Reciprocal Learning: When the Student Teaches the Teacher

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By Barb Elson

Elson Reciprical Learning 300x300It’s funny how certain things trigger memories that tug at our heartstrings. Having just recently retired from being an elementary school principal, I decided the 33 boxes in my garage that were housing memories of my career were not going to unpack themselves. I had to just jump in—and, boy, did I jump into a pile of memories!

The consummate collector, there I sat on the garage floor reading note after note from students, parents, and staff. Tears clouded my vision and streamed down my face. The mounds of used tissues on the floor beside me, coupled with the class photo I saved from my second year of teaching, took my thoughts back to Thomas.

It was November. He was a new student in my classroom. It was Friday. In he walked, a spring in his step and hesitation on his face. His big, round glasses in place, he reached for the tissue box on my desk to wipe his tears. Tears! What had I done to make him so sad? This was his very first day and his very first experience in this new classroom in a new school! Perhaps he was just feeling “new.” Eventually I got things under control, and the day progressed fairly smoothly . . . as did the next day . . . and the day after that . . .

Until it was Friday again. In walked Thomas, shoulders heaving, crocodile tears flowing. Tissues were needed once again. He was inconsolable. Students numbered their papers, preparing for the weekly spelling test. Thomas continued to cry and cry and cry, his numbered paper drenched, the letters blending together from teardrops.

The same thing happened again the following week. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday—all tear free. Then came Friday . . . and the tears, tissues, and hysterics. “Maybe Thomas should only come to school on Monday through Thursday,” I thought. “What was the problem with Fridays?” Two years of teaching under my belt hadn’t prepared me for this!

Thomas was a child who struggled with written language encoding—also known as spelling. It was the spelling test! Friday is spelling test day! That’s why he was so sad. No wonder he didn’t want to be there. The next day, I invited Thomas for lunch. We made a list of things he was good at (he was an excellent artist and told the most amazing stories) and another list of things that were challenging for him. I did the same. “I’m a crummy artist,” I told him, as I added it to my list, “but I’m good at math.” He smiled the largest smile, realizing that I had weaknesses, too.

It was Friday again. “Oh, no,” I thought preparing myself for the tears, watching Thomas as he reached for my tissue box. Then, the oddest thing happened. Thomas methodically took 12 tissues and sat down at his desk. He carefully made two piles of six tissues each. He proceeded to wad six tissues behind one lens of his glasses and six tissues behind the other. There he sat, facing my direction, tissues held in place by the wire frames of his glasses. I walked toward him (he didn’t realize I was close because the wadded tissues had completely covered his eyes).

“Thomas,” I whispered, trying not to draw more attention to him, “What are you doing?”

“I’m just getting ready,” he smiled.

Thomas had learned perhaps one of the most important lessons ever—certainly more important than any spelling lesson and one that I hope he took with him into his many school years ahead. He may not have yet learned to correctly spell the word does, but he learned to accept himself as he was—imperfect, as we all are. I, too, learned something that day: one of the best lessons we can teach kids is how to turn hopelessness into hopefulness, allowing them to see what we see in them so they can see it in themselves. Oh, and I certainly never gave a Friday spelling test again.

Tissues will always and forever make me smile and so will thoughts of you, Thomas!

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Barb Elson is a newly retired elementary school principal from Longacre Elementary in Farmington, Mich., and career-long member of ASCD. She is currently doing legacy work by supporting other educators as a consultant and principal mentor.

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