It’s a beautiful story but…

8.26.14 Teddy's Shoes iStock_000033354782_SmallThis is a long one but I think you’ll find it’s worth it.

I don’t like having my emotions manipulated without my permission.  I do frequently give my permission.  I have a fondness for Frank Capra movies.  I can recite lines from “It’s a Wonderful Life” before they are spoken on the screen and I still cry at every tearjerking scene.  But the important issue here is that with movies, I seek out this emotional catharsis.  It isn’t thrust upon me with the tacit message that if I don’t feel the right emotions at the right moments I must probably be missing something as a human being.

One day, while teaching, I (as well as the whole school district) was subjected to just such emotional manipulation by a high ranking district administrator.  All schools and offices were sent an INTEROFFICE CORRESPONDENCE labeled A TRUE STORY.  It is the Teddy Stoddard story (two versions follow below – the original and mine).  You may have heard of it.  It is a wonderful parable about the power of love.  I can’t read it without getting choked up, until I remember it was sent to me to deliver a message: all we need to do is love and understand our students and they will all succeed.

It’s bad enough that the high ranking district administrator didn’t research his facts to find out that the Teddy Stoddard story is not a true story. (according to:  Google or www.truthorfiction.com/rumors/t/teddy.htm#UznufSgmXTQ)  It is a work of fiction by Elizabeth Silance Ballard published in HomeLife magazine in 1976.  But the real sadness here is that it shows how insensitive someone with 44 years of experience (the high ranking district administrator) is regarding the real problems facing teachers, such as overcrowded classrooms, not enough time to do the job effectively or conflicting district mandates.  I’ll expand on this after you read Ms. Ballard’s version.

The following version of this parable was written by Elizabeth Silance Ballard.

There is a story many years ago of an elementary teacher.  Her name was Mrs. Thompson.  And as she stood in front of her 5th grade class on the very first day of school, she told the children a lie.  Like most teachers, she looked at her students and said that she loved them all the same.  But that was impossible, because there in the front row, slumped in his seat, was a little boy named Teddy Stoddard.  Mrs. Thompson had watched Teddy the year before and noticed that he didn’t play well with the other children, that his clothes were messy and that he constantly needed a bath.  And Teddy could be unpleasant.  It got to the point where Mrs. Thompson would actually take delight in marking his papers with a broad red pen, making bold X’s and then putting a big “F” at the top of his papers.

At the school where Mrs. Thompson taught, she was required to review each child’s past records and she put Teddy’s off until last.  However, when she reviewed his file, she was in for a surprise.  Teddy’s first grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is a bright child with a ready laugh.  He does his work neatly and has good manners…he is a joy to be around.”  His second grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is an excellent student, well-liked by his classmates, but he is troubled because his mother has a terminal illness and life at home must be a struggle.”  His third grade teacher wrote, “His mother’s death has been hard on him.  He tries to do his best but his father doesn’t show much interest and his home life will soon affect him if some steps aren’t taken”  Teddy’s fourth grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is withdrawn and doesn’t show much interest in school.  He doesn’t have many friends and sometimes sleeps in class.”  By now, Mrs. Thompson realized the problem and she was ashamed of herself.

She felt even worse when her students brought her Christmas presents wrapped in beautiful ribbons and bright paper, except for Teddy’s.  His present was clumsily wrapped in the heavy, brown paper that he got from a grocery bag.  Mrs. Thompson took pains to open it in the middle of the other presents.  Some of the children started to laugh when she found a rhinestone bracelet with some of the stones missing and a bottle that was one quarter full of perfume.  But she stifled the children’s laughter when she exclaimed how pretty the bracelet was, putting it on, and dabbing some of the perfume on her wrist.  Teddy Stoddard stayed after school that day just long enough to say, “Mrs. Thompson, today you smelled just like my Mom used to.”  After the children left she cried for at least an hour.

On that very day, she quit teaching reading, and writing and arithmetic.  Instead, she began to teach children.  Mrs. Thompson paid particular attention to Teddy.  As she worked with him, his mind seemed to come alive.  The more she encouraged him, the faster he responded.  By the end of the year, Teddy had become one of the smartest children in the class and, despite her lie that she would love all the children the same, Teddy became one of her “teacher’s pets.”

A year later, she found a note under her door, from Teddy, telling her that she was still the best teacher he ever had in his whole life.  Six years went by before she got another note from Teddy.  He then wrote that he had finished high school second in his class, and she was still the best teacher he ever had in his whole life.  Four years after that, she got another letter, saying that while things had been tough at times, he’d stayed in school, had stuck with it, and would soon graduate from college with the highest of honors.  He assured Mrs. Thompson that she was still the best and favorite teacher he ever had in his whole life.  Then four more years passed and yet another letter came.  This time he explained that she was still the best and favorite teacher he ever had.  But now his name was a little longer.  The letter was signed, Theodore F. Stoddard, M.D.

The story doesn’t end there.  You see, there was yet another letter that spring.  Teddy said he’d met this girl and was going to be married.  He explained that his father had died a couple of years ago and he was wondering if Mrs. Thompson might agree to sit in the place at the wedding that usually was reserved for the mother of the groom.  Of course, Mrs. Thompson did.  And guess what?  She wore that bracelet, the one with several rhinestones missing.  And she made sure she was wearing the perfume that Teddy remembered his mother wearing on their last Christmas together.  They hugged each other, and Dr. Stoddard whispered in Mrs. Thompson’s ear, “Thank you, Mrs, Thompson for believing in me.  Thank you so much for making me feel important and showing me that I could make a difference.”   Mrs. Thompson, with tears in her eyes whispered back.  She said, “Teddy, you have it all wrong.  You were the one who taught me that I could make a difference.  I didn’t know how to teach until I met you.

That fictional parable was written by Elizabeth Silance Ballard.

 

Now don’t get me wrong.  I do believe in the power of love.  I think Ms. Ballard has written a beautifully wonderful parable.  I have even heard it used in a religious sermon.  But it is not representative of a real classroom experience.  And for a high ranking district administrator to pass it off as a true story shows how little that administrator knows about real teaching and the law.

For example:

In 25 years of being a public school teacher I have never heard of any teacher who “would actually take delight in marking… papers with a broad red pen, making bold X’s and then putting a big “F” at the top of (the)… papers.”  That is fiction!  It hurts us when our children don’t achieve – even when it is due to circumstances beyond our control.  But this was a fictional parable.

And I want to see the classroom in which only one student needs special attention.  Was Teddy the only kid in crisis?  I’ve never had a class where only one student needed extra attention.  And special attention for each child in crisis takes a lot of time.  Also it must be nice to work at a school where there are no outside the classroom duties to distract you from loving the kids.  But remember, this was a fictional parable.  In my version which follows, every one of the interruptions is legitimate and probably necessary.  But parents, politicians and administrators need to understand that there are only 24 hours in a day and too often we teachers are expected to do 48 hours of work in a 24 hour day (forget about eating or sleeping or having a life outside of the classroom).

And didn’t that high ranking district administrator know the law for our district?  In our district it’s against the law to celebrate religious holidays.  It’s also very much against the law to accept gifts from students.  They could be interpreted as bribes and they tend to unfairly discriminate against our more disadvantaged students who might not be able to bring gifts.  But this was a fictional parable.

Since that high ranking district administrator’s “feel good version” of the story sounded so different from my experience, and frustrated me so much, I wanted to share a different, possibly more realistic version with the entire school community.  Maybe this will remind the powers that be why so many good teachers quit in frustration and seek out careers where they are treated like adults and professionals.

The following version of this parable was written by P. M. DeVuono

SUBJECT:  A TRUER STORY?

This is a story from many years ago, of an elementary school teacher.  Her name was Mrs. Thompson.  And as she stood in front of her 5th grade class, on the very first day of school, she told the children a lie.  Like most teachers, she looked at her students and said that she loved them all the same.  But that was impossible, because there in the front row, slumped in his seat, was a little boy named Teddy Stoddard.  Mrs. Thompson had watched Teddy the year before and noticed that he didn’t play well with the other children, that his clothes were messy and that he constantly needed a bath.  And Teddy’s behavior could also be unpleasant.  It got to the point where Mrs. Thompson became concerned with how often she would have to mark his papers with her broad red pen, trying to make the red X’s not look so bold and then sadly putting an “F” at the top.

In the district where Mrs. Thompson taught, she was expected to review each child’s past records, but there were always so many other paper work tasks that were required and took precedence, that the reviewing of students’ records continually seemed to get put off.  But Mrs. Thompson was a dedicated teacher, and worked to get as much information about her students as she could.  So, she took time from lesson planning and grading student work, after school, to find Teddy’s cumulative record.  As she started to read Teddy’s file she was surprised to see that his first grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is a bright child with a ready laugh.  He does his work neatly and has good manners…he is a joy to be around.”  Mrs. Thompson had just started to read that Teddy’s second grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is an excellent student…” when she was interrupted and called to an emergency faculty meeting to review the new district standards for campus safety, so she had to put off learning details about Teddy for another day.  Mrs. Thompson planned to read Teddy’s file after school the next day but Mr. Ramirez, the father of one of her other students, wanted to conference with her about his child’s progress.  Mrs. Thompson would have stayed late to read Teddy’s file but the school site administrators had all left and district guidelines prohibit teachers from staying at school when there are no administrators around.  She would have taken Teddy’s records home with her but that too was against district rules.

It seemed that there was always something that interfered with her getting to know Teddy better.  Mrs. Thompson wanted to review Teddy’s file the next week but, as lead teacher, she was responsible for typing the rough draft of the school’s site action plan, which was required by the district.  No one came to “Back to School Night” for Teddy, so she got no information there.  After that, she had to spend time going online to get the necessary information to order the new textbooks that the district was requiring her school to buy.  She was unable to cancel her role in the IEP meeting for Joshua, the hyperactive special education student, who was being mainstreamed into her class.  Then there was the special planning she had to do for Tan, the Asian transfer student who seemed to hardly speak a word of English.  Just when she thought she’d get to Teddy’s file, a student was transferred into her class who had missed all of 3rd and 4th grades and his grandmother was requesting special homework.  Mrs. Thompson felt guilty and frustrated but there weren’t enough hours in the day.  When she informed district administrators about the impossible demands on her time and that she needed some kind of help (whether it was different scheduling, or fewer interruptions, or smaller pupil teacher ratio in class size) to meet those demands, she was told that she was lucky not to have 40 students enrolled in her class.  Somehow that did not alleviate her frustration.

Her next plan was to talk to Teddy directly.  She tried to approach him at recess/nutrition (traditionally when teachers take a break) but Lila, one of her other students, intercepted her, with tears in her eyes, sobbing that, “LaKeisha and I were best friends but now she’s telling secrets about me!”  Here was another crisis to attend to.  There was always something.

She felt even worse when her students brought her Christmas presents wrapped in beautiful ribbons and bright paper, except for Teddy’s.  His present was clumsily wrapped in the heavy, brown paper that he got from a grocery bag.  Mrs. Thompson had to explain to her class that it was against district policy to “celebrate” a religious holiday.  Students who were Hindu, Buddhist, Moslem, Jewish or atheist might be offended by Christmas celebrations.  Also, she read to her students a recent district memo stating that, according to district policy, teachers were forbidden to accept gifts from students.  She would never get to open her students’ gifts.  So she never got to make the connection between Teddy’s heartfelt gift and the personal loss which governed so much of his behavior.  After the children left she cried for at least an hour, as she had so many times before.

On that very day, she vowed to pay particular attention to Teddy from then on.  But when school resumed Teddy was absent for the first three days.  During recess on the day he returned, Teddy got into a fight with another student.  Apparently the student made a rude comment about Teddy’s “Mamma” and Teddy got so angry that he stabbed the student in the buttocks with a pencil.  Since the district is not in the business of family counseling, they gave Teddy an “opportunity” to do better at a different school where nobody knew him.  That was the last Mrs. Thompson ever saw of Teddy.

The story doesn’t end there.  You see, eight years later, while driving to yet another district sponsored, school reform meeting, Mrs. Thompson was stopped at a traffic light, and a dirty young homeless man approached her car with a wet rag and some newspapers offering to wash her windshield.  He reminded her of Teddy and she cried again.

This story was written by P. M. DeVuono based on a parable by Elizabeth Silance Ballard.

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4 thoughts on “It’s a beautiful story but…”

  1. That part about taking joy on marking F’s got me, too. I used to spend tons of time on very poor essays, trying to make sure i found something positive to say. I agree that that the vast majority of teachers hate it when a student does poorly.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your comment Erin. It boggles the mind how little people understand what we go through and what we really feel as teachers.

      Reply
  2. All teachers do not love or care about their students. As a middle grade teacher for 32 years, I witnessed hearing the abusive words attacking students that they will never be anything, and they will probably end up in jail. You may ask, “Why didn’t you do anything?” I did. I talked with the principal. I was told to go find that student and make a difference in his life. I talked with the child. I encouraged the student in 6th grade who left school to go home and cook dinner for his sick mother and his siblings.

    I agree that “they” don’t understand what’s going on with “us”. I’m assuming the “they” are the administrators, parents, community, etc., and the “us” would be the teachers. Think about what you’re saying. I’m sure all of you have witnessed your co-worker standing at the door greeting students. One unclean boy who needs a haircut is berated before he enters the room. “Come on in here boy with that wild looking hair. You don’t have any clean clothes? I’m tired of smelling those old dirty clothes. Are you going to do any work today? I hear you come alive in Mrs. Johnson’s science class, but you don’t do anything in here. Come on in here Stinker. You start your mess today; I’m sending you to the office.” What mess? He’s quiet. He doesn’t talk in her class. Do we wonder why we have former students who now have families will not support us or see teachers as pillars in the community anymore?

    Reply
    • I don’t wonder why people are reluctant to support teachers. And I don’t wonder why some people hate us. I have a friend who hates Rabbis because of how he was treated in Jewish school. My dad hated the Catholic church because of how he was beaten by the nuns for having poor language skills [even tho no one at home spoke English – Nana and Grandpa DeVuono only spoke Italian and I can remember him arguing on the phone with his mom saying, “Ma, you live in America now and you’ve got to learn to speak more English.] But I was lucky, my parents valued education and encouraged me even when my teachers didn’t. And my teachers mostly valued education and treated me with mostly with kindness [there were the usual exceptions Read: https://teacherfromplanetreality.com/i-was-bullied/ ].
      Thanks for reading my post and thanks for your thoughtful comments. I hope we can educate the world to what it’s really like to be a classroom teacher in today’s society.

      Reply

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