Beyond Terry's Old Windows:
 A Teacher's Thoughts 
Between Centuries

Phi Kappa Phi Forum Columns

Classroom shadows

Posted on July 27, 2010 at 7:49 PM

Appreciate: To evaluate the worth, quality, significance of; to admire greatly; to judge with heightened perception or understanding, to be fully aware of; to recognize with gratitude; to increase the value of


The classroom year is just beginning - all things seem possible. Resolutions are fresh and attainable, the chalktrays still clean. A dozen sharp pencils sit in your drawer, the stapler is present and ready, and the corkboards are cleared and waiting.

Before you turn on the light, appreciate yourself in this setting. You will accomplish so much here. Learning will take place. Life will happen. How many people will gather in this room; how many will fit? Twenty-five? Thirty? Hundreds, most likely. Not all seated, but certainly present, in thoughts, in memories, in spirit, in shadow. With each one of you will come many. Look at the room's shadows, and appreciate them; you will spend this year with them.

There is the boy whose father died in prison last year - will you remember in December that he will face that anniversary date? Will you mark it on your calendar, or forget and give a quiz that day?

There is the girl whose grandfather has come to stay in the room across the hall from hers. In the middle of the night, when he wanders about, she wakes as her parents guide him. Will you see her fatigue in the morning?

There is the one your friend knows - she taught his older brother - a "straight-A" family, planning on private high school and Ivy League college - he will need all A's this year to meet the family goal. But his best friend just broke up with her boyfriend, and he's spending a lot of time consoling her, walking in the mall with her, talking on the phone with her - will his own assignments be finished in time?

That girl goes home and meets the elementary school bus, brings her younger brothers home, gets them started on their homework, and turns on the television while she heats up dinner before her parents call to say they will be late. Will she be able to collaborate tonight with her assigned partners on the group project?

And that boy - the one with piano lessons, soccer practice, karate class,and math-league tournaments - his group members know he's not going to be available to work with them, but that he is willing to do the project for them, to get the best product, the A. Will they say no to that?

And that young girl on the edge of the room, her skills just above the failure point, who doesn't qualify for support services ... she's giving up; for years she has worked harder, yet watched her more talented friends pull better grades more easily. Her shadows include the elementary teacher who discarded her papers because she forgot to put her name on them, and the teacher who recorded a failing grade on a science test because she misspelled all the terms. Will she hand anything in this year?

And the boy whose mother died of cancer last month ....

And the girl near the window:  she is actually watching for her friend, to see if she will  arrive on time. She will be coming in on a bicycle because she ran away and stayed out all night. Will this girl spend the morning worrying, or will she tell you about her friend?

Wait a minute - aren't these all issues that could be dealt with by family? Where are the parents?

Well, they are at work; although parenting is their first, most important responsibility, their income-producing positions take more time now than ever before. With parents working longer hours, students are now more often expected to be their own coaches, their own advocates. "Builds character," some say. But how well can these young amateurs build character, and will their buildings meet code?

Realizing that they cannot do it alone, parents look to the teachers, the professional, qualified people who, they point out, have been trained in child development, who are supplied with new, updated curricula, and new, updated technology, who have received taxpayer-provided staff development, who have met new, upgraded standards of certification. Parents and the community look to teachers to lead children through learning. But how many can be led effectively in any year? Secondary teachers work with more than one hundred students each year, and elementary teachers with numbers in the high twenties - almost double the ideal.

Not only do the students bring shadows to class. Teachers work while raising families, caring for elderly parents, coaching after-school teams and classes, volunteering on community service boards, returning to graduate school for advanced degrees, meeting those newly imposed recertification requirements.Teachers' work is, in fact, work, requiring effort and stamina, and it encompasses keeping up with all of the expectations and demands a community places upon them. While teachers may wish that parents could address the social issues, the fact is that the issues - the shadows - are present in the classroom, and attention is at times appropriately focused on them there.

Some say students come today with too much "emotional baggage," maybe too many shadows. Some say we all need to leave our shadows outside the classroom door, to come in with all of our energy and attention focused on learning. We have a pace to set, standards to meet, territory to cover, tests to complete. Others say, these shadows provide teachable moments. In helping a student through a situation, we are building a foundation of coping strategies, something upon which they can later build character and skills. When both parents and teachers are willing to acknowledge and address the students' issues, their combined attention can cast enough light, from their different positions, to soften the shadows, dispel the distractions, and cause them to recede enough so that learning can again be the focus.

The classroom year is just beginning - all things seem possible. As this new year unfolds, revisit the definition of appreciate. Take time to admire your students and all that they will accomplish in your care. Appreciate yourself in this room, in the midst of all the shadows. Perceiving and meeting the needs of your students is significant. Recognize with gratitude all that you do. You increase the value of education every day, with every student, in every situation. Learning will take place. Life will happen.

Terry Palardy

Copyright National Forum: Phi Kappa Phi Journal. Summer, 2000.



Categories: students, teaching, collaboration

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Reply Terry
11:51 AM on July 28, 2010 
Kay Kippenhan says...
This a great article for all future teachers to read. Can you forward it to some

Kay - thanks again for your kind response to my work ... it was originally published in the Phi Kappa Phi National Forum in September of 2000, but it does still ring true today. I've offered it to my principal (new principal) and may send it as well to Georgetown's new middle school principal (Andover's loss) ... it may be in circulation in some colleges as many PKP members go on to teach at the college level ... but I will try to invite the colleges I know to read the article and consider it for education majors, such as your Andrew...
Reply Kay Kippenhan
11:45 AM on July 28, 2010 
This a great article for all future teachers to read. Can you forward it to some