psych pstuff header

by Dr. Donna Roberts

The Story

I distinctly remember the first day of first grade. It was the beginning of my love affair with education. I haven’t been out of school—in one form or another—for more than a few months at a time ever since.

I remember sitting awestruck in the classroom that first day of “real school.” But, most importantly, I remember my first grade teacher, Mrs. Sapporito, who stood before our bright shiny faces that first day promising, by the time she was through with us, we would know how to read. I remember I could barely get to sleep that night for all the excitement.

Mrs. Sapporito followed through on that promise. However, like all great teachers, she didn’t actually give us something we didn’t already have. Rather, she gently guided us to dig down deep inside and cultivate from within ourselves that which would change our lives. For me, the true magic of her class was that she made me believe in myself—believe I could do anything that I was willing to work hard enough to achieve. That gift has lasted a lifetime, one I have turned to time and time again when I felt unsure and insecure. For that, I am ever grateful.

What worked about her classroom was not so much the curriculum—although she was strict and demanding, even to little first graders. At the end of each day, I felt I had completed a hard day’s work, and I was proud of that accomplishment. Nor did her success rely on her methods alone—although they, too, were very effective. In principle, she was the quintessential back-to-basics essentialist. She was “old school” and did not believe in a teacher’s role as entertainment, rather it was our responsibility to be industrious and productive to the best of our abilities every single day. She did not tolerate boredom or laziness, and she taught us not to tolerate it in ourselves.

The key to Mrs. Sapporito’s brilliance was the way she inspired little minds to develop a passion for learning itself. It didn’t matter that our little hands fumbled through a task or that we did not get it right the first time (or even the first 10 times). What she taught us, every day, through patience and diligence was that what mattered was to try and to try and to try again, with persistence in the face of discouragement, until we mastered the task. Inherent in this practice was the deeper lesson that we would master the task—that there was no failure unless we gave up and that striving toward was as important as the goal.

I am grateful that I met Mrs. Sapporito in first grade, for she gave me the tools that carried me through far less enriching learning environments.

Psych Pstuff Summary

Although American educator Malcolm Knowles convincingly argued that adult learners are a very different animal than child learners, I believe there are many lessons to be gleaned from my first grade classroom—lessons that are universally applicable even in contexts in the modern world.

Mrs. Sapporito was a strict taskmaster—there are, after all, certain foundational skills and knowledge that must be learned to function in our world. However, she was fundamentally a humanist who cared about people enough to want to bring out the best in them, and she knew the best way to do so was to believe in them so strongly and so convincingly that they had no choice but to believe in themselves. She was rather unique in this way. It is much easier to simply be a stern taskmaster or a conversely warm fuzzy—downright demanding or cuddly and coddling—and so much harder to be the just-right combination of both. I believe she could pull this off primarily because she was so very genuine. She wisely understood she had a limited time to impart some very important lessons on eager minds, and she took her own responsibility seriously. Certain things had to be accomplished, or we would forever remain behind. She also must have realized she had a chance to shape the way we would forever feel about learning and our own competence. The result was an education with substance as well as soul. Surely there are a multitude of methods and strategies to teach a subject and a multitude of ways to learn, but it is the passion and thus the corresponding unwavering dedication to learning and to teaching that makes the difference.

No doubt that first grade classroom so many years ago is a world away from the high-tech educational environments of today—and yet, perhaps not so far at all. Perhaps the fundamental magic formula for success in the modern world is as simple and as pure as the innocence and delight in learning that is found in the open minds of little first graders encouraged to succeed. The world as we know it, after all, was built on the dreams of men and women who believed in the impossible and then diligently made that dream come true. In short, my fundamental belief in the magic of teaching and of learning can be best expressed by the words of the English poet, Christopher Logue:

“Come to the edge”, he said.
“We might fall”, they said.
“Come to the edge!” he said.
“It’s too high!” they said.
“COME TO THE EDGE!” he said.
And they came,
and he pushed,
and they flew.

Donna Roberts is a native upstate New Yorker who lives and works in Europe. She holds a Ph.D., specializing in the field of Media Psychology. When she is researching or writing she can usually be found at her computer buried in rescue cats.