This is my sister and best friend, Carolyn.
She’s an amazing person – smart, funny, compassionate, highly creative, and very organized (do you love it? Do you need it? Have you used it in a year? If not, throw it out.) She’s also an amazing wife, mother, daughter, step-grandmother, friend, and aunt (my kids adore her.) She volunteers in an elementary school in Pittsburgh, and she wrote this insightful article for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. She’s still trying to get it published, but I wanted to “preview” it here.
“First Person” Submission for Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
September 24, 2008
The days are getting shorter, and school has started once again. My friend Nina and have headed back for the second year to Arlington Academy on the South Side slopes where we “tutor” students. Tutor is way too strong a word – basically we show up and make ourselves available for 2 hours every Friday. As we start the year and meet the new children, my mind replays memorable moments of last year.
Keisha’s dark eyes pierce the air in defiance. Shoulders slouched, body slumped, she looks past me. As others around her busily immerse themselves in activity, she sits stonily still, refusing, for the second week in a row, to participate in the math activity I have been assigned to monitor. Anxiously I barrage her with questions, not knowing what else to do: “What’s the matter? What do you need to get started? Do you need a partner?” No response. Silence. Suddenly, a resounding voice: “Keisha, please come to Table I and measure the base of the cylinder.” Keisha is off like a rocket and, confidently standing in the front of the room, explains the math lesson to the Table I kids, holding their rapt attention. Once again, this gifted teacher has done her magic.
Ms. Ernsthausen is no-nonsense, the master of her classroom world. When she speaks, the kids listen. When she smiles, they smile. They love her, in a slightly fearsome way. Her values and beliefs about kids and learning are crystal clear: every child can learn, every child in her class will learn, and she takes no prisoners. Whatever it takes, she will do to assure they will learn the third grade math principles. She is organized, skilled and passionate.
Her classroom décor is early OCD. The reason, she explains, is “No Child Left Behind.” As one first enters the room, the wall on the left is covered floor to ceiling with charts of every child’s name, with teeny tiny columns of the math concepts each child must learn by the end of the year. Some of the boxes have colorful smiley faces, indicating that the child has mastered the skill. We come to know this as the kids do: “Getting Their Sticker,” the focus of much attention. Moving around the room there are charts of every rhyme and reason: charts showing homework that has been done, charts demonstrating math principles. The window sills hold binder after binder, substantiating every action of the teacher and every achievement or developmental need of every student. It is overwhelmingly stimulating.
Our weekly responsibilities vary, sometimes overseeing table activities of small groups like “Telling Time Bingo,” “Roll of the Dice Baseball,” or the “edible ratio exercise,” using donuts. Other times we work with the children in individual activities to attempt to seal the deal in learning a particular skill, like moving the big and little hands on the blown up chart of a clock to “11:45” and “midnight” until it is second nature. Some days I have William or Khalil read to me 1:1, as I join forces in an attempt to move them from first grade reading level to the third grade level, a monumental leap. Teacher says that if kids can’t read by the end of third grade, they are lost in school from then on. We read together fiercely.
By Christmas we were in love with the kids. We bought colored markers, eraser “toppers,” stickers and pens and put them in colorful paper bags and stuffed them with Little Mermaid and Steeler socks. Following a collective gasp of delight, we handed each child their gift. As they threw their skinny little arms around our waists in spontaneous thanks, we asked them to tell us what they wanted to be when they grow up: teachers, lawyers, nurses, Penn State football players. After class, Ms. Ernsthausen told us that for some of these kids, this would be their only Christmas present.
Being there two hours a week allows us to peek inside the keyhole of a classroom. Observing a teacher whose hope is unwavering despite the incredible odds of poverty and disjointed families raises more questions than answers. Why is all the responsibility on the teachers and the school? Why are the school walls impenetrable and why are the individual teachers and classrooms invisible? Why is there so much press about the school district, and so little news about the classroom? Ms. Ernsthausen has big plans for her students. In a heated discussion with a kid’s defensive mother, she explained that as a result of the Pittsburgh Promise, she believes this mother’s son will go to college and become whatever he wants to be. What is our role as members of the community to prepare these kids for the world they will enter in ten short years?
The last week of school in June, temperatures hovered at 95 degrees and the un-air-conditioned school was an oven. Teacher drew the blinds, and as an incentive, told the kids they could lie down on the cool linoleum floor. When we arrived on this our last day of the school-year, she gave them the option or working with us to “Get One More Sticker.” Eighteen of the twenty kids eagerly raised their hands to get a final shot at mastery. One more time, I wiped my eyes, smiled at Ms. Ernsthausen, grabbed a kid’s hand, a marker and white board, and got to work. And that’s what we’ll do again this year, starting on Friday, with a brand new group of kids. We’ll show up.
(Carolyn Maue, a leadership coach and consultant, and Nina El-Tobgy, a small business owner, live across the street from each other on Washington’s Landing downtown.)