Lessons from a Dinosaur Teacher: a Tribute to Ms. Sue Shultz
|Ms. Shultz leading Bungalow A in the Halloween parade, 1999|
Our beautiful friend, mentor, and founding EdBoost board member, Sue Shultz, passed away last year. I am so sorry that, despite putting together a two-volume dissertation based on my time in her class, I never managed to write something about her that she could read and enjoy. I know that she would have been deeply tickled to see herself in writing, and amused to think of herself as a model teacher. But she was absolutely a model teacher to me. And her presence remains thick at EdBoost, not only in the many books in the library that still bear her name, in black Sharpie cursive on the covers, but in the way we teach our students, train our staff, and work together as a team. Sue, in teaching hundreds of students (including multiple generations in some families), touched so many lives. And her reach extends here at EdBoost as we implement her code of honor, of respecting students, of helping children learn how to be good and kind and polite, of believing that all children can succeed, and of believing that we all need to work together to make that happen, with EdBoost students everyday. I look at our kids and our tutors, and all of the good work that they do, and I can almost feel Sue's hand on my shoulder. I can almost hear her saying, "Well, gal, I think we did something here." Though our current students are too young to have known Sue personally, I dearly hope that, through us and the way that we teach them, they carry her legacy into their own work and and into the world. I hope that, without even realizing it, they leave EdBoost with Sue's steadying hand on their shoulders. Sue, I'm so sorry this has taken me so long. But somehow, I feel like you would understand. Thank you for everything. We miss you.
"When I was a kid, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth…" That was how Ms. Sue Shultz liked to start references to her youth. And the kids always laughed. They could ask her, with straight faces, if she ever met George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, but they knew she wasn't really a dinosaur. In teacher-world, however, Sue was somewhat prehistoric. Sue started in LA Unified in 1967. By 2003, when she retired, she had seen it all. She bequeathed me nearly forty years of classroom supplies, including visual aids featuring photos of Chumash adobe brick construction and a series called "Angelenos Today" featuring, among others, Councilman Tom Bradley, that had been made in the 1960s and that Sue held onto when the library ditched them in favor of digital resources. Sue had an old-school approach to teaching: each student's desk sported a cardboard pencil box, held together with bronze brads and emblazoned with his or her name in perfect cursive on a name card decorated with apples. When I joined the class, Sue gave me a pencil box too. She praised her students when they held doors open for others and practiced having her students say "Good Morning, Mr. Carillo" in unison in preparation for the times the principal walked in. But Sue also did her best to stay current. She was proud of her computer skills ("I had them update the RAM on that machine, but I'm an Apple girl myself") and she would correct herself, after calling something "cool," saying, "or should I say 'tight?'"
When she closed up her classroom for the last time, Sue not only passed along a career's worth of materials, but her philosophy of teaching, working with children, and life in general. She never tried to teach me explicitly, but the four years I spent in her classroom imprinted, indelibly, upon me how an old-school teacher teaches with grace, kindness, consistency, and respect.
I know that, to this day, Sue shines through in almost all of the ways that I teach and work with students -- and picking through the discrete lessons I gained from her has been a mountain of a project. I've wanted to get it right, which has meant reading through hundreds of pages of fieldnotes from the first year I spent embedded in her fourth grade class, and then flipping mentally through the memories of the three subsequent years, when I volunteered every Wednesday until lunch.
These are my top 10 lessons (there are so many more) from my dinosaur teacher.
"I'm a senior teacher, but I don't know everything."
Sue epitomized what she told me when we first met: she was confident in her abilities as a teacher and not afraid to be observed, but she was always open to input. She preached that philosophy to the kids, pushing them to find the space in between confidence and arrogance, encouraging them to "dazzle me" but also knocking them down a bit when they got too full of themselves. As a veteran teacher, Sue had worked through scores of educational reforms, and then those same reforms repackaged a decade later. She felt, usually rightly, that she had seen it all before. But she always took input. Unlike so many teachers I approached with my dissertation idea, she was not afraid to have me in her class, watching her, all day, three days a week. Nor was she ever reluctant to listen to me, whether my comments were insightful or naive. Both adults and students could feel her genuine humility and opened up to her and listened to her, no matter if they agreed with what she had to say.
Even in front of the class, Sue was always honest. I distinctly remember a lesson about circles: radii, and diameters. After diagramming circles and teaching and re-teaching, Sue went around the room, as she always did, asking questions and checking for understanding. She labeled a circle's radius as 4.5 inches, and drew several other radii, but going around the room almost none of the students could tell her that the other radii were also 4.5 inches. She finally just put her overhead marker down, "Kids, this is a failure, just put it away. Only one person got that. You are not learning it. Just put it away." Sue hated to fail, but she accepted when it happened. She moved on and tried another way another time. Sue often switched gears in the middle of a lesson, taking a different tack or angle, explaining to the kids, "When I was a kid, they only gave us one way, and I think that if we had been given a choice, I think that I and a lot of other people my age, would have been better at math and would have enjoyed it more." Sue's experience and confidence allowed her to be very flexible in the classroom. She paid close attention to how lessons were going. She changed tempo, activities, and teaching styles based on how the kids were doing; one time she just started throwing a ball around the classroom trying to illustrate the difference between subject and object pronouns. Sue struggled the first year I was with her, because a whole new set of assessments had come down from the state and really constrained the pace and ordering of her lessons. She felt the loss of flexibility keenly, but she showed me how an experienced teacher, who is open to the possibility of failure, can move fluidly through the lessons of the day, moving with the ebb and flow of the kids' interest and attention.
"Today someone asked if she could call home for her homework, but I said no. Because kids, your homework is your responsibility, not your parents' responsibility. And if you forgot it, you have to take the consequence for it. And, if you're someone who usually brings in your homework, you're fine. But if it's a habit for you, then there will be negative consequences for it."
Sue championed "personal responsibility." She always thought about where a child was before setting her expectations, but she also held the line and called kids out. If a student was upset over a low score, but then, during the next lesson, chatted with a neighbor, Sue would follow up, "This is why you aren't doing well. You aren't paying attention." When I first arrived in the classroom, it sometimes felt like scolding; occasionally it even felt mean, but after a while, it felt like truth. Can young kids make that connection between work and success? Do they automatically know that the chatting hurts their achievement? Or do they need it pointed out? Sue felt they needed to be told explicitly. She let them know when their behavior was hurting them, and she held them responsible for their own success.
Holding students responsible could feel harsh. But it also empowered them. We had one student who was often lethargic in class, and she complained of being hungry. As so many teachers do, Sue kept crackers and snacks in the classroom for students like her. But Sue also pushed the student to get to school early enough to get free breakfast at the cafeteria. I was torn at the beginning the year. Can a 9-year-old really get herself to school on time? But over the course of the year, watching the same child sometimes skip eating lunch in order to play, or hold up the whole class because she was dilly-dallying while putting her materials away, made me wonder. Did her mom make her late? Possibly. But could a child also make herself late or contribute to her own lateness? Of course. And could that child also push her mom to get out the door on time if needed? Maybe so. Sue hoped to empower her to do just that.
Every day, teachers have to make educated guesses. I'm sure Sue guessed wrong sometimes, in fact, I know she did. But I also came to respect how, by letting the kids know their responsibilities, and by holding them accountable, she also tried to teach them to, as best they could, own their own lives. Some of the students came from troubled homes, and some parents rarely came to meetings or conferences, so Sue had little influence on the parents. Sue knew that the only way these children were going to succeed was by taking control and pushing themselves. It was a lot to ask of a fourth grader, but it was also the ask that, when properly supported, stood the best chance of helping that child build strategies that she could use to achieve and succeed.
"Thank you for letting me teach her, and for sending her to school every day, well dressed, with her lunch, and her homework, prepared for school."
Sue often said this to parents at conferences Sue's mantra was that students, parents, and teachers are "a team." Sue expected parents to do their part: send kids to school fed, rested, dressed, and follow up with consequences. But, she never took for granted the daily work that parents did -- or the fact that what she did in school impacted their homes. During science project season, we did parts of the project in school, but students needed to finish parts at home, "Although I would like everyone to have a science project on their desk on Tuesday, it's not going to happen. It can't. I don't feel like a teacher has the right to cause a family uproar by insisting that science projects be on the desk, it's just not reasonable, so some of you will have it done and on the desk by Tuesday. I would like the others to be in progress. Those who are done on Tuesday will get 200 extra credit points in science, as long as you have done it without driving your parents crazy. If I hear that you have driven your parents crazy with it, then I will deduct points."
Sue always strove to be reasonable. I remember a parent being shocked when, after complaining about how much TV her daughter watched, Sue asked the parent to keep it to no more than two hours, "I'm not saying cut the TV off entirely, but not more than 2 hours. And have her pick her favorites, let her decide what she wants to watch, but also, don't take away time that you need to do things, because I know that sometimes the easiest way to get something done is to set the kids in front of the TV, so she'll have to adjust to what you need, but really, no more than 2 hours." Two hours sounded like a tremendous amount to the parent, when spoken out loud, but Sue was a pragmatist: the kids will watch TV, a lot of it, just don't let it take over their lives. And, by the way, if TV gives you, as a parent, a break, take it!
Just as Sue respected the struggles of parents, she expected parents to understand her limitations, to respect her time, and listen to her input. I remember her growing frustration at a parent who could never seem to make it to conferences, but always wanted to chat after the bell rang. She respected parents tremendously, and as someone who did not have children of her own, I think she was particularly conscious of how much work parents put in, but she had no patience for parents who did not respect her work as a teacher or execute what she saw as their duties as parents, "She [the mother] said something to me and I said, 'I'm sorry you feel that way,' but I'm sorry, when a parent comes up to me at 8:15 and wants to talk about conferences? And then does her child's homework for him? I don't think she's well." Sue was considerate of parents, but she also expected them to hold up their part of the team.
"That's OK, I had a hard time coming up with the cash for the ones I wanted too."
Sue commiserated with her students, in this case, a student who was sad not to be able to buy everything he wanted at the book fair. Sue maintained a line between herself and her students, often telling them that they needed to treat adults with respect. But she also felt free to be human in front of students. She often talked about money struggles, and about her life. When the Booster Club was trying to fundraise, causing some students to feel bad because they couldn't contribute, she empathized with them and took the practical line, "I hear that Friends of Castle Heights is calling everyone and asking for \$500, and I don't know how people do it. I know that I couldn't do it. But everyone can afford \$5, and I am really going to push that." No one should feel bad if they couldn't pay the \$500, but she certainly expected all families to contribute something to help their school.
By the time I met her, Sue was not a young, cool teacher. She lived in polyester pants, orthopedic shoes, and Native American themed t-shirts. She walked with a bit of a waddle and her voice had a tremor. And, her students adored her. I often found love notes on her desk -- usually from students she was hardest on. I think they loved her because she was real and honest with them. One day she read the students a novel that had an alcoholic character. While discussing the story, alcohol came up, and all of the children felt compelled to share a story about when their parents had a party and "everyone drank too much vodka" or when mom's boyfriend "had so many beers and slept in the hall." Sue let them talk and then noted that many grown-ups do have a drink sometimes, and that that's different than alcoholism. "And kids, growing up with alcoholism, I can tell you that there's a difference." Sue went back to the book she had been reading to them, but her voice was breaking. All the kids could tell that she was struggling. When she broke down in tears (the only time in four years I ever saw her cry), Eliezer ran for tissues. He comforted her. The kids were quiet and respectful as she composed herself. She apologized and went back to reading. Sue was human, she was honest. She was real. The kids loved and trusted her for it.
"This is good oral development for them. And you know they're interested or they never would have paid attention for so long."
Sometimes discussions would get long and rambling, moving from math to playground rules or volcanoes or elephants. When we were reading novels and students made connections, Sue let the students tell their stories and explain, often in rambling detail, why they understood how the character felt or why he behaved the way he did. I sometimes worried that the discussions were a waste of time. Weren't we supposed to be talking about the book? I wondered if Sue had lost control of the class or lost her own train of thought. But as I always learned when we debriefed afterwards, it was deliberate: Sue loved these far-ranging discussions. Ironically, one of the things that I set out to study, when I got to Sue's class, was how often kids won the struggle against teachers to set their own educational paths. What I learned was that in Sue's class, kids didn't determine their own paths in opposition to Sue's path. On the contrary, Sue delighted in following them, in watching them make connections. Inherently, she knew that in order to teach she needed their attention, and part of having their attention was letting them express how and why the material mattered to them.
"Most people in Fanfares and Celebrations will get Ns, but if you are working really hard, then in 'effort' you'll get a check and not an N, and that's what's important. They took that category away for a while, but now it's back, thank God. Tell your parents to look there!"
Sue never hid the fact that students in her class worked at different levels. There was no point: the students already knew it. While she recognized that the work and the grades came easier to some kids than others -- and never sugar-coated the fact that some kids simply had more catching up to do than others -- she always emphasized effort. Sue knew that what determined kids' success was how hard they tried and she made sure that the kids knew it too. She celebrated success but was always honest about how much work kids still needed to do. She would tell them directly, "Celebrations and Fanfares are NOT fourth grade books, they are below fourth grade, and I told you that when I handed them to you," when she explained why even the top kids in those groups would not get 3s on their report cards (3s designated proficient at grade-level skills). To an outsider it could feel ruthless, but she never wanted kids to "succeed" in her room, only to realize that success was fake.
And Sue did not reserve her reality checks for the struggling kids. She also kept the high achieving kids' feet to the fire, "Some of them are just so full of themselves, right now. I'm thinking they might need a comeuppance, just let them turn it in and get big red slashes all over it."
Sue appreciated that some kids learned more quickly than others, but she loved putting kids into a higher reading group, if they wanted it, or she thought they could hack it, to see if they could rise to the challenge. And she loved it when kids took a chance. I remember a parent, noting in a conference, that her daughter wasn't capitalizing correctly, and Sue stood up for the student, "Using colons is not really a 4th grade skill -- I taught them, her group, and this was really a gutsy move for her to try to use it -- she just didn't know not to capitalize after it." Kristina had just been moved up to the highest reading group and Sue was so proud that she was hanging strong with kids who had more skills, and far more confidence, than she did. She knew that the challenge was paying off.
Sue's respect for students' talents and her deep desire to motivate the kids and praise them for their talents did not extend to false praise. I remember attending an assembly and seeing a student hunched over, sad and upset as the principal handed out Student of the Month awards. When Sue asked me what was wrong with him and I told her, "He doesn't like it when other people get ribbons," she burst out laughing, "He said that? Well, that's how they're supposed to feel!" She wanted her students to feel good about their strengths, but also wanted them to remain driven to improve.
|Ms. Shultz and our lovely aide Ms. Adrena Mathews.|
"I like to have the kids do as much as possible."
As any parent or teacher knows, giving children real responsibilities often uses up far more time than it saves. And yet, we also know that it is precisely these responsibilities that teach kids that they can and must pull their weight. Sue had line monitors and assistant line monitors, ball monitors, students who turned out the lights when we left the room, and students who wiped down the overhead projector between lessons. It was sometimes hilarious -- almost ludicrous -- to watch Sue wait, staring pointedly, for the overhead monitor to look up from his work or snap out of a daydream and hustle to the sink for a paper towel (especially when she had one in her hand!), but wait we did until Neri hurried to complete his task, always smiling as he finished, and yield a shiny new teaching surface. I remember Sue calling out her monitors, "Isaac, I really need this cleaned off now -- it makes it really hard to use when it's not wiped clean," and watching Isaac sheepishly complete his task, a little embarrassed but also with that shy smile of pride that his task was necessary.
When the class erupted into craziness over "cheating" in four-square, Sue photocopied her ancient booklets containing LAUSD's handball rules, handing them out to the team captains, who then handwrote multiple copies for their co-captains. Sue asked the kids to sort it out themselves, which they did.
"I want to talk to you all about something. Ever since I was a little girl, your age, and yes, I was once your age, and you will all one day be my age, I have not liked it when people made fun of other people. I did it a few times, and I always felt bad. Kids, it's just not nice to make fun of people because they don't get a skill, or whatever. People make fun of other people to make themselves feel better, but it always makes them feel worse, so it works the other way around."
Sue believed in kindness. And she believed that it was her duty to intervene when the kids were unkind, even outside the classroom. Whenever there was drama, she rooted it out and she addressed it to the whole class. Sometimes she addressed things individually as well, but she often felt, I think correctly, that if one student was struggling with a social skill, they could all use a reminder. I think we're sometimes inclined not to get involved in kids' social drama: they need to learn to work it out themselves, this isn't our business, intervention will make some kids look like tattletales. It's all true. And yet, Sue always dealt with these issues head-on. And afterwards, everyone seemed to feel better about it.
"Michael just felt so inadequate, and I think that after John and I talked with him he was a little bit better, but the test just cannot show how beautiful he is on the inside and it cannot show his talent for art, and that's why I gave them the art, so that those of them with that talent could feel good about that."
As a teacher, Sue was responsible for the students' academic progress. But like so many teachers, Sue also felt responsible for her students' emotional and mental health and growth. She balanced her days between trying to teach them everything they were supposed to know by the end of the year tests and making sure that they all felt good about themselves. When they, like Michael, felt awful about their test performance despite their preparation, Sue tried to make it right by emphasizing what he was good at.
Sue struggled mightily to prepare her students to do well on assessments -- even when she felt the assessments were unfair, poorly timed, or badly designed. Other teachers felt she was too compliant, too co-opted by the administration. They railed against new assessments, sometimes even trying to undermine them. Sue put her nose to the grindstone and taught; when the district implemented a new assessment, she didn't fight it, she just prepared her students.
In the end, I never felt like Sue was trying to ingratiate herself with the administration, or even that she liked following the rules. She drove herself to prepare for assessments she didn't like because she did not want the kids to feel sad or disappointed; she wanted to empower them, as much as possible, to succeed, no matter what. I remember her talking to the kids before end-of-the-year standardized test, "Just like we've been doing, no difference, you are all well-prepared for this, if you cooperated [with the prep work]. All of you should be fine, and if you feel any nervousness, you just need to say to yourself, that you are well-prepared, and think 'What have I done in class that looks like this?" Sue despaired privately to me about the assessments, "How much instructional time are we going to lose over this? There are all these [experts] and they don't seem to have much experience in the classroom -- there are always these new hotshots who want to reinvent the wheel!" but in the end, she just taught the material because more than anything, she wanted to make her students feel prepared. And, when they didn't do well on the tests, she did her best to improve their morale so they would have the strength to keep working.
"Omar, I was looking for you the other day, are you ok? I want you to know that if you have a problem, you come to me. You just find an adult and you tell them to get Ms. Shultz -- because I want to help you."
Sue was utterly loyal. She had the kids' backs. And they knew it. Omar was not Sue's student; he was in the bungalow next door. But Sue had had his mom’s sister in class years before. She knew Omar (who got into more than his fair share of scrapes and, with his spiky, bleached hair looked the part of troublemaker) and looked out for him. Although she would seek out a kid like Omar, and make him feel like he was her favorite, any kid could count on her to be a fair arbiter. Although she could be hard on students, if she felt like they needed it, all kids could also feel like her favorite -- which is, I think, the best lesson I learned from Sue. Every one of her students knew that Sue cared about him or her, which is just about the greatest gift any adult can give any kid.
Bungalow A, with Sue, was the first classroom I spent much time in. In the years since, I have had the privilege of observing and helping in many other classrooms, from kindergarten through middle school. I always knew that Sue was special, but I've also learned that so much of what Sue did was simply what good teachers do. She listened; she adjusted; she cared. But at the same time, much of what she did also feels somewhat endangered. I can easily imagine people thinking of teaching about manners as old-fashioned, thinking of a teacher calling out a student for not working hard enough as unfair or undermining her confidence. No one would have ever labeled Sue as a "progressive" educator, but to the extent that "traditional" means inflexible or uncaring, she certainly was not that either.
So much of what made her successful in the classroom stemmed not from her teaching philosophy, but from her character. She believed in personal responsibility, mutual respect, kindness, hard work, and honesty. And those traits shone through in every interaction she had, with every student. She cared about her students unflinchingly. You could see it every time an old student -- ranging from middle school to adult -- came back just to give her a hug and say thank you. She was that teacher that every kid remembered, and every kid knew would still remember her. A grown man would walk into the classroom after school and Sue would light up and tell me about some gorgeous painting of the the sea that that child made some 15 years ago.
Sue acknowledged her mistakes; she apologized. She was as stubborn as a bull, but she always admitted when she was wrong. And she'd look a 10-year-old right in the eyes as she apologized for even a small error, just because she knew it had upset him. She took a pragmatic approach to just about everything: shoot for the stars but recognize the obstacles. So, she wasn't that dreamy teacher who always made you feel like you'd always win. But she sure did make you feel like you earned and deserved every success you achieved.
So much of how I teach is Sue. So much of how I interact with kids, my students and my own child, comes from Sue. So much of what I teach my staff, I learned sitting right there in Bungalow A. And in that way, I know we live in a world where she not only indelibly touched the hundreds of students who passed through her classroom, but all of our current students, and the students that my staff will go on to teach in the future. And, I'm so grateful to get to pass along her dinosaur teacher spirit to every aspiring teacher that I meet.
I'm certain that I have not done Sue Shultz, my teacher, mentor, and supporter, justice in this piece, but I dearly hope she knows that she will always be part of my team.