Thursday, October 7, 2010

My Life As An Educator

In this post, I'm sharing an article that I wrote for the Fall 2010 issue of  "The Colorado Communicator," a newsletter for the Colorado Council International Reading Associate.  Serving as co-editor for this newsletter is one of my "retirement jobs."

My Life As An Educator

A photo from The Herald Democrat recorded my work with Head Start in 1965

During the summer of1965, just before I was beginning  upper level courses that I hoped would lead to a degree in elementary education at what was then Colorado State College, The Office of Economic Opportunity began an eight-week summer program that would launch Project Head Start.  Across the country, there was a rush to hire tutors and teachers to serve the over 560,000 children who would enter this newly created program.  It was my good fortune to be hired as a tutor to work along side of other  early workers in Head Start in beginning a “comprehensible program for preschool children that would meet their emotional, social, health, nutritional and psychological needs."
I wish I had kept a journal of those days because now, nearly 44 years later, my mind is a bit fuzzy about it all. Young and idealistic, I had great dreams about the kind of educator I would become.   Coming of age during the 60's,  I embraced the Civil Rights Movement and the "new" ideas about education, but I also respected and looked up to those who had been in education for a long time.  
My mentor for the summer of 1965 was Idelia B. Riggs.   As I reflect back on her now, I consider this consummate educator as one the best with whom I have had the privilege to know throughout my entire lifetime.  She must have been in her sixties when I was a young college student.  She had already taught everything from kindergarten to college.  She had even been the principal of a one-room schoolhouse at one point in her career.  
Mrs. Riggs knew what children needed to grow and to prosper educationally, emotionally and socially.  She embraced the ideals behind Project Head Start and imparted them to me as she spoke of all of the reasons why she believed the program could be successful.  
She said that the children of poverty in the our local area were beginning school without the skills that other children brought to school.  Sometimes, they didn't even know how to use indoor plumbing.  Yes, in 1965, in our program in Leadville, Colorado, some of the children did not have indoor plumbing.  We had to teach them how to use the bathroom facilities.  Many did not receive proper nutrition at home and were undernourished.  They lagged behind their peers in knowing how to grasp a pencil or how to turn the pages of a book. Many did not know the alphabet.    Many did not know colors or shapes.  They did not have group or personal social skills. 
Project Head Start’s comprehensive program was based on a belief that  school readiness was achieved by giving the children equal portions of playtime, story time, art activities, and basic academic preparation such as learning how to recognize and form letters through reading and writing.  
Our lead teacher, Mrs. Riggs was a very practical woman who put up with no nonsense from anyone.  Her character was stellar.  She saw her role as an educator as one as a public servant.  She was not interested in feathering her own nest or building her career.  She was there for the children she taught and for the families she served.  
In my mind's eye, I see her now.  She is wearing an apron with pockets so she would have "a place for those tissues to wipe a child's nose or tears," or as a place to keep stray crayons, pencils or rubber bands that she might need while she was teaching.  Patient, kind and loving, she was also demanding when it came to giving something your best efforts.  We ALL learned from her.   

Now that I have retired as a classroom teacher, it is nice to reminisce about those days of both my own personal and the national idealism that abounded  60's.   Mrs. Riggs, and the ideals of Head Start, greatly influenced my philosophy of my own role as an educator. I am grateful that I came of age as a person and as educator when programs like Head Start were new and fresh and perhaps idealistic.  Those early lessons and philosophies, rooted deep in my heart,  are still driving my passion today as I serve CCIRA in supporting teachers as they strive to make sure that all children are on The Road to Literacy.