One of the reasons I fell in love with the field of economics was its logical progression, the linear way it tends to build upon previous concepts to uncover a consistent way of looking at the world. In many ways, all of knowledge does the same thing, building upon previous skills as one learns first how to read and add, and finally, to put it all together in discovering things about the world that require the synthesis of some very different fields of study. I thought of this recently as I enjoyed a musical production at my daughter’s school.
My daughter’s school had a small production that included children from several grades. Included in this group were some rather young children, including some children from the second grade. As I looked at those young faces, I thought of my own students, so many years older, and became aware of the fact that everything I teach in my own classes is made possible because of what someone taught my students when they were that age. If it were not for the first, second, and third grade teachers in their past, my students would not be able to read a text book, add numbers, and certainly would not be able to solve word problems.
I remember one day when I dropped my daughter off at pre-school, noticing, as if for the first time, the room full of small children swarming around the teachers. I became acutely aware that I could never survive as a teacher of young children, that I would not be effective in a classroom of children not much more than half my height that had what seemed to be four times my energy. And yet, someone does, leaving me to teach adults who already know how to read and do math, and who have a reasonable control of their bodies.
But I would not be able to teach anyone anything, if someone else had not first taught my students how to read and write a sentence, or how to add or subtract numbers. I realize that I have no idea how I would go about teaching the basic tools that are the foundation of all of what we learn that follows. Would I start muttering things about how the reason 4 + 0 = 4 is that zero has the property of being an “identity element”? Probably. Or, would I talk about “commutatively” (instead of “fact families”) as I taught a little child that 4 + 3 = 3 + 4? I must confess, I have said such silly things to my own child as I helped her with math homework. Luckily, she has been able to learn, despite the best (or worst) efforts on my part!
I always speak with reverence of my second grade teacher, a woman named “Sister Sarah” (I never did know her last name). She not only taught me how to read, write, and draw maps, but, in days when it was assumed that only boys and men could do well in math, she noticed that I was pretty good at it, too. Not only did she encourage me in this field, but she used to keep me after school to learn additional math. I suspect that my classmates thought I had done something particularly heinous to deserve such a fate, but she taught me so much in those late afternoons that I was several grades ahead of my actual class level by the time I moved on to another school. Her efforts allowed me to pursue math-based fields of study in the days before many women saw them as option for their future. When I applied for promotion a few years ago, I dedicated my dossier for “full professor” to her. There I told her story and concluded with a statement that is not too much of a stretch; “and that has been the story of my life.”
And so, as the semester winds down, I want to take a minute to express my gratitude not just to Sister Sarah, but to all the primary school teachers who have taught my child and the many children who eventually file through my classrooms. You are the heroes of education, the ones who make all that follows possible.