Overheard in the Classroom

Friday was one of those days when I felt like I had about a hundred children in my classroom. Actually, I had only nineteen instead of the usual twenty, since one student was absent. It wasn’t that the remaining students were more mischievous or energetic or needy than usual. I guess it was just a variety of factors that kept me running. Plus, it’s that time of the school year when everything seems to be racing downhill toward the finish line while I brace myself and try to keep the wagon from rolling out of control.

This is what my desk looked like on Friday at the end of the school day.

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But amid the chaos, don’t miss the gift I got on Friday: the wooden cutout of my name, given to me ever-so-shyly-but-proudly by the quiet little guy who is destined to become a woodworking artist. We can just quietly ignore the misspelling of my last name. (Why, as an elementary schoolteacher, must I have a last name that so blatantly disregards the basic rules of English grammar?)

And that’s life. The sweetest gifts amid the daily grind. Humor amid the frustration. With that in mind, here are a few stories from my classroom.

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We open each school day with prayer, and usually I let the children share a few prayer requests. This needs to be carefully controlled so that it doesn’t just turn into storytelling time. We pray for the grandma who is in the hospital and for the little brother who has chicken pox and for the neighbor man who is not a Christian.

One day someone mentioned some people who had been hurt in an accident. Immediately hands shot up all over the classroom, since many of the children had heard about the accident. After letting a few students add details to the story, I said, “Ok, we’re going to pray now. If you want to tell me more about the accident, talk to me at break time.”

Half an hour later, in the middle of math class. . .

Teacher: “So, if sixty plus thirty equals ninety, and three plus two equals five, what is the is the answer to sixty-three plus thirty-two?”

E (after waving his hand eagerly): “Um, my grandma knows those people who were hurt in the accident.”

Math class came to a screeching halt as I decided it was time for a vocabulary lesson. “Class, I’m going to teach you a big word. Are you ready? The word is irrelevant.”

***

I teach Logic 101. I guide my students through complicated reasoning, such as, “If I run across that muddy field, then my shoes will become very muddy. And if I go inside with very muddy shoes, it could cause some problems.”

Yes, you guessed it. We did that lesson on the day I ended up with a very muddy classroom. “You see guys,” I said, “There’s this thing called Thinking Ahead.”

I know. Such a concept nearly blows the nine-year-old male mind. But at least I tried. And it always makes me want to roar with laughter when I think of the look on my boys’ faces when I gave them that little speech.

We’re also working on this: “If I hurry through my work today, I will end up with twice as much work tomorrow, since the teacher makes me correct mistakes. So I may as well take my time and do it right the first time.”

Mind-blowing indeed!

***

A lunchtime conversation:

E: “T kicked me during prayer!”

Teacher: “T, what was that all about?”

T: “He was making faces at me!”

Teacher (resisting the urge to laugh out loud): “Well, E. . .”

E grinned sheepishly, and that was the end of that conversation. Let’s just say that there are reasons why the teacher often prays with her eyes open.

***

After doing the dress rehearsal for our school Easter program first thing in the morning, my students were not enthused about having classes. They were sighing as I passed out the math speed drills, and someone moaned, “Do we have to have math class?”

“You’ll survive,” I said. “Anyway, I never heard of anyone who died from doing math.”

K raised his hand eagerly and in his best tall-tale voice exclaimed, “BUT, my UNCLE GOOFY died of doing math, because he swallowed his PENCIL while doing a speed drill!!”

The class roared with laughter. I laughed with them and then did my best to calm everyone down to start the speed drill. “On your mark, get set…”

Oh dear, L was waving his hand with a distressed look on his face as though his pencil was broken or something. I answered his hand. Immediately the distressed look left his face, and a mischievous grin replaced it as he said, “Well, MY Uncle Goofaloppagus died from doing math because he swallowed his PEN while doing a speed drill!”

***

Perhaps I should conclude on a more serious note.

A co-teacher of mine came over to my room before school to ask my advice on a problem she had with a student. After bemoaning the problem, she said, “If only we didn’t have to fight for souls!”

“You hit the nail on the head right there,” I replied.

 

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A Crocus and a Snow Bunny

Two of my girls came in all rosy-cheeked from running outside at lunchtime on Friday and triumphantly deposited this gem on my desk. “It’s spring!” they announced.

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It was ironic that they discovered the crocuses on that day. I had noticed the flowers already on Monday, after the warmth of the weekend lured them out of hiding. But on Friday winter was back with a vengeance. We tried playing outside at recess, but we lasted only about ten minutes before the freezing gale drove us inside.

But spring is coming. And, my friends, it is so very much like the already-but-not-yet nature of the Kingdom of God.

It is time for spring to come and drive the sickness away. These past few weeks it has been a rare occurrence for all my students to be at school on the same day. Having multiple students absent multiple days can bring all kinds of complications. But sometimes it can be a blessing in disguise too. No, I am never glad when a student is sick. There are times, however, when I say to myself, Well, I suppose the Lord knew that I needed a break from that particular student for the day :).

Meanwhile, winter has been fun too. What can be more fun than school kids and piles of snow?

One day at recess the girls built a snowman while the boys spent the time hurling snowballs at each other. The next day when we went out for recess, the boys said, “We’re going to knock your snowman over!” Instead of protesting, the girls said, “Go ahead and try!”

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They tried alright, but in the end they had to admit defeat. They went off to work on a snow fort.

“Hey, let’s turn him into a snow bunny!” Sorry if you missed him, folks, but the Easter Bunny came early this year :).

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About the time this picture was taken, a volley of snowballs came flying over from the snow fort. You can imagine the squeals and protests, I’m sure.

“I said, “GUYS. How about if you throw the snowballs at EACH OTHER instead of at the girls.” They did, halfheartedly. Because of course throwing snowballs at each other isn’t half as much fun as throwing them at the girls.

Some of the first grade girls came to join the snow bunny party. As you can tell, the snow-reflected light made it hard to pose for a picture. Oh, but that deep blue winter sky. . .

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Things have stayed pretty interesting indoors as well, with February Fun days, and all. There was the day the animals came to school.

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Typically stuffed animal day is a very benign sort of thing. But this year? These kids go to town with anything we do. I felt pretty much like a zoo keeper all day long.

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Then there was dress-up day too. . .

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. . . and hat day.

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The teachers will tell you though, that it’s high time for February Fun to be over.

And here’s just one more picture. This week while grading spelling tests I found this:

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Indeed, I am the queen. Everyone must do as I say or face the consequences. I am also the servant. I clean up after twenty people.

I can think of many words to describe my job, but boring is never one of them.

Reasons I’m Glad For Winter

Do you love winter? Hate it? Don’t really care? Winter was never my favorite season, but I didn’t dread it either. I have always loved snow. I love cozy winter evenings.

But I began to dread some things about winter when I started teaching school:

A stuffy classroom filled with mud and boots.

Gray days of indoor recess in limited space.

Runny noses.

Sick kids.

Trying to figure out if it’s warm enough to play outside at recess.

Too much contained energy when I can’t send everyone outside at break and lunch time.

Days when contained energy in the classroom reaches dangerous levels, and trying to channel all that energy into productive and nonviolent endeavors feels like trying to capture the energy of a volcano to power a home.

Then I moved to the equator and lived in a land of no winter for four years. I didn’t really miss winter, although sometimes I dreamed of snow on those hot, dry January days. I wasn’t sure what it would be like to return to North American winters.

But for the first two years I was back from Kenya I was at Faith Builders, and there I loved winter. Winter meant days of sitting in front of the fireplace to study while watching the snow drift down outside the window. It meant walks in the snowy woods. I could enjoy the beauty of snow without needing to drive in it very much. And I was stunned by winter’s beauty, after being away from it for four years. I remember the first time I saw icicles that year. Icicles?! I had completely forgotten about icicles. And many other little things like that made me feel like a wonder-filled child again in my rediscovery of what I had once known. I wondered vaguely why I had ever disliked winter.

Last year I spent a winter teaching school in Lancaster County again. And I said, “Oh. I remember now,” in a very small voice.

So I have this ongoing love/hate relationship with winter. To offset the negatives, I’ve been thinking of things about winter that I eagerly anticipate, besides the aforementioned no-brainer things like snow and cozy evenings:

1. No more flies! Flies have a way of becoming the bane of your existence when you teach school. They do that dive-bombing thing at your head when you’re right in the midst of making an important point in class. They buzz incessantly as you do lesson plans after school. In the fall they swarm indoors, and I kill them by the dozen. (My expertise with a fly swatter is one of many handy little skills I’ve picked up in the course of my school-teaching career). But I always feel smug when I think of winter’s approach, because I know the flies can’t win. With the unseasonably warm temperatures of this past December, I was still swatting a stray fly or two up until Christmas break. But this week’s frigid temperatures have ensured that no flies remain. Victory!

2. We get our roads back. Sorry, you can’t appreciate this if you don’t live in tourist country. Now, don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against tourists in general. I don’t begrudge sharing our beautiful Lancaster County with visitors, because I would come here to visit too if I lived in the city. But I do hate fighting traffic. “Just driving two-and-a-half miles home from school should not be this stressful,” I kept telling myself this fall as I battled the insane volume of vehicles. Today I drove home without being slowed down at all by traffic. No more of this twenty-miles-an-hour-all-the-way-home stuff.

3. The tour buses diminish in number. This goes with number 2. Many tour buses pause along the road by our school during the fall (like, 5-10 per day sometimes). Again, I don’t blame them. The church across the road is a place of historical and cultural significance. My children playing out in the autumn sunshine paint an idyllic scene. But sometimes the buses are noisy, and the road is not far from my classroom, and my windows are level with the road. With winter’s arrival, I’m so glad to have that source of distraction eliminated from the daily repertoire.

4. I only need to empty the dehumidifier in my classroom once a week or so, instead of every other day. Gotta love basement classrooms.

5. I drive into the sunrise on my way to school and into the sunset on my way home. This is a very happy thing.

What aspects of winter do you look forward to?

Wild Tribe

It happens every year. Autumn races by and is gone before I am ready. This is the most fun time of the year to teach school, after the heat of September and before the winter doldrums. Spring is great too, but by then it’s almost the end of the school year, and everything shouts, “Hurry, hurry, hurry! Your time is almost gone!”

It’s been a delightful fall. I’ve been busy playing fish tag. . .

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. . .doing messy art projects. . .

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. . .playing in the leaves. . .

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. . .reading and responding to journal entries (and laughing and sighing as I try to teach these kids to spell). . .

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. . .and in general trying to keep my wild tribe at least semi-civilized.

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It’s a decades-old tradition at our school to dress up like Indians and Pilgrims on the day before Thanksgiving. This year most of my students dressed as Indians, which seemed rather fitting. It felt like too much work to try to get everyone set up on one picture, and I thought it might be easier to do the girls on one picture and the boys on another.

This is what happens when you tell seven girls to pose for a picture: they line up nicely and smile sweetly, and you are finished in thirty seconds.IMG_1112

This is what happens when you tell thirteen boys to pose for a picture (plus you have Little Brother wandering into the foreground, since his mom was there helping with the Thanksgiving lunch):

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They said, “Now let’s do a crazy one!” I thought but did not say, I think the other one was crazy enough. Instead I said, “Ok! Everybody be crazy!”

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I love my crazy wild tribe :).

What’s not to love about teaching school? I get paid to read stories, play in the leaves, and go to costume parties.

Twenty Children

Lunch break can mean so many different things, depending on your job. At my summer job, it meant a relaxing half hour to sit down and eat at leisure while reading a magazine or chatting with coworkers. But I can’t say that I’m sorry to have left summer work behind, even if “lunch break” means something quite different now.

Lunch break now means that I’m still on duty. I’m responsible for twenty children. (Today I spent part of my “lunch break” wiping spilled root beer off the carpet). But who wouldn’t want to eat lunch with company like this?IMG_1064

I’ve never had so many students before. On the first day of school I kept staring at my sardine-like classroom and thinking, Oh.my.goodness. There are twenty of them. What am I ever going to do with twenty kids?

But by now I’m getting used to counting to twenty on the playground. And I have to admit that there are some advantages to having so many students. For instance, there’s no need for me to try to manufacture action at recess. It just happens!

It’s a good life. A sweet life. A messy life.

Did I mention messy?

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“It’s a new kind of tanning salon that won’t give you cancer!”

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“The thing about school is ( insert fake gruff voice) the facial hair.”

“Do we have to wash it off, Miss Beiler?” they said.

“Well, you don’t want to get your art project all dirty, do you?”

After recess we painted. It was great fun.IMG_1070

At one point I noticed that K was not painting. He was busy stirring his cup of water with his paintbrush (you know that icky painty water that you get when you wash out your paintbrush). I told him to get busy with his painting. He kept stirring with a gleam in his eye and said, “I’m an evil scientist, and I’m gonna make this mixture, then feed it to an animal that will turn into a monster and destroy the world!”

Between the mud and the paint, you can imagine what my sink looked like by the end of the day.

And that was all on Friday. This was the Thursday scene:

It’s time for recess. We go outside and discover a few raindrops falling. The open basement area where we can play games indoors is in use for music class today.

Twenty kids having indoor recess in our tiny classroom? It will have to rain harder than this to make me opt for that!

We begin a rousing game of fish tag. The drops turn into a heavy drizzle, but no one seems to mind.

We’re not getting very wet yet. No problem.

The rain increases, slowly but steadily. I stand under the porch roof and watch my children run around in the rain.

“This is so much fun! Miss Beiler, pleeeease let us stay out.”

It’s warm. Getting wet won’t hurt anyone.

The rain becomes a downpour. Thunder rumbles. “Ok everyone, we’re going inside.”

Puddles in my classroom. Wet hair in my classroom. Wet stinky shoes in my classroom. Twenty happy children in my classroom.

Yes, that’s my life.

And here is the quote of the day: “How do you spell NFL?”

In Which Dreams Come True, and I Walk in Storybook Land

When I lived in Kenya and flew home for visits, I usually had a layover in London. Most times it was a rather long layover, so I have memories of spending hours roaming London Heathrow Airport, just trying to pass the time. I listened to British accents, wandered through the little shops, and watched people from all over the world converge in that space. And always I stared out the windows and thought of places like Westminster Abbey and Windsor Castle and longed to be able to see more of England than just the airport.

This summer I spent some time at Heathrow again as I waited for a flight home, but this time it was completely different. Instead of being alone, I was with a great group of people. Instead of staring wistfully out the windows, I kept smiling to myself as I thought of all I had seen and experienced during those twelve days I spent in England and Scotland. And I worshiped the God of redemption and restoration.

It’s true—sometimes dreams become reality. I went on a choir tour to Great Britain. It still feels almost unbelievable that so many of my favorite things—choral music, Faith Builders friends, literature, history, and travel—could all come together in one delightful experience. I’m still speechless with amazement that it really happened.

That is part of the reason why this post has been two months in the making. I wrestle with words and find none adequate. In the weeks since I came home from England, my mind has felt like a desk piled high with papers and things that need to be organized and filed away (much like the teacher’s desk in my classroom has been in recent weeks during school preparation). This experience was rich and stretching and soul-shaping on so many different levels that I think I may spend the next year processing it all.

I’ve asked so many questions: How can I let this tour make me a better person? What tools have I gained that will help me as a teacher? (Yes, I think that travel is one of best ways for teachers to continue their education). How can I be as wide awake to wonder and beauty and stories in my own land as I was in England? How am I going to continue to use these musical abilities that I’ve had the chance to develop? How can all of this be part of Kingdom-building?

A few highlights:

Singing in St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland

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The flowers and gardens everywhere. All I want for Christmas is a little stone cottage with roses climbing over it.b

Meeting people with fascinating accents and intriguing stories, such as the little old lady who sat with several of us at a restaurant and regaled us with tales of her childhood during World War II.

Walking in the footsteps of beloved authors. I grew up with the illustrated children’s versions of James Herriot’s stories and enjoyed the original stories later. Journeying through the Yorkshire Dales was like walking right into the pictures in those storybooks.

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This door in Oxford supposedly inspired some of C.S. Lewis’s writings (see Mr. Tumnus?),32

and this entrance to St. Edward’s Church in Stowe-on-the-Wold is said to have inspired Tolkien. What could be more enchanting than to walk through these doors to give a choir program?
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Drinking tea in charming little shops like this one.

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Hanging out with some of my former classmates from Faith Builders (and climbing up to King Arthur’s Seat above Edinburgh to have one’s breath taken away by both the view and the wind).

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I must be the richest person in the world.

I think it is when we are living in the greatest heights of joy and in the best dream-come-true delights that we feel most keenly the great divide between earth and heaven. Because we see that even the best experience here on earth is never quite enough. We were made for Eden, and we feel it in our bones. But here we are, still part of a fallen world, so that even in the midst of the most glorious experience we still come face to face with all that is hideously human.

I remember several conversations on this subject with friends while we were on choir tour, and we found it difficult to put words to what we were feeling. We were in the midst of one of the most delightful experiences of our lives, and it felt like a jarring incongruity that we could still so easily be tired and grouchy and annoyed.

Oh, but we found refuge in the words of one of our most challenging choir songs—words written by George Herbert centuries ago:

Bitter-Sweet
Ah, my dear angry Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.

I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve;
And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament and love.

Meanwhile, summer has passed with a whoosh, and tomorrow begins another year of school. Fasten your seat belts, folks. We’re leaving behind the castles, cathedrals, teapots, and concerts and traveling swiftly to a world of chalkboards, crayons, math facts, and soccer balls. But who says that the task of teaching twenty youngsters can’t contain just as much adventure and joy as a trip to England?

Empty Nest

A few days ago I signed fourteen report cards and officially promoted all my students to fourth grade. That’s a simple job, you may say. Well, it did take only a few minutes. But do you have any idea how hard it is to do this?

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These children have been my universe for the last nine months. Women were not designed to give all their children away and get new ones every year.

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But maybe I should count my blessings and be glad I don’t have to put up with this much craziness all summer :).

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By the way, has anyone seen a stray monkey? Our collection of stuffed monkeys increased throughout the year, after our beloved pink Josephine started it all. Several people brought monkeys from home. Then someone bought two more on our field trip to Lake Tobias.The children kept up the game of hiding the monkeys in the classroom. But one poor little monkey was never found, and no one could remember where she was last hidden. So if you find a monkey anywhere, please let me know.

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At the end of a school year, it’s easy for a teacher to look back with some uncertainty and to wonder, Have I done my job right? Have these children learned all that they should have learned this year? What about the mistakes I made? How have I impacted these lives? Sometimes I am terrified of the tremendous shaping power that we teachers possess. Even though these children may scarcely remember me, I know that my influence will stay with them, whether consciously or subconsciously. But God is gracious, and I rest in the confidence that these children are His, not mine.

Last week I gave my students a little worksheet with several questions about the school year. I confess that I did this mostly for my own amusement. Here are some of the questions and answers:

What were three of your favorite things about this school year?

–making butterflies in art

–doing activities in science

–playing Around the World

–Kenya Day

–jump roping double dutch

–lunch

–playing with my friends

–having music with Miss Eberly

–having funny stories

–history

–having Miss Beiler as a teacher

–recess

What is one thing your teacher often said this year?

–“I don’t know if you can, but you may.” (Yes, I can be a grammar nazi like that. But the children picked it up, thought it was a great joke, and probably said it to each other more often than I said it to anyone).

–“Get ready for math.”

–“Be quiet.”

–“Stop being silly.”

–“Did you forget your hearing aids?” (This was from the boy who sometimes did forget his hearing aids. On those days I had to shout to be heard).

–“That is a rhetorical question.”

It’s been a great school year, and I am thankful that I had the privilege of being part of the lives of these fourteen amazing youngsters. And now, three cheers for summer vacation!