The holidays are approaching and teachers are worrying about what gift to buy for a roomful of students that they will enjoy for more than a day and will be affordable on a teacher's salary. Parents are puzzling over what to get the teachers that will endear their child to them and be a practical item. Will it be another pair of apple earrings, a Starbuck's gift card, or a lavendar bath set?
If a teacher could give anything he or she wishes to students and receive his or her heart's desire from them for the holidays, what would it be? If money were no object an intitial thought might be to bestow valuable learning tools to pupils such as the best encyclopedias, individual laptops to explore a world of knowledge, or a set of the best classics in children's literature. Realistically a teacher might settle for giving a set of personalized pencils, a popular paperback book, or a small art or craft kit. An endless list of gifts to receive is possible, but practically speaking a teacher would prefer a stationary set, a coffee mug warmer, or even holiday chocolates.
But if I could give to learners anything regardless of how expensive, inexpensive, practical, or impossible it is, it would be the simple wonder children once had toward being able to go to that mysterious place called school. Of course, this idea dates back to my childhood when children stayed home with mommy until entering first grade. In my small town there were no day cares, no nursery or preschool, and even no kindergarten. I watched my older sister leave home each morning and disappear down the road in that big, yellow school bus to a place forbidden to me and open to all those big kids. She would tell me stories of the friends she played with there and bring home books with strange pictures of people and places I didn't understand.
When my turn came in the weeks before beginning first grade, my mother took me to purchase school supplies. We got several "fat" pencils, a wide-lined primary tablet, scissors, a ruler, clear glue with a rubber applicator top, and a large box of crayons with colors I'd never seen.
The one purchase I'll never forget was the book satchel bought to carry all of those supplies. It was covered with a red plaid fabric and had a red handle to proudly carry it. On the top flap were two red straps and buckles and a clear plastic window to insert my name. I still remember the distinct smell of the fabric, which was like no other smell I've ever encountered. After organizing all of this for the first day of school, I looked at my new school shoes and dresses and marveled to myself, "Charlotte Stitt is in first grade," as if it should be broadcast on the local news station.
That fascination with being in school never left. The Halloween carnivals, the frequent school plays where I once played a fairie and Tom Thumb's mother, and reading Cowboy Sam books and Ted and Sally contributed to a little girl's lasting impressions. On one occasion the visiting Assistant Superintendent noticed the manuscript assignment I was working on and bragged about it to the class. She gathered it and a few others and displayed them in the county courthouse. Luckily she never saw how my handwriting later evolved into a sloppy mess by junior high.
Even memories of getting socked hard in the stomach during second grade recess by Larry Humphries and bearing the scars today of scraping my knees on cinders at the swing set, created a lifelong love of school that I wish I could pass onto contemporary children. There were no innovative teaching strategies or powerful teaching technology then, but instead there was a warm, human connection to the people and place called school.
A holiday gift that I would love to receive from my learners would be the respect for educators that we children had then. In spite of obvious teacher flaws, families admired the efforts of these people to help youngsters gain the tools to realize the American dream. Education was neither cheap nor easy then and was seen as the key to upward mobility. Maybe it was because our parents had seen hard times in the rural South and didn't have a lot of education themselves, but they taught us to get our education as "it was something no one could ever take away from you".
Homework, discipline, and obeying authority were expected by parents. Many kids admitted that if they got a spanking at school, then that meant another one at home. Teachers had the respect that doctors do today. They were seen as professionals who could help a family in a way that the parents didn't know how. They had a special knowledge and a special skill.
Later the mystery of teaching disappeared as magazines and newspapers printed articles questioning education's methods and results, reported law suits against a school's discipline techniques, and built an image of teachers as incompetent and untrustworthy. Educators are more trained, pressured by high standards, and held accountable more than ever before, but lack faith from the general public as never before.
Restoring in children a wonder for the learning process and the institutions that offer it would indeed be a gift. Likewise, receiving respect for the hard work that teachers go through, mostly at their own expense, from families would be a miracle as well. Education is much more complicated than it was in those innocent times of my childhood, but Christmas is a season when we travel back to simplier times and recapture those heartwarming values that keep us humans hoping. For me, that is all I want for Christmas.
C. S. Gordon is an educator and 360 Education Solutions contributor