"By the time I started teaching, in 1980, I was so far down the road to perfection that I honestly thought my expectations weren’t all that stringent."
Excerpt from DRAGONS IN MY CLASSROOM : A Teacher’s Memoir by Barbara Kennard
Copyright 2022 Barbara Kennard
Used with permission
I knew I wanted to be a teacher in 1959, when I was six years old. Miss Gluding, my first-grade teacher, was kind and firm. There was no dilly-dallying around with her. She instilled in me a small, healthy sense of fear and a large dose of compassion. Today, we cringe at the idea of a teacher making students feel a little fearful, but it actually helped me learn. I knew from her eagle eye that she meant business when I fooled around in class, but I also felt her compassion for me when I struggled to read…
I read fast and with mistakes. But Miss Gluding said gently, with a twinkle in her other eye, “Oops, Barbara, one whole line skipped right out off the page. Where did it go? Let’s try again with this index card. When you keep your place, you read very well.”
My mistakes frustrated me, and the fact that I was born almost completely blind in my right eye was no excuse, as far as I was concerned. I worked at something until I got it right. I reasoned, I may not have much vision in my right eye, but I will strive to be perfect in other ways.
Miss Gluding was a saint with me. When I grew impatient with myself, she smiled and encouraged me not to give up. She never asked me to “get it all right”; she offered me strategies and asked me to try again. I wanted to be a teacher, like Miss Gluding.
I started very early on my journey toward perfection and never gave up trying to compensate for my poor eyesight and dyslexia… Other teachers, who didn’t have Miss Gluding’s empathy, embarrassed me by calling attention to my mistakes. I remember the terrible humiliation I felt from my sixth-grade teacher’s words when I couldn’t spell correctly. “Barbara,” Miss Bell announced for the whole class to hear, “You have not spelled fascination correctly. Once again, you have reversed the c and the s. You will not be able to read and write very well next year in seventh grade if you cannot spell correctly. Copy it twenty-five times at recess.”
I wiped my eyes. I loved to read and write and couldn’t wait to be in seventh grade. I copied fascination twenty-five times in my best Palmer cursive.
Whenever Miss Bell made me feel bad about my spelling, I tried to recall kind and strong Miss Gluding, and what she had written on my report card: “Barbara is a very good reader.” But because of my painful sixth-grade year, I decided instead that when I became a teacher, I wouldn’t yell at a kid for misspelling a word like fascination, or make her stay in from recess to copy it twenty-five times. I would be a better teacher than Miss Bell.
Yet, in striving to be a better teacher than she, I actually became more like her. At least I knew better than to speak to my students the way Miss Bell spoke to me, for the most part. Instead, I substituted her language for unattainable expectations of myself and my students. By the time I started teaching, in 1980, I was so far down the road to perfection that I honestly thought my expectations weren’t all that stringent. I reasoned that even the kindest and best of my teachers had demanded a great deal from me, and I carried this standard right into my own teaching.
From 1983 to 1987, I taught fifth and sixth grades at a Montessori school in Pasadena, California. My students were classic Montessori kids: quirky, wise beyond their years, capable of the unusual. They thrived on challenge and were themselves somewhat inclined toward the sublime. I was in my element these four years. My own Montessori teacher, Madame Kripulani, who had learned from Maria Montessori herself, passed on the rigors of her training to her students…
…In the fall of 1993. My early years at Fessenden were both rewarding and hard. The former because I taught my passions: classic literature, a bit of Shakespeare, interpretative writing, and grammar…
The hard part about teaching at Fessenden was what had been hard all along. Despite the occasional fun times in class, I was deemed too strict and too demanding by some students, parents, administrators, and other teachers… I began to wonder if teaching was my calling after all. Yet something in me recoiled at the idea of leaving the classroom. I’d loved school all my life, despite the challenges and hard times I’d had as a student and a teacher. I couldn’t leave. Leaving would be a kind of dying: I’d feel incomplete, empty as a person. I wanted to spend my life teaching, but I also wanted to be a different teacher, someone who didn’t need to be perfect or expect her students to be. To do that, I’d have to shed the “get it all right” persona I’d carried with me since I was a kid. How to accomplish this feat was unclear to me at first; I just knew with every fiber of my being that I wanted to be a better teacher. Little did I know that a unique opportunity would present itself in the seventeenth year of my career.
BARBARA KENNARD taught English and performing arts to elementary, middle, and high school students from 1980–2015 and has received two teaching awards: The Christa McAuliffe Award for Teaching Excellence and The Barbara Kennard Sixth Grade English Prize, established in her name at The Fessenden School by a Fessenden family. Formerly of Boston, Barbara now lives in Texas, with her husband, pianist, Brady Millican, and their cat, Piper. Find her online at barbarakennardauthor.com, facebook.com/barbara.kennard.167, and on twitter @BarbaraKennard7.