Giving Thanks to Teachers

By on November 25, 2012

It was a Spring day during my senior year of college at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) in Cedar Falls, and I was living with my five best friends when the phone rang. As I picked it up and said "Hello?", all I heard on the other end of the line was a male’s voice shouting "HENNY PENNY, HENNY PENNY, HENNY PENNY!!" I stopped and immediately began processing and questioning, "Who on earth....?" NO ONE called me "Henny Penny" -- except for one person. in the whole. wide. world. My Aunt Cecilia (aka Aunt CeCe).

"Who is this?" I asked.

"It’s me, Stu," the voice answered. Stu was one of our friends at UNI and was an education major.

"Stu, how do you know about 'Henny Penny?'" I asked.

He went on to tell me that, of all the random occurrences in the world, his student teaching assignment landed him at the very same elementary school in Ottumwa, Iowa, where my Aunt CeCe was a teacher. See, Aunt CeCe always called me Henny Penny growing up, so after all those years to hear it on the other end of the phone, what a small world!

Aunt CeCe & Uncle Jack (also a teacher - music!)
Aunt CeCe & Uncle Jack

So about my Aunt CeCe. She is retired now, but before that, she taught first, second, third and fourth grades for nearly forty years in a small town in Iowa. She also is a graduate of UNI (go Panthers!), which, please forgive the sidebar, was founded due to a long-perceived need for an Iowa public institution devoted to the training of teachers. The result was an institution that has trained generations of teachers and others for nearly 125 years. And my Aunt CeCe is one of the greatest.

University of Northern Iowa Campus
University of Northern Iowa Campus

So Stu, like everybody else, loved Aunt CeCe. From her fellow teachers and co-workers to her students, everyone just liked to be around her. She has a way of making everyone feel special and important. I think that’s one of the key ingredients that made her such a beloved teacher. Aunt CeCe is just one of those people who everybody loves.

As a self-described lifetime learner, Aunt CeCe has a great love of literature and reading, which she passed along to her students. She would tell them, “If you can read, you can do anything. Reading is where it’s at.” Sounds like my Aunt CeCe. So true.

Anyway, Aunt CeCe and I chatted over the Thanksgiving holiday, and I asked her some questions about the evolution of education from her perspective, and strategies and skills that she employed over the course of her career.

First things first, she told me, you have to like kids. Period. I guess I never thought about it, but I can see how that might help. :) She went on to tell me you have to establish rapport and trust with children -- show that you believe in them, so that they, in turn, believe in you. This is very important groundwork to lay....before reading, writing and learning can even begin.

She then described third grade, the grade that she primarily taught, as a literacy transition year for students. Print writing transitioned to cursive writing; addition and subtraction morphed into multiplication and division; and learning to read paved the way to reading to learn.

Before reading a story, she introduced such skills as making predictions from previewing the title, looking at the Table of Contents and Glossary, or scanning pictures, as well as teaching critical concepts.

She was quick to note that, during reading, understanding an author's inference could be complicated for students. So, as an example, she modeled [Cause/Effect], having students read a page or two, and discussing what happened and what they thought would happen next.

And after reading, she and her students would discuss the story’s conclusion, brainstorm how they might have changed the story, and summarize the author's main ideas and intent.

What she told me was most rewarding about this process was when her students were excited about a story they read, so much so that they would go to the library to find other books by same author or search out stories of the same genre. She also began to introduce more and more nonfiction pieces into her teaching, whether for science or social studies.

We finished our chat with me asking her what one piece of advice she had for both new and veteran teachers alike. And she responded, "Allow yourself to be open, and you will learn so much from your students."

And then she followed that up with one of the most poignant, yet beautifully simple, statements of our entire conversation: Teaching is a hard job, and it is extremely hard to do well.

So to all of the teachers out there like my Aunt CeCe who put in all of the hard work, dedication and passion for learning to help students be their very best, THANK YOU.

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