My mom is a third grade teacher. She inspires, demonstrates, grades, crowd controls, chews out, laughs, and endures to educate a bunch of squirming 8-year-olds so that they may grow up to be competent members of society.
During the summer, she reads, prepares, and studies to ensure that she knows what she’s teaching and why it’s important.
It’s a hard job.
I occasionally depress her by telling what I remember from my own third grade experience. My teacher was a kind woman who asked me how I was doing whenever she saw me, but I don’t remember much more about third grade than a.) the time I got in trouble for whispering something clever to a friend; b.) that we studied China for concentrated studies and ate great egg rolls; and c.) the time the smart-aleck in the class got in trouble for calling her by her first name.
Two-thirds of my memories involve someone getting in trouble. Not a one involves learning anything. Mom is sad to hear this.
But Mom, I say, I’m prone to remembering when someone gets in trouble. Half of my childhood memories are about when I got in trouble or when you got mad.
Somehow saying this doesn’t help.
My mom, like most anybody, wants people to remember the good times, and like most teachers, she wants her kids to remember the facts she worked so hard to cram in their brains.
Third grade learning is like scaffolding, my mom tells me. You have to learn it first so you can build on it.
I’ll take that thought and raise her another. Third grade learning is like scaffolding, but it’s taken down as the building comes up.
Across the street from where I intern, construction workers labor on a new condo building, which will have 20 or more stories when completed. To help them get to floor 17, the approximate floor they added last week, they use a bright orange elevator attached to external scaffolding. Without it, how else would they make it up without staircases or internal elevators?
Once the building is closer to completion, they will take the scaffolding down as they work on the interior. But though they’re gone, those temporary structures were crucial in the construction of the building.
My third grade scaffolding is gone. I can’t tell you what I learned or how I learned it, but it is essential to what I’ve learned through college and even what I’m doing now in my internship.
I see what my mom’s kids are learning when I help grade papers or hear stories about her day. Topic sentences? Not quite there yet, but after years of practice, they’ll knock out those literary theory papers, no problem. (Well, no problem with the topic sentences, at least.) Addition of multi-digit numbers? They’ll work on this so that they can someday formulate an Excel spreadsheet to balance a personal or professional budget. General behavioral rules? Sitting still is really hard, but eventually they’ll attend college classes and board meetings with minimal fidgeting.
So teachers, don’t expect that your kids will tell you in fifteen years how you teaching them to carry the one deeply affected their lives. Don’t be ashamed if your kids instead remember the absolute chaos that ensued after a classmate fainted or that you made them watch awful videos on multiplication—though maybe those dumb rapping kids are the reason I can remember my times tables. Keep teaching, hoping that someday the girls chewing their nails and the boys eating paper will somewhat sort themselves out and use your scaffolding for the rest of their lives, even though it may be gone.
Thanks for all that you do.
Libby Stille (’13) lives in St. Paul and works in the marketing department of a children’s publishing company in downtown Minneapolis. She recommends that everyone visit the Twin Cities, but only between June and October, unless you enjoy subzero windchills and slipping on ice.