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Ode to a Teacher

January 05, 2006|By Laure Oakes

Sara Phillips. That was a name that either struck fear or gladness into the hearts of parents tearing open the envelope to learn who their child had drawn as a first grade teacher at Paradise Canyon Elementary School.

When our first was so assigned, we heard from some parents that we should immediately do whatever it took to get her out of Mrs. Phillips' class -- that Sara Phillips was far too demanding, mean and dictatorial. But our pediatrician, whose own daughter would be in the class, advised us against "rescuing" our kids from this teacher. He said she was tough but kids need to learn to get along with all sorts of people, as they will have to do later in their lives.

During that first year I often saw the tough part of Mrs. Phillips. We were called in for repeated conferences about why Claire hadn't turned in her homework.

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Claire had a habit of carrying her folder upside-down, so either the assignment or the finished work fell out and was lost.

This was not an acceptable excuse for her first-grade teacher who finally put her on "report." This consisted of Mrs. Phillips assessing her performance daily and then sending home a slip of paper with a number on it, from one through five. That number determined what privileges Claire got that afternoon and evening. Soon, the homework was turned in regularly.

When Connor was assigned to Mrs. Phillips, he presented her with a different problem. He was a hummer. He hummed throughout the entire day, he hummed while he ate, and occasionally, while he slept. It drove us crazy. He seemed to be unable to control it.

So Sara Phillips, finding it unacceptable behavior in class -- opposing as it did her radio's emissions of Beethoven and Mozart (to open up the other sides of their brains) -- told me both grimly and confidently that she had never failed in 23 years of teaching to effect a change in behavior like this. She took that radio and placed it directly on Connor's desk, and turned it up just a little higher each week. She was a confident woman used to being in control of her class.

Late in Connor's year with her I dropped in to find the entire class and Sara humming along with Connor over the background strains of some opposing classical piece. Sara threw up her hands, announcing "He's defeated me!" And she and the kids were all laughing.

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