My oldest daughter, Carly, was reading my Marvel comics at age 3.
In pre-K she read L. Frank Baum’s original “Wizard of Oz,’’ and then the sequel, “The Marvelous Land of Oz.’’
She started Harry Potter in first grade and I stopped her after the third book because of what happens to Cedric Diggory in the fourth book. So she just kept re-reading the first three books until I relented.
All this is to say that the early grades were not much of a challenge. That is until she got to third grade where she entered Mrs. Bennett’s class. It was an accelerated class and Mrs. Bennett had spent a career teaching kids like Carly.
The first week, my kid came home in tears. Mrs. Bennett had set an entirely new set of expectations. For a kid who had gotten by on autopilot since kindergarten, the new demands came as a shock. Every score wasn’t perfect. The workload had gone up considerably. There even were admonitions.
And Mrs. Bennett was quite no-nonsense about it all. My wife and I were stressed by our daughter’s stress and were trying to figure out where this new teacher was headed. But Mrs. Bennett had been at this a long time, had seen a thousand kids like Carly in her career and seemed to know what she was doing. And at some point in life, Carly would have to leave her comfort zone.
And so the parents stood down and we trusted the teacher.
We explained to Carly the concept of expectation; that now she had a teacher who was going to set the bar based on her abilities not a generic standard. Carly applied herself. The tears stopped. And then the most amazing thing happened. By November, she couldn’t wait to get out the door in the morning and head off to school. She didn’t just rise to new challenges. She embraced them. And Mrs. Bennett kept them coming.
At the end of the year, Mrs. Bennett ordered some baby sharks from a laboratory and we had a major dissection party on our driveway with the entire class. It was quite an event.
Carly now is in an International Baccalaureate program in high school. The challenges there are off the chart. Kids like Carly are commonplace. She works her tail off. There are setbacks. There are tears. And then she rises to meet the challenges.
She loves it. The other day she remarked that high school was going by too fast. She just started 10th grade.
Mrs. Bennett’s third grade class taught her that she was capable of a lot more than she thought she was capable of, and that gave her confidence that she could overcome any hurdle. Mrs. Bennett remains the best teacher she ever had. And to this day, if you ask Carly what was her best year in school, she will say third grade.
My daughter isn’t the only one who learned a lesson. I began to appreciate that the best way to engage kids is to challenge them, that earned self-esteem lasts a lifetime.
I don’t know how many times I thanked Mrs. Bennett for what she did for Carly. I guess once more wouldn’t hurt.
About the author
Mike Thomas @MikeThomasTweet
Mike Thomas serves in the communications department, writing editorials and speeches. Prior to joining the Foundation, Mike worked for more than 30 years as a journalist with Florida Today and the Orlando Sentinel. He has written investigative projects, magazine feature stories, humor pieces, editorials and local columns. He won several state and national awards, and was named a finalist in the American Society of New Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary/Column Writing in 2010. As a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, he wrote extensively about education reform, becoming one of its chief advocates in the Florida media. Mike graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in political science and journalism. His wife is a teacher and he has two children in public schools. Contact Mike at Mike@excelined.org