Wings to Soar

by Jill Eggleton
January 2022

American architect and systems theorist, Richard Buckminster Fuller, once said: “There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.”

I love to reflect on that quote because to me it is a reminder that what we see on the outside is not an indication of what a child can become.

Knowing the learner — the foremost focus 

As educators, it is our responsibility to encourage learners to emerge from the cocoon with wings to soar — to give them the confidence in themselves because we have not focused on what they can’t do, but what they can.

‘Knowing the learner’ is not something profoundly new, but it is profoundly important. As educators, it must be our first and foremost focus. 

Knowing the learner means really knowing them, both inside and outside the classroom walls. What motivates them, excites them? How do they learn best? What are their talents and strengths?

I find myself motivated to share two stories that illustrated to me as a classroom teacher how essential it was to deeply know my learners — to recognize their competencies, their strengths, and above all — to tap into their talents.

Michael 

Michael had been at school two years and already had gained a reputation as a behavioral misfit. He had learning difficulties in all areas of the curriculum. He lacked perseverance and patience. He was unengaged, sulky, and disruptive. Michael was the kind of kid who kept a teacher awake at night, knowing that the road ahead could be a rugged one and a sense of powerlessness to prevent the eventual wreckage. Michael was the caterpillar with no outward signs he would ever emerge with wings to soar.

Then by accident I discovered the key to unlock his potential and give him the motivation to fly. 

One day a child with extra exuberance for sharpening his pencil sent the electric sharpener crashing to the floor, bursting open its case and scattering its intricate mechanisms.

It was Michael who pounced on the pieces, carefully finding every one. Then he quietly and meticulously began to piece the sharpener back together.

For the first time, I saw Michael engaged, engrossed, smiling, patient. He persisted and persevered until the pencil sharpener was whole again and functioning correctly.

Michael, I discovered that day, had an extra-special talent — he was a problem solver. He was a lateral thinker. He could take broken things and piece them back together with a skill I had never witnessed in a child before. He wasn’t a reader or a writer, he didn’t excel in sport or the arts, but he had talent to be tapped, and that’s what mattered above all.

And so, I collected broken staplers, flashlights, clocks. I raided cupboards and sheds, and I created Michael’s Mending Box. Teachers in the school began providing broken items for his box from their classrooms and homes. 

I introduced an incentive — “Finish your work with a smile and then, get mending.”

Michael became a class hero as his peers observed his growing talent with awe and amazement. His confidence grew, his self-esteem, his behaviour, concentration, and what was so remarkable — his literacy skills improved. 

“Too often we give children answers to remember rather than problems to solve.” 

– Roger Lewin

One of the top ten skills needed for our 21st Century learners is problem-solving. Michael proved to have this skill, and it was only by chance I discovered it. 

This was a huge learning curve for me — we test their word knowledge, book knowledge, code knowledge, decoding skills, comprehension, and a myriad of other academics, but do we truly discover in all children what their talents are, what unfolds their wings?

Problem-solving helps to build character and perseverance. It helps a child manage their emotions, think creatively, and become more resilient in the face of challenges. These are all social and emotional skills important in life. 

Michael — a child from a dysfunctional family, constantly moving from one home to another — no boundaries, no sense of belonging, and deep-seated abandonment issues — needed to be given every opportunity to tap into his talent, for it is unquestionable that success in one area builds success in another. 

Highlighting the strengths of all

Most of us will remember our own school days and what the teacher valued.

I distinctly remember that a place in the top group for reading, writing, or math — or how well you did on a test score — was highly valued. 

These students were placed on a pedestal — elevated, greatly admired, and often chosen for prestigious tasks. As a result, they generally grew in self-confidence and self-worth . . . until they discovered they weren’t good at everything. 

Carol Dweck’s mindset research has demonstrated that when students see themselves always at the top of these achievement lists, they are more likely to see their ability as fixed and will interpret even a minor setback as a statement of complete failure.

Highlighting the strengths of every child is therefore of paramount importance. Students need to be aware that in some areas they will excel, and in others they might not. They need to develop the understanding that strengths vary from person to person, that their abilities are not fixed, and that they cannot expect to be a high performer in everything.

Tyler

Tyler, I met in a classroom in California when I was invited to model my literacy program in his room for a week. Tyler didn’t take his place on the floor with his peers for whole-class instruction sessions. Instead, he sat at the back of the room — under a table.

I recognized that I had to quickly establish why. I desperately needed to know this learner.

Engaging Tyler in conversation revealed his low self-image — “I’m not good at anything. School is boring. I’m always in trouble. I have no friends.” 

That was valuable information but not enough — I had to dig deeper. I had to discover more of the why. It was imperative that I unearthed his passion and what filled him with purpose and pride.

I began by bringing Tyler back to the whole group, placing him near me. I kept whole-class lessons short, sharp, and pacey, using resources I was confident would engage, while relentlessly observing Tyler. 

I decided to give him leadership roles, chose him for errands or anything I needed doing. Naturally, I gave him feedback — focusing on what he did well. Tyler responded — he began to edge just a little out of that cocoon. He began to participate.

I paired him with kind and caring students who gave him respect. And while this helped with making him feel included, I needed to discover his real passion.

Discovering the passion

Responding to the final day of the shared book for the week, I used drama and art. No regular sustained drama had been done in that class, and yet the benefits of drama are huge. Among the many are the rich development in language and communication skills, social and emotional learning, and creativity. 

Often students who find literacy skills challenging, including English language learners, make notable progress by their involvement in dramatic activities. 

Drama helps students make an emotional connection to their learning and gives even reluctant learners an authentic reason to engage with the learning process.   

Tyler, I observed, had dramatic ability. He quickly morphed into a character, in particular gravitating towards humorous roles. Students are quick to recognise ability, and the positive feedback he received from his peers helped his further emergence from the protective cocoon he had wrapped himself in.

Following the drama was the response to the shared book, using art. Not constricted art or teacher-modeled art, but complete freedom of expression. 

The walls in Tyler’s classroom mostly reflected teacher-created charts. While there was a minuscule amount of student work on display, there was not one piece produced by Tyler. 

However, on this day, when he was free to use mixed media and a large sheet of paper, he produced a colorful, creative masterpiece, demonstrating superior artistic talent.

Like drama, art plays an important role in developing the whole child — boosting academic achievement and confidence.

I am greatly concerned that drama and the arts may have a diminishing role in classrooms today and believe strongly that all areas of learning need equal emphasis. 

How do we discover the talents of all if we don’t provide rich experiences in every aspect of learning? How do we highlight the strengths and give those struggling in some areas the essential self-confidence boost by recognizing their unique talents? 

In Tyler’s classroom, I made a wall display using every child’s work, but it was Tyler’s that stood out from the rest — a talent evident for all to see. 

It was so moving to see him gazing at his art on the wall. It was there, nestled next to the pieces created by students in the ‘top group,’ and I am sure he recognized that it was indeed superior. 

He reminded me of a phoenix bird, arising from the ashes — symbolizing that a change had taken place.

On my last day at that school, Tyler paid me a compliment I have never forgotten. He wrapped his arms around me in an exuberant embrace and said, “You are a real teacher.” 

That comment really influenced my teaching. I realized that if I didn’t discover what increased or decreased a child’s self-esteem, my teaching was fruitless. If I didn’t discover what every student’s true talents were and tap into these, I had failed them — I had but kept them stiffly folded in a tight cocoon.

In his TED talk, Bring on the learning revolution! Ken Robinson says, “Human communities depend upon diversity of talent, not a singular conception of ability.” Education, he believes, has dislocated people from their natural talent. 

He says teachers must create the circumstances where children show themselves — their talents. It’s about passion, he says — what excites our spirit.

Giving wings to soar

Michael and Tyler are but two in the millions of children who grace our classrooms every day. They had been at school for three years before their particular talents were recognized. 

Groundbreaking educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom (known for Bloom’s Taxonomy) stated that the process of identifying talents should begin early and be viewed as a continuous process.

There will, however, be many like Michael and Tyler, who remain stiffly folded in the perceived safety of their cocoons unless what drives them with passion and purpose has been discovered and given equal kudos. 

“Education needs to address the world around our learners but also the world within our learners.” 

– Ken Robinson

Failing to do this is serious, for we know it is easier to build up a child than to repair an adult. As educators we need to be reminded to not look at, but in. 

I wasn’t a perfect teacher, and I am sure there were many students where I neglected to dig deeper, many whom I failed in persisting to coax out of their cocoons. However, the more I reflect on the world we live in today, the more I am convinced that it is a tremendous responsibility to ensure that every child knows and is recognized for their gifts. 

“Research shows that teachers do not need lengthy training to recognize and develop talent, only the orientation and motivation to do so.” 

– John F. Feldhusen

So, may I encourage every educator who is privileged to teach — be highly motivated to discover what excites every student, highlighting their strengths and tapping into their talents, for you will be giving them the greatest gift of all — wings to soar in a challenging world.


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Group of school students

My Awakening to Equity

by Jill Eggleton
February 2021

As I contemplate writing this article in the midst of a global pandemic, I am deeply moved to think about the enormity of the challenges teachers have encountered and continue to do so. I am in awe of your resilience in the face of change.

I know teachers, and I know that you are passionate, compassionate, kind, and caring — and that you desire, above all else, to improve the learning outcomes of every one of your students, regardless of race or background. I am confident that in this year, as in all years, you are striving for equity among diversity.

The world was a different place when I began my teaching journey. While I know I had a huge desire to do my best for each child in my classroom, I think I was ignorant of the word equity and what this actually meant. It wasn’t a word mentioned in those days.

Today, however, we are aware of the increasing diversity among students in our classrooms. We are aware of the challenge for educators to ensure that every student has the support to be successful. Simply put, every student, regardless of cultural background, deserves an equal chance for success.

Seeds of awareness

When I look back on my struggling beginnings as a classroom teacher, while I was ignorant of equity and what it involved, I am thankful for a seed of something in my soul that caused me to reflect on what and how I was teaching students whose cultural background was very different from my own.

Jill Eggleton and her class at Waima school
My class at Waima. I am seated with the children, and standing behind me is a parent, grandparent, my teacher assistant and respected elder. The baby in the photo is my son, Kyle, who was part of our classroom from the age of one. He was so touched by the people in this district that many years later he returned as a doctor, and in 2020, he completed his Ph.D. based on unconscious bias in the field of medicine.

As young teachers, my husband and I taught in a two-teacher school in the very North of New Zealand. The students here were all Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. My husband and I are white New Zealanders of European descent. I look back on those teaching days as one of the most profound teaching experiences in my career.

“It was here in this school that I felt the stirrings of something in my soul — a realization of the need to make my teaching practice reflect the needs, passions and cultural backgrounds of the children who bounced eagerly through my classroom door, trusting me to teach them.”

In reflection, I probably began this teaching job with an unconscious bias, but these students taught me so much. I learned I needed to adapt and change my teaching practice to align with their cultural background. It was here, I believe, that the first seed of awareness was sown of the need to know my learners — really know my learners, not just in the classroom, but beyond the classroom walls.

I discovered it was impossible to teach children whose cultural backgrounds are different from your own if you don’t really know them and their world. This is what helps to erode unconscious bias.

It was in my efforts to teach these students to read, that I first encountered inequity, although I was unaware of the terminology then. The Department of Education in New Zealand provided every school with free reading material, but this free reading material made no sense in the lives of these students. The characters in the stories were white and middle class. The families were typically two parents in conventional roles, with two children — a Peter and a Sally. These children were prim and perfect, with smart clothes and shoes on their feet. They lived in a neat street in a neat house with their own perfect bedrooms and went on outings to the town or the beach in a ‘respectable’ car.

The brown-eyed children in my class had vastly different home lives. I remember them coming to school in winter, walking over the icy grass with no shoes. I remember their homes bursting with whanau (family) — grandparents, uncles, aunts and anyone who needed a place to shelter. I remember their modes of transport — sometimes a horse, tractor, or maybe a car in need of repair. Above all, I remember their huge smiles and their eagerness to come to school, their sense of humor, their caring and sharing.

But seared in my memory is the anguish I felt when I couldn’t engage them or teach them to read with the material provided by the ignorance of an education system that did not then understand ‘equity.’

“If children don’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.”

– Ignacio Estrada

It was here in this school that I felt the stirrings of something in my soul — a realization of the need to make my teaching practice reflect the needs, passions and cultural backgrounds of the children who bounced eagerly through my classroom door, trusting me to teach them.

Ignacio Estrada said, “If children don’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.” This is being mindful of equity.

Teaching the way they learn

Sounds of books by Bill Martin Jnr.
Sounds of Language books by Bill Martin, Jr.

I introduced the approach of shared reading using stories such as Bill Martin’s rhythmical, rhyming texts, which I laboriously enlarged into books they could all see. Every day we would chant the words together, moving to the rhythms of these excellently crafted stories. 

While I didn’t have the courage, being still an emerging teacher, to abandon entirely the boring, culturally insensitive supplied material, I spent a great deal of the reading time with my created texts. Why? Because my children were engaged, they were having success, and I intrinsically knew that every child needs to know success. This is a hallmark of equity. 

It was about this time on my teaching journey that I began to read Teacher, by Sylvia Ashton Warner, and her beliefs resonated with me because the children she was teaching were from the same cultural backgrounds as the children in my class.

Her methods arose out of warmth and passion, rather than out of mere theory. She called her teaching ‘Organic Teaching,’ believing it had to be particularly centered around the culture the children had sprung from, rather than being imposed from above in a kind of educational imperialism. 

I was greatly influenced by Sylvia Ashton Warner and her vision. This vision was to enable all children, regardless of culture or race, to take hold of the great joy of reading and writing. In an extract from her book, Teacher, she says,

Sylvia Ashston Warner's book, Teacher

What a dangerous activity reading is; teaching is. 

All this plastering on of foreign stuff. Why plaster on at all when there’s so much inside already. So much locked in? If only I could get it out and use it as working material. And not draw it out either. If I had a light enough touch it would just come out under its own volcanic power. 

The reaching out for a book needs to become an organic action. Deadly dull reading material, dead vocabulary. I’m so afraid of it. It’s like a frame over a young tree making it grow in an unnatural shape.

Sylvia Ashton Warner knew about how young children come to be writers. First and foremost, she believed that writing must come from the child’s own experience.

I reach a hand into the mind of the child, bring out a handful of the stuff I find there, whether it is good or bad stuff, violent or placid stuff.

You never want to say that it’s good or bad. That’s got nothing to do with it. You’ve got no right at all to criticize the content of another’s mind. A child doesn’t make his own mind. It’s just there. Your job is to see what’s in it.

The role of a teacher, striving for equity in 2021, hasn’t changed since Sylvia Ashton Warner wrote the words all those years ago — the job of the teacher is to discover what is in the mind of each individual child, and how best that child can be empowered to succeed in the classroom and beyond. 

It is only as we make that determined effort to understand all cultures different from our own that we reach across the divides with deep understanding and respect. Our cognizance of equity ensures that the frame over the young trees in our classrooms will not make them grow in an unnatural shape, but rather support them in growing strong roots and branches that reach for the sky.

Reflections on equity

I am thankful that throughout my teaching journey I have gravitated towards teaching those children whose cultural backgrounds were different from my own. I am thankful, because these children have opened my eyes and opened my heart. They have given me a greater understanding that every child needs an equal chance for success. They have made me aware of the existence of unconscious bias and a determination to know — really know — my learners both inside and outside the classroom walls.

After teaching a few years, I wrote this simple poem as a reflection. And although simplistic in its content, it reminded me each year of the brevity of time we have with our children and of how we need to remain focused on what is important to engage them in the learning process.

Three children give Jill a hug during her visit to their class in South Africa
What Did I Teach?

I scan the sea of faces
Different cultures,
Different races.
Like tiny grains of sand
upon a beach,
they slip quickly through
your fingers.
Only a memory lingers,
And I wonder,
Yes I wonder,
What did I teach?

Did I read to them enough?
Did we laugh at silly stuff?
Did I give them goals 
achievable to reach?
They’ve slipped quickly through
my fingers,
Only a memory lingers,
And I wonder,
Yes, I wonder,
What did I teach?

– Jill Eggleton, 1971

I am hoping that this simple question, What did I teach? might evoke reflection for you and that in the face of all your daily issues and challenges, you will be encouraged to focus on what it really means to teach. Believe in yourself and your amazing ability to meet the needs and touch the heart of every child, for when we touch the heart of a child, we leave handprints on their soul.


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