My general sense is that the world finds itself short on odes. I bet it has been a long time since you read a good ode. Instead, your Facebook feed has too many articles about how the President is ruining the country or the Republicans are oppressing everyone except white men, ages 57-61. The newscasts are full of anger and the papers lead with gloom and doom. Most disheartening to me is that “the failure of public schools” ranks high on the list of America’s grievances. For most of the last 31 years, I have had a ringside seat to M’Lissa Howen’s classrooms. From that vantage point, I know just how unfair that conclusion is and how hard teachers fight for their kids.
Today, however, we are cleaning out M’Lissa’s room at Brentfield Elementary. She is not leaving public education, but she will not be teaching anymore. Hopefully, she can work her magic on a broader scale. Even if she does, there will not be the type of day-in, day-out connection with students that has enriched our lives for the past decades. We are both going to miss it. Other than her family, nothing makes M’Lissa happier than to be with “her kids.” So an ode is in order. Technically, an ode is lyrical stanza in praise of a person or a thing. No one has ever confused me with William Wordsworth so while I offer a feeble attempt at the classic ode below, you will have to depend on my prose for the substance of my sentiments.
M’Lissa started her teaching career in the fall of 1984. While Baylor University has the best “hands-on” teacher preparation program in the world, even that course of study did not prepare her for the challenges of an all-male class of students with emotional challenges. Angry kids, neglected kids, misunderstood kids acted out their frustrations on a daily basis. Helping them find a place in the world was a delicate balancing act between giving them the encouragement that said their difficulties were not insurmountable and the tough love that said you have to live by the rules of the world. Her earliest tangible achievement was the report of an overheard conversation from the playground. A child from another class told one of her charges how lucky he was to have a someone as pretty as M’Lissa for a teacher. The response? “Don’t let her looks fool you. She can be as mean as they come.”
This slightly crazy band of troops forged M’Lissa’s core identity as a teacher. She went to work each day with the idea that every child could learn. As if by osmosis, her students confirmed the thesis. By the end of the year the combination of encouragement and expectations had a trans-formative impact. M’Lissa was “No Child Left Behind” before there was a law.
From that start, she followed me to Germany and then Dallas. She taught in the Department of Defense schools overseas, where kids regularly move every two to three years, so there is always a shuffle in the classroom. On top of the constant transition, add the fact that a family’s status is worn on the parents’ epaulets and you have a whole new set of challenges.
Here, M’Lissa developed the sense of community that has become a hallmark of her classrooms. Everybody had an equal opportunity for good and for mischief, regardless of whether your dad is an airman or your mom the wing commander. M’Lissa’s charges learn respect for each other; you do not have to like your classmates, but you need to work out differences in a civil manner. Without adults, if at all possible. That “without adults” part has caused some consternation over the years; by the end of each year, however, the little town of Howenville is always a smoothly functioning machine.
Once in Dallas, M’Lissa eventually made her way to Brentfield Elementary, where she has taught for the past 11 years. Those 11 years have coincided with the rise of high-stakes testing or school accountability, choose your euphemism. There is no denying that a teacher’s job has changed over that time period; there is more stress and less room for creativity. Brentfield in general and M’Lissa in particular have more than met these new challenges. The Brentfield neighborhood has its advantages; mostly stable, achievement-oriented families chief among them. Brentfield, however, is not Highland Park, Beverly Hills or the Upper East Side. Yet the school’s achievement scores are on par with and often above those found in the tonier environs mentioned. Organizations that adjust school scores based on the demographics they teach regularly find Brentfield to be one of the top public schools in the nation.
Why so? From watching M’Lissa I have two answers. First, the faculty, who M’Lissa will miss mightily, spends less time complaining about the tests and more time preparing the students, a cue the rest of the educational establishment would do well to follow. Second and more importantly, M’Lissa’s students learn the tested skills in context. Enter the cowgirl. M’Lissa’s forte is reading and writing, which she teaches with Kristi; Radonna and Kim handle the math and science. That leaves as the red-headed stepchild social studies and more specifically in 4th Grade, Texas history. Because Texas history is not the subject of high-stakes testing, many districts ignore the subject. More time for skill drills to sharpen up on the subjects “that matter.” Big mistake.
Almost universally, kids love Texas history. It is exciting and provides a sense of heritage and community. They want to read about it and are excited to write about it. That wins the battle right there; if you have an energized student, achievement is inevitable. Plus, unlike math and science, it is a subject that few have “a block” against; history is perfect for kids who struggle. Take social studies away and you have taken away the favorite subject of the at-risk population. M’Lissa grasped the concept early and spends what the experts might think a disproportionate amount of the time on the subject; always looking to integrate Stephen F. Austin into a writing exercise. And when a Texas history topic is not available, M’Lissa’s kids write and read about subjects that interest them.
The passion for learning that results from child-centered education is evident. I sometimes deliver a mid-day ice tea to M’Lissa. Invariably I walk in on animated discussions or kids working hard on projects. Hundreds of pictures and reports from kids who have found Texas Historical Markers adorn the wall, testimony to an intellectual curiosity that will last a lifetime. Presiding over it all, is the ringleader and head Texas Cowgirl. At the end of the year, these kids test extraordinarily well because they had a teacher who believed in all of them; loved them equally and fired their imaginations. She brings out the best in them because she is the best of us. And, after all these years, she is still pretty darn good looking.
The Cowgirl Rides Away (Ode to a Teacher)
Twas a journey begun decades ago
The beauty of children to be a life’s toil,
Fiery passion sets others aglow
Ignorance disappears in well-tilled soil.
Her warmth draws near so many open souls
Gathered all as one, none to be apart;
Wither her work done, for others to say
But for the least of them she paid the tolls,
A setting sun lights the child in her heart
Other pastures call, the cowgirl rides away.