I remember many of my teachers fondly, so it is difficult to pick a favorite in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week. Therefore, I’ve decided to write about my FIRST favorite teacher, Mrs. Joy Sherman. As an educator myself, I now recognize many of the teaching strategies that today are known as those belonging to very effective teachers.

the author in 3rd grade

Here’s a photo of 3rd grade me circa 1983-84 

Mrs. Sherman differentiated instruction long before there was a half-dollar word for teaching students at their individual levels. As one of the third generation of a journalism family, I was (like my parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents) a voracious reader. Though other teachers made me stick to the prescribed curriculum for our 3rd grade level (snooze), Mrs. Sherman let me plow through the entire stock of required readers and then let me start picking hardback books (that were — gasp! — supposedly “above my level”) from her classroom library.

I sped through all my work and books, which resulting in my getting bored in class a lot. I would stare out the window once I had read all my textbooks, everything on the walls, my classmates T-shirts, and anything else I could see or reach. I’m sure my other teachers noticed this but likely had their hands full with my classmates and other duties. Since I wasn’t disruptive, I was usually left to my own devices.

Mrs. Sherman, on the other hand, was concerned enough that she looked for enrichment activities. She decided to teach me about genealogy when I finished my work early. I found the subject fascinating and was soon delighted to discover my aunt and grandfather had been enjoying the study of our family history for years.

Due to today’s emphasis on high stakes standardized tests, students aren’t ALLOWED to have weak areas (though the rest of us are). It is common practice today to have students spend extra time in the school day working on their weak areas. Because they already know they aren’t good in that subject, they’re generally not excited about or motivated to do the work.

Mrs. Sherman didn’t force me to spend extra time working on my weak area, math. Instead, she helped me grow and build on my strengths. I believe that Mrs. Sherman and our gym teacher (another highly effective teacher, Mrs. Campbell) collaborated to put on a program about our state. Mrs. Sherman wisely made this bookworm child the narrator of the Oklahoma program, and thus sneakily gave my shy 9-year-old self some practice in presentation skills by building on what I was already good at. Like other effective teachers, she knew to start with my comfort zone (reading), and then pushed me just a little past it.

Another trait Mrs. Sherman shared with other great teachers was her willingness to learn.  At that time, third grade was the year students began learning to write in cursive. I dutifully copied the paper and hand position Mrs. Sherman demonstrated at the board. One day, the observant teacher noticed that this left-handed bookworm was bending her wrist at 90-degree angle so as to see what she’d just written. Mrs. Sherman realized that I had tilted my paper, as instructed, the direction for right-handed writers.

Mrs. Sherman next did something COMPLETELY unexpected: she bent down to eye level with me and admitted she’d taught me incorrectly since I was left-handed, and she APOLOGIZED, saying she would find a better way to teach me, which she soon did. This was an epiphany for me. Even teachers made mistakes and had to work at learning?! Teachers aren’t supposed to know everything already? That means I don’t have to know it all already either! What a relief!

220px-TRS-80_Model_3_01

My teacher had one of these bad boys (or something similar) in our classroom back in 1983! How’s that for an ed tech early adopter?!

Parent involvement has been proven to be one of the most important factors in student success. Mrs. Sherman bravely let my dad put a computer in her classroom so that students could play a math game (Dad, I see what you did there!) if they finished their work early. Mind you, this was in 1983, people. It was a big clunky Radio Shack PC running an educational math game on MSDOS, not those fancy, schmanchy PORTABLE devices with the INTERNET many of you young whipper snappers have in your elementary classrooms today! But did that stop Mrs. Sherman from learning how to use it with us? Of course not!

That students know their teacher truly cares about them is critical for their learning from her or him. I was sure Mrs. Sherman cared about me and my classmates. I can still visualize her genuine smile that lit up her whole face.

The foundation Mrs. Sherman laid was built upon by subsequent influential teachers. I slayed my math demons in College Algebra by earning an A (thanks, Dr. Maharry), honed those presentation skills under the tutelage of Mrs. Bradt in speech and debate competition, read through great Literature under Mrs. Holder, Mrs. Ehrlich, Dr. Steed, and Dr. Yates, and, as for my handwriting . . . well, three out of four isn’t too bad, right?