Dr. Michelle Hughes

From Buzzard to Bluebird

Those who want to leave an impression for one year should plant corn; those who want to leave an impression for ten years should plant a tree; but those who want to leave an impression for 100 years should educate a human being.

                                                                        Ancient Chinese proverb

 No teacher would ever argue against the idea that teaching is a tough job. To be exquisite, teachers need to have content knowledge, pedagogical skills, and an attitude that conveys caring and commitment every day.  So, how do teachers face the demands of teaching year after year?  I believe teachers are sustained by the lives they touch; teachers do make a difference.

And that brought me back to the personal way in which a teacher touched my life.  Let me set the stage…It was fifth grade.  Once again I was in the lowest reading group; once again with Kenny H (ugh!).  They called our group the Robins, but we all knew we were the Buzzards. How I hated reading and our reading group – or maybe it was just Kenny.  In any event, the year started to draw to a close and it was time for the standardized test that would determine your placement for sixth grade.  I wasn’t very good at taking tests either so this time of the year was not pleasant.  Mrs. N told us to clear our desks of everything but a #2 pencil.  She followed the test script that outlined the directions for the reading test and told us we would have 45 minutes to complete the test.  We were to continue to each next page until we saw the stop sign in the lower right corner of the page.  At that point, we were to close our test booklets and put our pencils and our heads down on the desk.  I wondered if maybe this was the year that I would finish before time was called; I had never experienced putting my head down.  Forty-five grueling minutes passed; Mrs. N called time.  I still had three pages to go.  “Oh, well, Buzzards here we come in 6th grade,” I thought.

Then Mrs. N did something out of the ordinary. Instead of instructing us to pass our test booklets forward so she could collect them, she stated, “Exchange your paper with your neighbor.” You know what follows after that!  For some reason, Mrs. N was going to have us correct each others’ work.  My neighbor was my best friend, Patty C.; we had been BFFs since Kindergarten.  She knew I wasn’t the best reader, but now I would have the humiliation of Patty actually scoring my paper and seeing exactly how poor I was.  And, I was not wrong.  After reading off all the correct responses, Patty leaned over to me and whispered, “How could you only get 14 correct?”  Knowing my fate for 6th grade was sealed, I did something totally out of character.  I whispered back, “Please Patty, I can’t be a Buzzard next year.  Change my score to 41, okay?”  Patty did what every BFF would do. She wrote a big 41 on the top of my paper and passed it forward with the other ones.

The event was quickly forgotten as we moved on to other end of the year activities.  Summer was freedom – exploring the woods, swimming in the lake, and no reminders of being a Buzzard.  September came much too quickly and soon I was dreading the return to school.  The only cool thing was that I would have Mr. V as a teacher, the only male teacher in our school.  The first day of class, Mr. V announced it was time for reading.  He explained that test scores from 5th grade had been used to form the reading groups and proceeded to read off our names and our groups.  He called my name; I slouched as low as I could in my seat, knowing exactly in which group I would be.  Then a miracle happened – he called the names of top readers to be with me!  Patty’s 41 had not been changed.  I was no longer a Buzzard; I was a Bluebird!

And here’s where the power of being a teacher can touch the lives of students.  Mr. V expected me to perform as a top reader.  He guided, supported and encouraged me as a top reader. His expectations caused me to exceed where I had been before.  He expected good things and I lived up to those expectations.  Because of this one teacher I transformed myself from someone who did not see herself as successful and capable to someone who realized that with hard work and effort, I could do anything.  I never looked back.  Throughout the rest of my education, I was a Bluebird.  It didn’t come easy, but I was determined not to let Mr. V down or to become a Buzzard again.  Mr. V had believed in me and now I did.

That’s what good teachers do.  That’s what sustains me – knowing that my expectations can help students become something they never thought possible.  I held those high expectations when I was teaching first graders on the south side of Chicago, working with middle and high school students with emotional challenges, and now helping college students become exquisite elementary teachers.  And, of course, what helps sustain me are the kind words of my students when they recognize what I am trying to do.  As one student wrote recently in a thank-you card, “I am so grateful for your help in molding me into a better teacher.  Your dedication to and passion for education is inspiring. Thanks for all you do!”

Dr. Michelle Hughes is an associate professor in the Early Childhood, Elementary, and Reading department at JMU.  She worked for 15 years as a classroom teacher in both elementary education and special education.  For six years, she was a staff developer helping other classroom teachers enhance their skills in curriculum, instruction, and assessment.  After receiving her degree from the University of Virginia in Curriculum and Instruction, she joined JMU.  When she is not involved in her professional career, she helps her husband maintain their 100 year old farmhouse.