My first grade teacher’s name was Ms. Wee. Other than her last name, there wasn’t much else funny about her. Ms. Wee was someone I would characterize as a warm-strict, traditional teacher. I still remember the contrast between how carefully she controlled our entry into the classroom on the first day of school compared to the frenzy that was entering Kindergarten the year before. One by one, in silence, we were directed to our desks, which were already labeled with our names and organized into rows. Once she had us seated, Ms. Wee began the slow and masterful work of teaching us how to learn within her system; her hand signals, the routines of how to collect books and pass out papers, how to sit on the carpet. In Kindergarten, I remember the tears and the squabbles over being able to sit next to the teacher on the carpet. In Ms. Wee’s class, carpet time was for listening to stories, not for fighting.
Ms. Wee wasn’t remembered by her students for her strictness, but for her warmth and her adherence to what we would now call a knowledge-rich curriculum. Ms. Wee dedicated an hour every day to science and an hour to social studies – sometimes more – an allotment that in today’s narrow reading and math skills-driven landscape is less and less the norm. According to one study, social studies in early elementary grades has dropped to a measly 16 minutes per day in the US, and science not much better, at around 19 minutes (Banilower et al., 2013). While I am sure her social studies lessons were amazing, it was her science lessons that stood out as something special to me, and, apparently, they were famous in the community as well. Ms. Wee would teach science through masterful storytelling that had us on the edge of our seats, and after lengthy guided practice at the board and independent seatwork – right when our interest was at its peak, and we knew exactly what to do – she would break out fantastic practical demonstrations and hands-on experiences with layers of whole class discussion and feedback. First grade was the first time that I saw myself destined for a career in science.
Midway through the year (and I’m guessing a bit on the details, here) I believe the first grade teachers decided that a rotation system between classes would be a great way to play to each teacher’s strengths while lessening the overall workload that is planning for the various elementary subjects. One teacher would teach science, the second social studies, and the third something else. To my surprise, Ms. Wee wasn’t assigned to teach the science rotation; Science was given to Ms. Clarke next door. The difference between how we learned in Ms. Wee’s warm-strict classroom and Ms. Clarke’s classroom was night and day. We were allowed to pile into Ms. Clarke’s room like back in the primordial days of Kindergarten and sit wherever we wanted in a room full of desks arranged in funky shapes. Half of the class sat with our backs to the board and in groups with children who had suddenly discovered the urge to misbehave. Having never managed to find myself in trouble in Ms. Wee’s class, I was now in danger of being sent into the hallway or to the principal’s office every time our class rotated into Ms. Clarke’s class.
Ms. Clarke valued hands-on methods, as did Ms. Wee, but her teaching was dramatically inferior. Students were given materials without being explained what they were for, and by the time they were finished being passed out, several students experienced having theirs taken away due to inappropriate touching. When we were prompted to mess about with the materials, it wasn’t immediately clear to what end. Eventually, and almost begrudgingly, Ms. Clarke would halt our hands-on play to teach us what we were supposed to have discovered, stopping often to reprimand students who couldn’t handle listening while seated in front of colorful materials. This wasn’t the science that I had grown to love, I remember thinking. In Ms. Clarke’s class we “do science” but end up doing it wrong, and in Ms. Wee’s class we “learn science” and then feel like world class scientists when we applied these learnings to practical work.
Now, I don’t think telling stories like this, one in which we compare an effective warm-strict “DI-KR”* teacher to an ineffective teacher adds much to the discussion about effective teaching methods. I could have easily compared Ms. Wee to the third teacher in the rotation. She also sat us in rows and addressed us from the front of the room, but her quiet mumbling and vague instructions made her class a challenge to stay awake in. I could also have compared Ms. Wee to my friend and former colleague Alex, a self-described “inquiry teacher”, whose skillful blending of provocative questions, flexible seating, and a modified Teach Like a Champion management style qualifies him as one of the best teachers I’ve personally observed. For every positive example of a traditional teacher, or an inquiry teacher, someone can counter with a non-example that apparently disproves the theory. It’s a bit like putting Santa Claus on trial, isn’t it? For every witness that believes there is no Santa Claus the Defense can produce someone who is equally certain there is.
What I do think is that Ms. Wee’s structured approach towards teaching made a difference in my life, even though she didn’t fetishize play and discovery in the same way that many early career teachers are encouraged – or even required – to teach. Ms. Wee’s clear and concise explanations, engaging storytelling, no-nonsense behavior management style, and yes, brilliant hands-on science experiments, made us all see ourselves as scientists, and I’m grateful for that.
Banilower, S. P., Smith, I. R., Weiss, K. A., Malzahn, K. M., Campbell, A. M., & Weis, E. R. (2013). Report of the 2012 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/09500340.2015.1013579
* This is a childish, almost pejorative term (just say it aloud) coined by Guy Claxton to label teachers who use direct instruction to deliver a knowledge-rich curriculum