When a student in my classroom didn’t match my teaching style, I often thought back–way back–to my year in sixth grade. That year I had two identities, one for Miss Bordeaux and one for Mrs. Watts. In the morning with Miss Bordeaux I was a good kid. Miss Bordeaux wore starched white blouses and dark skirts and ordered her world and ours. She played soft classical music when she first woke up each morning, she told us. Then just before she left for school, she switched to marching music. She continued this beat at school, stepping us through her class. In Miss Bordeaux’s room, the air felt fresh, like someone had opened a window.
Most of my classmates didn’t like the way Miss Bordeaux went ballistic if you said ain’t, or if you came to school with dirty nails or if you didn’t sit up straight. They especially hated that Miss Bordeaux made us write papers, long ones with a thesis and supporting points. She filled our papers with lots of red edits and suggestions.
I loved to read her markings. Her red pen showed my wordiness and left my writing bare and beautiful. Sometimes I noticed her watching me as I read those red marks, nodding her head. Miss Bordeaux always seemed to find the good in me, even when I messed up.
But over lunch, I seemed to change. Most students were glad for the switch to Mrs. Watts in the afternoon, but with Mrs. Watts, I felt scatterbrained. I daydreamed, lost pencils, and forgot assignments. All this exasperated Mrs. Watts, and she watched for my flightiness. One day, for example, when I left my books at home once again, Mrs. Watts assigned me to write 500 times “I will not forget my books.” I fought the tedium by writing all the “I”’s, then all the “will”s, then ten complete sentences. And on and on.
The next day, I took these 500 sentences to Mrs. Watts who tore them into shreds in front of me. And, pointing to the boots I had left at school the afternoon before, gave me another assignment: “I will not forget my boots,” written 500 times. As I wrote, all I could think was that the two sets of sentences were different by only one letter. And that I’d never use this punishment when I was a teacher.
I fit, it seemed, with Miss Bordeaux, not with Mrs. Watts. And decades later when I taught sixth grade, I found in my classroom students who didn’t match my teaching style. With those students, especially, I took special care to find the good in them.