Educator...public leader ... supervisor ... wife ... mother ... grandmother ... a lifetime of wisdom lies within these pages.
Nelda Toothman received her Bachelor's degree from Florida State University and her Master's degree from the University of South Florida. She is a certified trainer for Dr. Tom Gordon's Effectiveness Training for teachers, parents and leaders.
Nelda was a long-time teacher and school volunteer supervisor for the Polk County (Florida) School District. During that period she designed and facilitated training programs for educators and parents for numerous Florida school districts and state conferences.
Building on those experiences, she became an instructor for the Continuing Education Institute, Winter Park, FL. In this role she taught classes in Florida, Texas, New York, South Carolina and Virginia to more than 4,000 teachers and educational administrators.
Treat me like I do--and I will.
Treat me like I don't--and I won't!
As I opened the classroom door on my first day of substitute teaching in a new school, I saw a beautiful girl with large black eyes and gorgeous black skin pulled taut over her cheekbones. Her black hair was twigged and clamped with pins of many colors. Behind her stood a line of 33 children of all descriptions.
"You are old," this young lady said to me the moment she saw me. "I don't like old people, and I don't like substitutes!"
The voices of those behind her chorused, "Victoria, you shouldn't say things like that to a teacher!"
"Well, Victoria," I said calmly, looking her in the eye. "I don't think you like me." My voice, I knew, conveyed that the greeting this young lady had given me was acceptable to me. I could sense she didn't quite know how to handle having the ball returned to her own court so swiftly after having delivered such an aggressive outburst.
The children came inside and the day's instruction began. We'd barely established some semblance of order when a small boy yelled out, holding up his thumb with the blood dripping from it. Victoria had chosen to vent her frustration by biting another student. With Victoria in tow, I headed for the principal's office.
Hearing the administrator say, "Well, Miss Victoria!" as we entered his office, I sensed I was witnessing a usual scene between these two, and that the approach of the administrators was only reinforcing this girl's sense that she was expected to be disruptive.
Victoria did not return to the room until late afternoon, accompanied by the male assistant principal. Her beautiful black face was swollen from crying. It seemed she had experienced another bout of trouble with the front office after kicking three children in the clinic. The man sternly insisted that she apologize to me. Something in me rose up in protest. I said, "Victoria, I want you to go and wash your face; and when you feel like it, we will talk." This she did.
As the end-of-the-day bell rang, Victoria emerged from the clinic. She came to me and said, "I would like to do something for you. My mama says that I'm really good at cleaning up." Fifteen minutes later all the books, puzzles and other debris were cleared away, and I was commending my young friend for her help.
Victoria walked up to me and said, "I think I like you."
I responded, "I think I like you, too."
She put her arms around my waist. "I really want to hug you," she said.
"I want to hug you, too, Victoria."
Victoria reminded me of a lesson that I had learned long ago. She was saying her truth when she encountered me as her substitute teacher. She did not like old people and she did not like substitute teachers. Her intention was not meant to demean me; she was honest as she communicated to me. Apologies that are forced on children are ineffective. My disapproval of forcing her to apologize made Victoria want to do something for me. As I showed this child acceptance and caring we were able to work out our issues together. Victoria learned so much that day and so did I. I will be forever grateful to her.
I've told this story to groups of teachers. As they listened to the way Victoria greeted me that morning, some of them have reacted, "You let her speak to you that way?" Doubtless this little girl expected me to come down on her, as others had. My intuition told me she had made herself feared through such behavior. When I let her say what she thought without reprimanding her, it stopped the game. When I saw what happened later in the office, I was glad I hadn't fallen into the pattern of reaction. Sometimes the strength of a teacher's influence lies in letting children be.