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Tom on Point: Worth a thousand words

You wouldn’t know it from the black-and-white photograph, but they were red sneakers. Of that I am certain. I am in the first row, my hair combed back (yes, I had hair then!), wearing clothes that my mother probably had set aside just for school picture day, including that pair of Keds. The picture is of my first-grade class, with my favorite teacher, Miss Carr, proudly standing alongside her charges.

First, the photograph. My family almost certainly received one at the time, but somehow it was lost along the way. The reason I have it now is thanks to that teacher, whom I met again many years later. By then she had married, raised a family, and retired. We were introduced by a mutual friend, and had lunch together. She remembered my class and me, but, thankfully, told only good stories about us, overlooking any indiscretions we may have displayed as 6-year-olds. Shortly afterwards, she surprised me by mailing the picture to me.

It was wonderful to get to know someone as an adult whom I had so admired as a child. My memory of her was confirmed at our meeting; she was warm, friendly, and caring—everything I had recalled about her but now viewed through a new lens. That she kept pictures of her classes for so many years says a lot about how she related to her students.

Other memories flow from the picture, too. There were the personalities of my former classmates as captured in that moment—some of us smiling broadly, others looking a bit bored, all of us probably waiting to dart away as soon as the photographer gave a thumbs-up. We were standing next to the school, an early 1900s vintage building that was demolished years later. It was the same place my father went to elementary school, so it had an impact on generations of families in the community. I can readily recall the creaky steps, the tall windows, the noise of people walking on hardwood floors and stairs, even the distinct smell of the place. Funny how our senses can transport us back so far, so quickly.

Perhaps the most telling takeaway from viewing that old photograph is the reminder it provides about how much has changed in the intervening years. The classrooms in that building all had desks neatly aligned in rows, blackboards and teachers in front, and a structure that promoted order more than creativity and interaction. They were conductive to education at the time, which is to say they were intended to instruct as many children as efficiently as possible. In an era of Baby Boomers flooding the public education system, that may have been the best we could do.

This, of course, does not describe most public schools today, nor should it. We know so much more about how students learn, the need not only to master material but how to apply it, and the importance of problem solving, collaborating, and working in teams. Public schools are adapting to meet the demands of a very different world than the one that existed when that old photograph was taken, educating more students to a higher level than ever before in our history. That’s an image well worth embracing.

by Thomas J. Gentzel (tgentzel@nsba.org (link sends e-mail)) the executive director and CEO of NSBA. Follow Gentzel on Twitter @Tom_NSBA.

Article first appeared in ASBJ June 2018.

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