bingo again?" to which the students enthusiastically responded, "Yes!" Then Debbie continued, "Do I want to pick up candy wrappers? Do I want to pick up green squares? Do I want to make sure there are four chairs at each lab table?" (Vol. I, p. 20). Even before Debbie was finished asking these questions, the students en masse rushed over to clean up the lab section of the classroom. Debbie kept moving among them saying, "Its looking better!" (Vol. I, p. 20).
Debbie sees students parents as an important part of the school family. Repeatedly in our conversations about the various schools in which she had taught, she would not only mention her colleagues in a positive light and her students as having been wonderful, but she also talked about how supportive many of the students parents were. I also noticed that parents frequently visited Debbies classroom. Sometimes it was to pick up assignments because a child had missed school due to illness, while other times it was to pick up the student after school. Regardless of the reason for the parents visit, Debbie always took time to chat with them.
One morning when I arrived in Debbies classroom, she was excited about some animal specimens one students mother brought for her. This parent works for a veterinarian and had brought things from recent surgeries that she thought Debbie might be interested in showing to her science classes. The specimens included a tape worm and a dog ovary with a tumor. Debbie was thrilled by the gift and eagerly anticipated showing them to her students so they could see what these actually looked like rather than just reading and hearing about them. She also commented that she wants to see if this veterinary clinic would be willing to regularly donate things to her classroom.
During the weeks that students were working on their science projects, Debbie set aside Tuesday evenings, 6:30-8:30 p.m. for parents and students to come to her classroom and work on the projects. This allowed Debbie to talk directly with the parents and answer any questions they may have had about the project. It also allowed parents to partner with their students on a topic of interest to the student. During this time students and their parents used the internet, various reference books, and worked on students displays. Debbies husband, Jim, was also present during some of these evenings which allowed him to interact with students and parents and for them to get acquainted with him.
In spite of the current level of involvement parents have in Debbies classroom, she would like to see them even more involved. She is already planning to arrange for parents to clean lab supplies, gather items for future labs, make bulletin boards, and help with special classroom projects next school year.
From the moment I first spoke with Debbie via telephone until my final meeting with her, I was impressed with her caring, positive, cheerful, attitude toward life and about people. I was intrigued by this and wondered where it came from. Was this attitude a "Pollyanna" approach to life? Had Debbies life always been happy and sheltered from sorrow? Or was this attitude one that she adopted and integrated into her life?
As I got to know Debbie, I realized that she has experienced difficulties in life and has not been immune to pain. She has made a deliberate choice to approach life in a positive manner and to share her happiness with others. I saw this attitude permeate what Debbie does and is. In sharing herself with others, I see four beliefs which undergird Debbies life: Relationships are valuable, love unconditionally, enjoy the present, and create a safe classroom. I will now discuss these four beliefs and how I observed them in Debbies life.
It was not until our last formal interview that I asked Debbie to draw a life map for me. Debbie drew her life map as a semantic web. The center she labeled "My Life" (Vol. I, p. 92) with six spokes leading out of the center. Each of these spokes dealt with relationships in her life, and it is relationships which give Debbie meaning and joy in life.
As an only child Debbie had the opportunity to develop close relationships with her parents. These relationships remain an integral part of her life as an adult. My first clue to this came one Saturday when I called Debbie, and her husband, Jim, told me Debbie was shopping with her mother. Debbie later told me she sees her parents almost every weekend and "Were best friends" (Vol. I, p. 41).
Teaching allows Debbie to develop relationships. The times Debbie mentioned the difficulty she experienced in switching to another school, she always included the need to establish new relationships. She also expressed regret that students she once taught were unable to come back to her classroom to visit as they moved on to other grades because she was in a different district. As Debbie observed, "I am always interacting with kids" (Vol. I, p. 36) which allows her to develop deep relationships with them. Receiving long-distance phone calls from students in the district where she once taught attest to the depth of these relationships.
It is also easy to sense and observe that students enjoy relating to Debbie. Seldom was she alone in her classroom. Students were constantly milling around her classroom, chatting with Debbie about life and their interests, or playing with the animals in her room. Students reluctance to leave her classroom at the end of the day points to the level of comfort they feel in relating to Debbie.
Students parents are also valued in Debbies classroom and it appears that they sense her welcome. Debbie seeks to develop relationships with students parents and to become part of their lives and the wider community. Parents feel free to drop in to talk about students, pick up study materials, and contribute items to the classroom.
Throughout her teaching career, Debbies colleagues have been an essential part of her life. She spoke of the "fellow mentoring type of teachers that [she] could . . . talk to and know that [she] could say the truth" to during her early years of teaching (Vol. I, p. 84). This interaction was not limited to Debbies professional life, but also included her personal life:
[Having] somebody that you can vent to is really important in the teaching profession and . . . venting about things that are going on in your personal life too. Having that support of knowing that there are people that you can tell really whats going on behind the scenes and get emotional support from . . . is really important. (Vol. I, p. 84)
A number of times when Debbie discussed her life map, she talked about being loved unconditionally and how important it was and is for her to experience this love. She in turn gives this love to others: Her husband, parents, extended family, students, and people in general. I too was touched by her love in a personal way.
Debbie spoke of three specific relationships she currently has in which she experiences unconditional love. Her parents were the first to love her. She knew that she could always rely on them and that "they loved [her] no matter what, supported [her] no matter what [she] did" (Vol. I, p. 90). Her husband, Jim, is also an essential aspect of feeling loved. She said, "[I feel] very fortunate to know that no matter what happens in my life he will be there for me" (Vol. I, p. 90). The third relationship where Debbie feels and has felt unconditional love is with her pets. She commented, "Ive had a lot of pets. I always think pets are a really important part of life because they are unconditional in their love. So no matter how youre feeling, they are there for you" (Vol. I, p. 90).
In the classroom, Debbie is constantly reaching out to her students. She does this both through her words and actions. Debbie talked about the fact that she does not have an actual desk in her classroom because she never uses one. She is constantly roaming the classroom and interacting with students. This allows her to help students more effectively with academic content while also sending the message that she is interested and concerned enough about them as individuals to come to them instead of waiting for them to come to her.
Debbie believes an important quality for a teacher to have is to show interest in students outside of the classroom setting, to see students in the whole of their lives rather than focusing only on their academic performance in the classroom. Debbie takes the time to talk with students and find out about their home lives, their interests, and their hurts. She sometimes writes encouraging notes to students who are struggling and places the notes in their lockers. Debbie understands that students have difficulty focusing on academic tasks when they are overwhelmed by personal problems.
Debbie frequently expressed an interest in my life at both professional and personal levels. She often asked about my work as a student teacher supervisor and became very interested in my efforts at finding my first full-time job in teacher education. Her encouragement and advice touched my heart and helped me believe in myself, and her genuine joy when I was successful in landing a job allowed me to experience firsthand the power of her care for others.
As a child Debbie was taught that life is to be enjoyed and experienced. Her parents encouraged her to become involved in a wide variety of activities and to accept new challenges. They urged her to try activities which may not have appealed to her initially but to at least see if she might not find them enjoyable and appealing. Debbie credits this attitude in her parents as helping her to willingly accept new challenges and to try new things. As a result, Debbie views life as an adventure to be lived and explored.
Debbie is genuinely contented with life and is a happy person. She commented,
Im happy with myself. Im happy with where Im at in my life. Im happy with my marriage. Im happy with my job. . . . Im not consumed by beating myself up over the fact that I dont have the job I want or I dont have the marriage I really want or I dont have the family that I want. I have a lot of happiness in my life. (Vol. I, p. 79)
This happiness is not merely the consequence of an easy life or one lived without disappointments and unexpected changes. Debbie discussed a number of challenging times in her life. Living far away from her family during the early years as a professional and seeing the relationship with the person she and everyone else assumed would become her husband disintegrate were difficult years for her. One of Debbies close friends died suddenly at the age of 41 of a brain aneurysm, and Debbie and her husband know what it means to live constantly with illness because Jim is diabetic.
Enjoying life is a conscious decision Debbie has made and she works to focus on the positive aspects of life. She said,
I know what [it] is to walk that fine line between enjoying every single day the best that you can possibly enjoy it because you really have absolutely no guarantee about the next hour. . . . You dont know whats going to happen tomorrow. . . . I have to look at where Im expending my energy and where Im going to get the most bang for my buck. . . . I just look at each day as . . . I might as well be happy. I might as well enjoy it. . . . [I have] a real appreciation that life can be very short. . . . Live in the present. Enjoy right now. Dont worry about tomorrow or yesterday. I cant change yesterday. Im here right now. I should be enjoying our [time] with each other as much as possible. . . . Why worry about tomorrow? Tomorrows not here yet and what if tomorrow doesnt come? So I really try to . . . say to myself, especially when Im having a frustrating moment, "Now we should be enjoying this moment. What good can we gather from this moment right now? What positives can I pull out of this because this is it. This is life.". . . I really try to focus on enjoying every day. (Vol. I, pp. 79-80)
Each day Debbie and her husband write in their gratitude journals. They write down four or five things they consider good things which occurred during that day. It may be something small such as receiving a chocolate chip cookie from a student or noting that Jim did the dishes, but daily Debbie identifies things about which to be grateful. This helps her realize that there is much in life to enjoy and also motivates her to reach out to others.
It is important to Debbie that students feel loved, accepted, safe, and happy in her classroom. Her positive outlook on life is evident in her interactions with students. She greets them cheerfully as they enter the classroom, she takes time to ask about events in their personal lives, she comments on their interests, and she welcomes the times they initiate conversations with her.
I was frequently struck with Debbies nurturance of her students. In many ways she seemed like a mother hen looking after her flock of baby chicks on the verge of venturing out into a cold, unknown world. Debbie is motherly with her students, she looks after them, she protects them, and she nurtures them. She was quick to recognize how nervous and stressed some of the sixth graders were about taking their first semester exams so she tried to build their confidence and prepared study guides that addressed what students needed to know to do well on the exams. When some of her exploratory students felt unable to stomach dissection day, she made provisions for them to go elsewhere while the rest of the class worked with animal lungs. Sixth graders who participated in choir were unable to take Debbies exploratory science class so she set aside a special time for them to dissect lungs. Debbie also frequently devoted her lunch period to meeting with students who had special needs or were struggling academically.
Students felt a sense of belonging and ownership in Debbies room. Before and after school they often wandered in to play with the classroom pets or to visit with Debbie. When a mother brought in some unusual animal specimens, students eagerly picked up the jars and inspected the contents. Debbies commitment to providing opportunities for her students to learn science through exploring science creates a sense of community in the classroom.
Having come from a nurturing home and providing the same type of environment for students is important to Debbie. She said,
I feel like Im part of [students] family. I touch their lives like their families touch their lives and sometimes I . . . spend more time with them . . . than some of their families do. I think that showing them love and giving them guidance the way my parents and family [gave] me is a really important part of teaching. I feel like Im close to them the way their families are close to them. I give them hugs. [This is their] home away from home. (Vol. I, p. 91)
The "home away from home" which Debbie provides for her students is a safe haven for them where they are valued and loved unconditionally.
Debbie summarized her professional life:
To teach is to touch a life forever. I think that when you touch a life, its really important to do it in a positive way. We have such power, such power to either crush [students] and just make them feel horrible about themselves and the world and learning and school. Or we have the power to bring them up to such heights that they . . . have never experienced before or to believe in themselves that they could do things they never thought they could do before. I think that as a teacher you need to keep in mind that the way you react to everything is such a motivator to your students. [It is] such an important thing to always be a role model and react with love and kindness because thats what they learn if thats what they see. (Vol. I, p. 91)
Not only does Debbie touch the lives of her students with love and kindness, but she uses the same powerful tools to touch the lives of those around her, her family, her colleagues, and others she meets. Debbie is by nature a nurturer and gives her cheerful love and acceptance to those whose lives intersect with hers. The house her life has built is full of unconditional love just waiting to be distributed to others.