(20) Children "At-Promise"

Mrs. Williams was a kindergarten teacher at Calliope School. She was tall and thin, African American, and wore her hair short in large curls. She was not a snappy dresser. Her work wardrobe was very plain, almost nun-like, a collection of dark A-line skirts and light-colored button-down shirts. This simple fashion sense coupled with a raspy voice made her seem older than her actual age which was forty-seven years old when we met. But once you got to know Mrs. Williams, you realized that there was something very special about her that transcended her age, her clothes and the times. She was a master teacher and good teaching is timeless.

On the first day of school, kindergarten students came to class ready to learn. There was not a lot of fussing or crying at the door. The Calliope School community had a strong Head Start program, and the incoming kindergarten students had already become familiar with classroom routines through their preschool experiences. The majority of students were on grade level or were on developmentally appropriate paths to learning. The children were too young to know this, but their teacher would be the main factor that would determine the trajectory of their learning. Mrs. Williams met her students at the door on the first day of school and these kids had lucked out.

The general quality of instruction at Calliope School was hit or miss. While Mrs. Prentiss was an extreme example of bad teaching, there were other teachers who were perfectly kind and well meaning, but whose classroom instruction lacked academic rigor. If you were a student in one of these classrooms, you would not likely make much academic growth in a year. You might even lose the skills that you had once mastered. If you had the bad luck of being assigned to a series of poorly trained teachers over a period of a few years, it would be extremely difficult to make up lost ground. If on the other hand, you were able to work with a series of highly skilled teachers, the achievement gap became small or ceased to exist.

Mrs. Williams was one of those highly skilled teachers and her students often exceeded the academic benchmarks that were set for them. Her lessons were well planned, exciting and challenging. I would duck into her classroom during my periods off so I could learn how she taught.

Mrs. Williams "wore her students out" by engaging them in collaborative activities where they would work with their classmates as learning partners or in small groups. They learned by doing. She led them to form opinions about stories that were read to them and taught them how to ask good questions. She stretched their vocabulary and had them write and illustrate their work every single day. She made them love math by making it meaningful. It wasn't unusual to see her walk her class through the school grounds as they collected data for a question that they were wondering about.

What made Mrs. Williams a truly extraordinary teacher was that she brainwashed her students with her high expectations of them. She cultivated their imaginations, their confidence in themselves, and taught them how to be resilient when they got stuck on a problem. These traits not only made her students strong learners, but strong people. That said, elementary students spend most of the school day with one teacher, so children who are already overcoming challenges in their everyday lives need a Mrs. Williams in their classroom every school year. Unfortunately, this doesn't usually happen.

On a personal note, I would only know Mrs. Williams for a short while. She was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of forty-nine and passed away a year later. I clearly remember her funeral service where I sat next to Mrs. Prentiss and in the company of hundreds of family, friends, colleagues and students who had packed into the small Baptist church to say good-bye.


  1. She sounds wonderful - oh why do the good die young? But she left a legacy for others - and left a permanent mark on many students lives -
    you were wise to observe her !

  2. I've lost count of the teachers I had from first grade through 12th. It's the worst and the best you tend to remember best. I only remember two who fit your description of Mrs. Williams.

  3. Great choice in image - complete the pattern, make your own pattern.

  4. This is tremendously moving. How can we learn from from Mrs. Williams, and teach these skills and approaches to young teachers - to make this approach, and not just test scores, our benchmark?
    Thanks very much for this wonderful post.

  5. She sounds a lot better than the nuns I had. Except for fifth grade, elementary school was The Lost Years for me. Luckily, I had parents that valued education and learning, so my deficit wasn't that great: Unlike these kids, I did not have to overcome many challenges in my everyday life. That's what makes the Mrs. Williams so special: They work successfully with kids who arrive in their class with a negative balance in the bank of life. That can't be easy.

    Reading your entry, I'm struck by the randomness: Draw mostly good teachers, and a kid has a fighting chance. Draw the ineffective ones, and education does not become a counterbalance for them. In other words, education may be a solution, but it sure helps if it's a good solution.

  6. @marcime By observing Mrs. Williams, I became her student in a way as well.

    @Gorges I didn't fare much better than you. Maybe 2-3 great ones.

    @M Thank you.

    @K I was struck by your idea that education is a counterbalance. It makes so much sense, especially when you think about the quality of the education than hangs in the balance.

  7. Sabine:

    I've now read your blog "cover to cover," at least to this point, and the only thing I can say is wow. I have other thoughts posted here: http://bartacus.blogspot.com/2010/05/blog-review-my-public-education-if.html but I wanted to thank you for what you've written and to please continue. I am learning a lot.


  8. All I can say is wow. Thank you so much Bartacus. I appreciate your point of view. Thank you for pointing out that we are all affected by what happens in the Calliope. When students don't receive a quality education, we all miss out on the tremendous potential they have to contribute to solving the world's problems.