100 Posts / Saturday Teacher Feature: Grandma

Well!  In less than half a year, I've successfully posted a hundred different useless bits of personal trivia.  This calls for a celebration!

Actually, I've been planning to do this for awhile, but I thought the 100th post would be a nice milestone with which to begin.  It's occurred to me that although I never planned to become a teacher, I have grown up with and am surrounded by them.  Many of my friends and family members are teachers, and I learn from them all the time.  I thought it would be fun to start an ongoing feature wherein you get to hear from the other teachers in my life through a list of basic questions that help them talk about their jobs.

This was really more Rob's idea, and he also helped me come up with the questions.  When we started making a list of all the teachers we know (we were on a long car trip) his first suggestion surprised me: it wasn't one of his colleagues, our friends, or even my mother: "Your grandma," he said.

Immediately I realized he was right.  My grandmother is a pretty amazing person.  She married my grandfather after a scandalously short courtship (not scandalous then, as it was wartime) and raised three children to school age before returning to work herself.  She taught for several more decades before retiring, and in 61 years of marriage to my dear grandfather (he died in February 2006) I'm pretty sure they never had one single fight, although he sure tried his best to rile her up (he used to say that sarcasm was his spiritual gift.)  That's just how she is: peaceful, loving, and way too smart to be suckered into something she doesn't want to do.

Ladies and gentlemen, Marilyn McNichols of Los Angeles, California:

What do you teach, and how long have you been teaching it?

Most of my teaching was at the upper elementary level, more specifically grades 5 and six, where I taught all subjects.  My favorite assignment, though, was when a couple of other teachers and I did team teaching, and I taught math.  I also taught social studies in grades seven and eight at the junior high level.

Who or what inspired you to teach?

My eldest sister, 13 years my senior, assisted in my classroom when she was a high school senior and I was in first grade.  She then went on to college.  Her first teaching assignment was in a country school where she was the only teacher for all eight grades.  Now in her nineties, she was recently feted by some of the students from that first teaching job.  This gives you some idea of how highly regarded she was.  I loved her dearly and wanted to follow in her footsteps -- although it took me thirty years to do so!

What's the toughest thing about teaching?

Balancing absolutes in discipline with compassion and understanding.  Because I started teaching after all three of my own children were in school, I had a keen sense of how events at home can affect a kid's behavior, his/her ability to complete assignments on time, and his/her values.

When do you have the most fun while teaching?

  • The "aha!" moment when a student grasps a new concept (in math, for example)

  • When I try a new approach and the class suddenly finds the subject material exciting or relevant and they take off with it.

What one thing do you try to teach all of your students -- the one thing that would enable you to say, "I was a good teacher"?

  • You never, never, NEVER use an apostrophe to form a plural (although this is true 99.99% of the time, I realize there are a couple of exceptions).

  • Math word problems are like a puzzle that can be solved.

  • I care about you as an individual.  Many years after he had been in my classroom, I had a note from one student who said, "I always felt you really cared about me."  And perhaps 30 years after she left my classroom, I met a former student in a business situation who gushed to everyone in the office, "Mrs. McNichols was my very favorite teacher in all my school years!  We were very 'special' in her class!"  These gratifying comments made me feel I had succeeded in building their self confidence, even if they really didn't have much to be confident about!

Any parting thoughts?

I suppose I was one of millions of teachers who loved interacting with kids day after day, year after year, winning some, losing some, but always striving to help a kid do his level best and, just maybe, learn something in the effort.

(You did, Grandma.  You've taught so much to your children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and of course to all of your student's, too.)