When you live in a town where most people are retired and moved here from somewhere else, nearly everyone has a “previous life.”
My previous life was as an elementary school teacher. I taught at Blossom Hill School, located in an upper middle-class neighborhood in Los Gatos, California. Most of my teaching career, it was a pretty basic school. We had a principal, secretary, and teachers. And we had a district nurse, speech therapist, and psychologist, who were there once a week or as needed.
But in 1963, when I began teaching, we had special teachers for music and art that visited the five elementary school classrooms as well as a resource teacher in the library, but that ended in 1968 when we had major budget cuts. We lost our buses. I started paying 100% of the cost for the reading materials I felt I needed for teaching reading in first grade. These materials were not the state mandated texts but ones that actually worked. And the custodians and maintenance folks were almost all eliminated, which meant that the students had to help me clean the classroom each day before they left.
I was the only teacher that paid for the reading materials I used in the classroom, and I did it for 16 years. I also was the only teacher that let between 10 and 14 parent helpers (one at a time) in the classroom starting my second year. My first year had a steep learning curve, where I just tried to make it through each day. After that year, I decided that if I was going to continue in teaching, I would do it my way––and I usually got away with it.
First year teaching
The week before I started teaching, I got married in a double wedding with my sister where we had lived for several years in the Kern River Valley north of Bakersfield, California, and the whole community had been invited. And I hadn’t seen my husband to be for six months, since he returned from military duty the day before the wedding. So, after the wedding, we were becoming reacquainted as we moved to our new home in Los Gatos where I had been hired to teach. These are all milestones of life, first adult job, getting married, and moving to a new home in a new community. And I did it all in one week. Too much all at once. I wouldn’t recommend it even to my worst enemy.
Preparation for teaching any elementary grade in any year of teaching, takes weeks. The teacher puts up bulletin boards, gets to know the students through their records on file, and most time-consuming of all, preparing to teach. There is the over-all teaching plan to create and break down into yearly segments and then the first week and first day. The district had goals, but in those days, the teachers created their own plan. Then preparing all the materials needed for those first few days. I tried to cram all of that into three days, of which one was filled with meetings—district wide and at the school level. All while moving into a new home and getting to know my new husband.
I did not have a car. I didn’t even drive. The first day, my husband drove me, but that put me there at 5:30 a.m. The second day another teacher was going to pick me up, but she forgot. When I realized she wasn’t coming, I called a taxi and that was an expense, we couldn’t afford. I got there just as the bell was ringing. From then on, I either got their really early with my husband taking me or I took a bus that required me to walk 20 blocks to catch it, and get off a few blocks before the school and arrive 15 minutes before class started. Every day, after school, my husband picked me up.
I really struggled those first few weeks and when the district supervisor of new teachers arrived to observe me, I had just realized that the keys were in the classroom, locking me and my students out. So, I sent the supervisor to get a key and pleaded with the students to be on their best behavior while she was there. For the most part, they were. Nevertheless, when I met with her afterwards, she started by saying, “Well, since things can’t get any worse,” which of course they did. Within a few weeks, I got laryngitis and had a weak, scratchy voice for the rest of the year.
We had no help-the-new-teacher programs then, but I made it through. In those days, a lot of teachers quit after their first year, since it was a sink or swim experience in many districts. I was definitely more prepared the next year and recruited parent helpers within the first weeks.
I had always looked young for my age, and when I started teaching at 21, I still looked like a teenager. Meeting parents for the first time, they often asked where the teacher was. The first few years, I felt like an imposter, like I was pretending to be a teacher.
Teaching First Grade
After my fifth year of teaching second grade, I moved to the first grade at the principal’s request. A first-grade teacher was leaving and the principal needed an experienced teacher to fill that post, since the district had a policy of not putting new teacher’s in first grade. Since he needed me, I had some leverage. I knew about a reading program used in special ed classes that I wanted if I was going to teach first grade. It was an expensive, individualized program. The first year, the district paid for it, after that, I did because of the major budget cuts. It worked well. I loved it, and because it worked so well, the students and parents liked it. That’s when I realized that I didn’t feel like I was pretending any more. I began to feel like a real teacher.
But I had much to learn teaching first grade, even though I had consulted with two long-time first grade teachers whom I greatly admired. Here’s a good example. The first day, I walked the two rows of children up to the cafeteria and had them all lined up to go inside. When I turned to go back to the classroom, it only took a couple heartbeats to realize the whole class was following me back. They didn’t know anything about a cafeteria. So, we made a U-turn and headed back to the cafeteria. I stayed with them explaining everything and went through with them guiding and directing all the way to the tables where they would sit. From then on, each year on the first day, we would take a field trip to the restrooms, the playground, and the cafeteria before the first recess. I learned that lesson the hard way.
First grade sets the foundation, so every day something new is suddenly comprehended by someone. That is an “aha moment” and the light of understanding shows in the student’s eyes. I did’t see it every time, of course, but enough to realize that that was one of the greatest rewards of teaching.
The students come so far in first grade. At the beginning of the year, the class attention span is about five minutes. So, there are many, many short lessons in the course of a day, and the teacher has to be prepared for the whole day before the children enter in the morning. And to mix sit-down with stand-up-and-move lessons because the students aren’t used to sitting for long periods. By the end of the year, they have a much longer attention span and can do so much.
After working so hard to get them to that point, I never was ready to let them go. And each year, when the new batch arrived, there was a “why me” moment! Then those lights of understanding begin clicking on, and I was hooked once again.
Another plus is that first-graders (usually) love their first-grade teacher and hang on every word. I had many parents who would say to me “Mrs. Fleagle says” followed by whatever I had said. I even had one parent bring her daughter to me after school one day and say, “Would you PLEASE tell her to XXX because she won’t listen to me. But she’ll do ANYTHING YOU say!” During their first-grade year, I was the most important person in the world to many of my students. Heady stuff!
Show and Tell
Once a week, we had what I called “Sharing.” For something unusual, like a pet or another person, they were to forewarn me. We had every conceivable kind of pet from gold fish to snakes to ferrets and many dogs and cats. One girl, brought her brother who had just returned home from Vietnam and was very impressive in full-dress uniform.
I had no idea what would come out of their mouths. One girl, showing off her newly acquired reading skills, read a year’s worth of telephone bills and the class hung on every word. One boy told how his father had fallen off the back steps and broke his leg. When I asked his mother how the father was doing, she had a blank look. The boy had made it up. One that was not made up resulted in a visit from the police. One of my students told of an intruder in their home where the police had been called. No one knew who it was—or so they thought. My student had gotten up to use the bathroom and saw him but told no one. She was saving it for Sharing. She told the whole class all about it, including who it was. Children recognize adults from more than just their faces. I had her go tell the school secretary, who told the principal, who called her mother, who called the police!
Scary and Unforeseen Situations
Good thing I knew that one of my students was diabetic and her mother had given me a tube of glucose just in case. On her very first day, she came up to tell me she was feeling faint and needed to eat something. She was waiting her turn in line when I saw her eyes roll back and she dropped to the floor. Not something you ever want to see. So, I grabbed the tube of glucose and squirted some in her mouth, hoping that she was indeed the diabetic child. Her eyes opened instantly, and she was up and getting food out of her lunch.
During one hot April day, a girl at the front of the line passed out from the heat and landed against the back door to the classroom, blocking me from opening it and getting to her or letting the class in. So, I ran through a neighboring classroom with my key in my hand, and was able to open the door, get her inside and put wet paper towels on her face, as the class all streamed in right past us. She was up and about feeling fine before I was. That really shook me.
Another time that shook me was when a boy swallowed a tootsie pop drop and it got stuck in his throat one rainy day when the class was in the classroom instead of the playground after lunch. I noticed him, when he slumped to the floor. He couldn’t breathe and his lips were turning blue. I used the Heimlich Maneuver on him and the tootsie pop drop shot about 20 feet across the classroom. Within minutes, he was back to playing. Again, the student recovered before I did.
One of my effective means of punishment, was to remove the child from the classroom for a few minutes. They would have to sit on the bench outside of the classroom. Well, I asked one boy who was acting up to sit outside until I came to get him. That day, it was only about a half hour before class was to be dismissed. So, he sat for a few minutes, then got up and went home. I was frantic when I couldn’t find him. As soon as the class was dismissed, I called his home and was very relieved to find that he was there.
First graders often don’t know what “acceptable” behavior is in certain situations. I had a student, Shavon, who had older brothers and was very good at using cuss words in her every day language. So, when she made a mistake one day and loudly exclaimed, “Damn!” I had to let her know that this was not acceptable and would get her in trouble every time in the classroom. I suggested, “Darn!” For a few months, I would hear, “Damn! Darn!” as she corrected herself. Other students, would help her out by saying, “Darn, Shavon, not damn!” You are never supposed to laugh at the students, but every day, they made me chuckle.
I thoroughly enjoyed my 22 years at Blossom Hill School––all except for that first one. But that was the year I actually learned to become a teacher. And I learned to love it.
So, that’s the story of my “previous life.”