Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Mennonite Perspective - "I Am a Teacher"

You all are in for a special treat, we have a guest blogger here today! Many years ago I became acquainted with a young Mennonite woman who worked at Matthew's day care for a short while. Despite the apparent differences, we soon discovered that we actually had a lot in common, and through the years we have both enjoyed getting to know one another better and I now consider Alethea a dear friend. She is a gifted writer (something that all those years ago neither of us knew about the other...that we both enjoyed writing!), an articulate and intelligent woman, and someone whose opinions I highly value.

Over the years I have grown to deeply respect Alethea, and have learned a great deal from her. I hope youwill as well! If you read this and have questions or are curious, please feel free to post them and I will forward them on to her for an answer. Now, on to the "Main Event"!:

I Am a Teacher

I am a teacher. My classroom is in a small Mennonite school somewhere in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. Although I am not Southern by birth, I have lived in the South just long enough that a hint of Southern slang occasionally creeps into my speech, amusing—or confusing—my Canadian co-teacher. My home (the one where my family lives) lies far to the west, where the Colorado Rockies faces the sunset. You may well wonder how I landed in Mississippi if I am from Colorado…Perhaps I should explain the school system in which I teach.

The Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, is a group that holds very closely to Biblical doctrines. Among these doctrines would be the new birth and baptism of believers, nonresistance, separation of church and state, and simplicity, modesty, and economy in all things. (Some of you may be acquainted with us—we are the ladies you see wearing dresses and black cap-type headcoverings.)

About forty years ago, the church became concerned about some of the things that the public schools were beginning to teach (such as sex education and evolution). Beginning about 1969, we began to develop our own school system. Today somewhere around 175 schools are in operation across the United States and Canada. Along with the schools comes the need for teachers. Approximately 600 teachers provide an education for some 5,000 children. Many of the schools are small, with only two or three teachers handling all eight grades.

We only go to eighth grade, feeling that sufficient education to make a living. Of course, if a person’s chosen career would be nursing or something else that would require further training, that is open. In those eight grades we teach reading, writing, and arithmetic, as well as spelling, science, social studies, English grammar, and, in the upper grades, typing.

Our teachers come from among our own people. As a church group, we are closely interconnected all across the continent, and some of this is due to our schools. We teachers move around more than most people do, and many teachers end up marrying in the congregation they teach at. It is not unusual for the three or four teachers at one school to come from three or four different states and/or provinces. A well-used grapevine sprawls throughout the school system, linked by teachers who know each other. Thus, if I run into a problem I don’t know how to solve, I can call a teacher friend elsewhere—as far away as Ohio or Saskatchewan or Kansas or as close as the other side of Mississippi—and get some ideas. This grapevine also helps spread the word when a teacher decides it is time to move on to a different school.

As a bit of a personal profile, my name is Alethea Koehn. The youngest of six children, I grew up on a western Kansas grain farm, trailing my two older brothers. My parents moved to Olathe, Colorado, in 1999; I joined them there early in 2001. Soon after moving there, I met Dominick and Cindy while working at the day care where Matthew spent many of his days. Matthew was a very special little boy who would often choose to play by my feet instead of with the other children.

I began teaching in September of that same year. For three years I taught in my home school in Colorado, watching from my classroom windows as the seasons changed across Grand Mesa. From there I moved on to the rolling farmland and tree-lined river bottoms of western Missouri. During my second and third years there, my co-teacher was a girl from Mississippi. Her father was on the school board in her home congregation, and when he learned that I had not accepted a contract to return to Missouri, he asked me if I would consider coming to Mississippi. I eventually accepted the offer.

This is my ninth year of teaching, and my third year in the South. I teach grades 6, 7, and 8, comprising nearly a third of the school. This year our total school enrollment is 19. Our classrooms are arranged as follows:

Lower grades

1st – 3

2nd – 2

Middle grades

3rd – 1

4th – 2

5th – 4

Special Ed

1 student–a little girl with Downs Syndrome

Upper grades

6th – 1

7th – 3

8th – 2

As you can see, our school is very small. Although I teach the upper grades, during the course of an average day, I cross paths with everyone else. I am the senior teacher, on my ninth year; the special ed teacher and I were both here last year, but the other two are new both to teaching and to this school this year

A typical day may be as follows:

The day starts at 8:30 with prayer and thirty minutes of opening exercises. Several mornings a week, I and the special ed teacher sing with my class, which they love and do well. One morning a week we study a church history course, which frequently morphs into a deep discussion. One very popular topic lately has been heaven and hell. Other times we may discuss events that have taken place around us that they have questions about.

The first subject of the day is math. We usually start with a few minutes of flashcard drill, followed by written speed drills and any quizzes scheduled for that day. Then two grades begin on their lessons while I have class with the other one. A typical day may find me teaching fractions to my sixth grader, then moving on to decimals and percents with the seventh graders, and ending with weights and measures with eighth grade. Having only an hour to conduct three math classes means that each grade gets twenty minutes or less. While this may seem too short, bear in mind that this is all these children have ever known—the crowded schedule of a multi-grade classroom.

Recess comes at 10:15. The middle graders often join us for volleyball, dodge ball, or 300 up (a softball skills practice game).

English is after recess. Sixth and seventh grades are currently studying verbs, while the eighth grade has just begun a chapter on nouns. Because my sixth grader has dyslexia, he is studying the fourth grade English book; this is a welcome break for me, as it is much simpler than the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade books I am accustomed to.

Lunchtime comes none too soon. Did you ever realize how hungry thinking makes you? By the time the bell rings, I’ve often had to tell at least one boy that he won’t starve in the last fifteen minutes before lunch! My class and the special ed class all fit around one table, so we sit and visit while we eat.

I thoroughly enjoy noon recess. The games vary according to the weather and the person whose turn it is to choose. Bear-around-the-corner and softball are the main outside games, while 22 Loose and 23 Eskadoodle are generally the choices for indoors. We play together as the entire school at noon recess; this means that the three little first graders are out on the ballfield along with my two big eighth grade boys! While we do give the first graders some advantages, the rest of them get no slack! After all, when the second grade twins can whack the softball out beyond second base and field well enough to catch a teacher’s pop fly, why shouldn’t they be required to play by the big kids’ rules?

After recess we have a short story period. Even though my students are plenty old enough to read to themselves, and they do, they love listening to the books I read. I read many books of historical fiction, animal stories, or Indian stories.

Social Studies is our first afternoon subject. This year the entire class is in the same book, Western Hemisphere. We’ve learned the states and capitals and are now working on the provinces and capitals of Canada. The next quarter we’ll learn the countries of the entire Western Hemisphere.

Typing class follows the afternoon recess. The eighth graders are on their second year of typing. The seventh graders are still learning the letters of the keyboard. Both grades are doing very well, steadily bringing their speed and accuracy up. We do not teach computer; instead, we simply teach the students to type on typewriters. Most of them will be able to teach themselves anything computer skills they need.

This brings us to the end of the day. Of course, this is only a brief overview. It doesn’t give you any idea of the discussions that arise at any moment or the odd, almost childish questions that even a thirteen-year-old will ask. Sometimes their questions catch me completely off guard, and I simply have no answer for them. Other times I can come up with an answer from my own life experiences.

In a small school perhaps more than in a larger one where there is more support staff, a teacher plays many roles. Some of these are fun, others routine, some not so pleasant. I’ve had to repair typewriters, comb hair, pull teeth, coach baseball games, unplug toilets, get rid of transients asking for money, bandage skinned knees, dry tears, remove tree frogs, deal with rotten attitudes, adjust desks, conduct fire drills, hand out pain relievers, and mend torn dresses.

Into my hands from the hands of a child have come many things: notes of appreciation and cookies; spring flowers and autumn leaves; fuzzy caterpillars, praying mantises, and hideously ugly spiders; pretty rocks, peacock feathers, and—my favorite one of all—the tiny calico kitten that soon became Miss Koehn’s beloved Molly and the treasured pet of the upper grade classroom!

I’ve seen one of my children cry because of his troubled home situation, and I’ve watched a young boy grieve his father’s death. Stormy days have come, when it seemed that the clouds outside were no darker than the ones that shadowed a child’s face. But following the storm I’ve seen the sunshine return, when smiles and song replaced the sullen scowl.

I remember looking into the faces of my students when each was only a face with a name that I could barely recall. As I studied each one, I wondered what lay within each young heart and mind. Today those faces turned toward me are familiar and dearly loved.

I have sung with my children, prayed for them, played with them; I’ve heard their stories and laughter; I’ve seen their smiles and felt their love. I’ve learned that the title “Miss Koehn” carries nearly the same honor as “Mom”; I’ve felt the solid sturdiness of a boy’s shoulder beneath my hand and the warmth of a girl’s arms around me. I’ve watched the marks on the growth chart creep ever upward, and as I’ve watched my boys grow physically, I’ve seen them mature emotionally, until the men they will be are almost easier to imagine than the boys they once were…And often the words of a song have come to my mind:

“I’d like to watch my children grow,

To see what they become.

Lord, please don’t let the cold winds blow

‘Til I’m too old to die young.”

I am a teacher. And because I am a teacher, I believe in tomorrow, for tomorrow stands always before me. I see it in the faces of my children, I hear it in their voices. They look always toward tomorrow. And so I teach, not for today only, but for tomorrow.


Heather said...

Very interesting and thoroughly enjoyable! Thank you both!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this. Both joy and sorrow in your last two posts.

Peggy in Virginia

Jamie Hollis said...

Thank you for sharing, Alethea. I, too, am a Mennonite (and follow this blog). I served in Kyrgyzstan off and on for six years and my husband and I hope to adopt from there upon my graduation from Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary. Something that should be mentioned, for the sake of those that have no exposure to Anabaptists (includes Mennonites, Amish, Brethren, etc.), is that just like in any other denomination, there are many sub-groups. Not all Mennonites are obviously Mennonites by what they wear (head-coverings, plain dress, etc.)! I am a Mennonite and dress like most other Americans (jeans, sweater, tank-tops in the summer) and am pursuing my graduate degree at what most people (even and maybe especially non-Mennonites) would consider an incredibly liberal (and Mennonite) seminary. Cindy would be considered more conservative in some ways than I am. This is only an FYI for those that are unaware of the Anabaptist spectrum.
Again, Alethea, thank you for sharing!

Lori said...

Loved this. There is a very strong Anabaptist grouping here in Southern Maryland! (Glad the person before me made note of the differences in the Anabaptist spectrum, it's very clear here too!) This really brings to life and reality the large community that is near me but of which I am not all that educated in. Awesome!

Lenore said...

I found this very interesting. Living here, among so many Mennonites, always brings up a lot of questions. I found this very informative! Thanks for posting it!