Editor’s note: This is the third in Trent DeJong’s series “Lessons Learned.” Check out the first two posts “4 Phases of Teaching” and “What I Learned About Learning in K-2,” and stay tuned for “What I Learned About Learning: Whales,” and “What I Learned About Learning in Grades 5-7.”
Throughout my own education there have been episodes that I now realize taught me something important about teaching.
I wish I understood what happened to me in grade 3. It was the most important year in my life and it was probably because of my teacher, Mrs. Geldhof. Apparently, I was a fearful child. I am told that I was scared of the tornado alarm system tests that happened on scheduled Fridays. And I was scared of fuzzy caterpillars on the deck. I walked miles to school alone because I was scared of the bus—actually, it was the “bus culture” I was afraid of.
In school, I was terrified by “timed tests.” Weekly arithmetic tests—the kind where you have a minute, or maybe it was 2 or 3, to correctly answer as many math facts as you can.
I don’t remember if it was addition or division, but I feared Fridays. I distinctly remember being unable to sleep on Thursday night knowing that we had one of these timed tests the next day. I distinctly remember, in the middle of one such test, Mark Verhage saying out loud, “Hey, look at Trent’s hand!” It was shaking so hard that it had become a distraction to other students. I remember trying to write the number 7 in the answer space, but my nervous system was in rebellion.
Needless to say, I did very poorly on these tests, and they did a very poor job at assessing my knowledge of math facts.
From my perspective, Mrs. Geldhof was tall. And she was blonde and her hair was also really tall—it was, after all, 1971. I think I remember tall leather boots. She taught us a little Dutch. She had a little troll whose name was EGBDF; he had a lovely FACE (that’s a music thing). I don’t know what she did, but by the time grade 3 was done, I no longer suffered from anxiety. I know it was because of Mrs. Geldof because my dad says it was.
Lesson Learned: The teacher’s task is not just, or even mainly, to teach content and skills. The teacher’s main task is to help students to flourish as human beings. Thank you, Mrs. Geldhof.
By the time I was in Grade 4, I wanted to be a farmer. Not just any kind of farmer, but a grain farmer in southern Alberta.
My grandparents worked such a farm in southern Alberta, just outside of Nobleford. They had pigs and chickens and a whole lot of prairie on which they ran cattle and grew wheat, barley and flax. We went there every summer. If my parents were ever to ask us, and I think they did, “Where do you want to go for summer holidays? How about Disneyland?” We answered, “No, we want to go to the farm.”
I loved the farm. I loved snaring gophers. I loved baling hay, butchering chickens and digging potatoes. And I loved the wheat harvest the best—riding on the combine with Opa. I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.
I was so passionate about this subject that I asked my grade 4 teacher if I could do a presentation on dryland farming for the class. This was way out of the norm. I don’t know where I got the idea from; we didn’t really do presentations. I suspect it was because I was passionate about something, and I wanted to share it with my classmates—like show and tell.
Ms. Zeilenga allowed my lecture. I remember drawing a drill on the blackboard and explaining how seeds were treated to protect them from mold and insects. I talked about the blade that was developed in southern Alberta and how it helped prevent wind erosion. I explained how you tested to see if the wheat was ripe and ready for harvest while I drew the swather. The combine was my favourite machine. I drew detailed drawings on how it separated the grain from the straw. I have no idea if my presentation was any good, but I don’t have any negative feelings associated with this memory, so it must have gone OK.
I didn’t just wing it. I had been around this sort of equipment for years, but when I had to do a presentation on it I had to collect a lot more information. My father, although a minister at the time, had worked for years in this type of agriculture. He was a valuable source of information. Before I began, I thought I knew about the subject; I didn’t. By the time I stood up in front of my peers, I sure did.
Although I thought I was talking about my future job, it turns out I was doing my future job. I was teaching.
Lesson Learned: Several lessons still stick with me about this episode. First, the people who teach are the ones who learn the most. It makes sense then, that we create scenarios in which students need to do the research and the consulting with experts, and the teaching itself.
And the second lesson is that we don’t primarily teach content and dispense knowledge in school. We primarily teach skills—thinking skills, communication skills, creativity and skills for interacting with others.
Another thing happened in Grade 4. We went on a field trip to some Michigan woods. There was a local expert of some kind pointing out various flora. He stopped by a trillium in bloom. He told us that it was illegal to pick a white trillium because doing so would do serious damage to the plant from which it would take years to recover, if it recovered at all.
Illegal to pick a flower!?
I understood that it was wrong to lie and cheat. I knew that it was illegal to steal or to murder someone. I knew about policemen and jail, for I had seen these on TV. That it was also criminal to pick a flower shook my understanding of the world, or at least the foundations of my budding awareness of justice. I picked flowers all the time and gave them to my mother—and now, in my mind, this had become a jailable offence. I pictured one of my fellow students, the inattentive one, being led away by the police for picking a trillium.
It’s incredible that I would remember something so trivial from an insignificant outing from 50 years ago. Just the other day I was on a hike and I walked by a blooming white trillium. I remembered that incident all those years ago. I took a picture of the flower. It is also illegal to pick a trillium in British Columbia.
Lesson Learned: Students learn more than what we are teaching them. Especially when we are out of the classroom where even a mundane fact can lead to a profound experience that will stick for a lifetime.