Taucia Gonzalez is a student at Arizona State University pursing a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction with an emphasis in Special Education. Prior to becoming a full time graduate student, she taught in a culturally rich school community that promoted and supported bilingualism and biliteracy. Her research interests focus on the intersections of culture, language, and disability within an urban context; with particular interest in how ideologies create and control spaces.
If you ask my daughter, Camila, about her teacher, she will tell you, “He is the best teacher in the world.” I had heard other kids praise Mr. Bandera as well. Last January I spent two weeks launching a poetry inquiry in their class. The kids were taking turns sharing out something they held in their heart. One boy enthusiastically threw his fist in the air and shouted, “Mr. Bandera because he’s the best teacher ever!” Wow, I looked over at the small statured teacher with the disheveled button up shirt; his tie a little off center, wondering what it was that made him the best teacher ever.
What do kids know about good teaching? Honestly, I had yet to see guided reading groups in his classroom, so I had my own critiques of his teaching. I knew that the school was under a lot of pressure to raise their test scores, so I thought that might be a way for me to convince Mr. Bandera to incorporate guided reading. Maybe there were a few things I could teach him, being that he was a fairly new teacher.
I shared my observations and experience using guided reading in the classroom, finishing with, “And the results really show on the state test!”
Mr. Bandera smiled his nervous smile and responded, “I have found that when I focus on learning without putting too much attention on the test my kids still perform well, but I’m not opposed to learning something new.”
Who was this guy?! The last teacher on the face of the planet not worried about the test? I had the luxury of not worrying about the test because I was out of the classroom, but all of my teacher friends were living, eating, and breathing the test. The pressure to make sure their kids performed well loomed over them like the grim reaper, and this guy somehow gave the grim reaper the slip. I almost wondered if he was allowed to not worry or if he had to secretively not worry.
This year Camila moved up to fourth grade, which meant her second year with Mr. Bandera in their multiage class. For the first week of school I picked Camilla up directly from her classroom at dismissal. A few times I arrived early, and from outside the door I could hear the students’ laughter. What could be that funny? Kids spilled out in a disorderly way, smiles plastered across their faces.
Mr. Bandera had already warned me over the summer that after the first two weeks of school, he would be taking five weeks of paternity leave. He also assured me that he had a substitute that was a former teacher and he thought she would keep the class running smoothly.
So, he left and Ms. Substitute came. On the Friday of his first week gone I picked Camila up after school. I flipped the rear-view mirror so that we could see each other, which I always did on our ride home.
“How was your day?” I asked.
“What elective did you have?”
Enough was enough. “Camila, you are not being very polite. I am asking you questions, I expect you to answer me.”
The strength of her response startled me, “We had PE, but it doesn’t matter. Anything Ms. Substitute thinks is fun she tries to take away from us. We always get to our electives late, and at recess time she only chooses a couple of tables to go out. She hates fun and she does everything wrong. She doesn’t even know how to do our working with words right! She never smiles, and she doesn’t want us to smile. When Mr. Bandera does word work he smiles and laughs and makes everything fun. She won’t even let us read Captain Underpants or books with pictures! I just want Mr. Bandera to come back!” She cried one of those cries that comes from the chest, maybe even the heart. Her little chest expanded and contracted over and over as her white uniform shirt soaked up the falling tears.
I drove silently, watching her through the rearview mirror. I awkwardly reached my right arm behind me, trying to comfort her as I drove. I grabbed her leg and squeezed. The silence of the moment was filled with her heavy breaths. My own chest felt like a monster was trying to claw its way out. So I held onto her leg tightly and drove to Scooptacular. We ate ice cream and talked and giggled with our puffy red eyes. Ms. Substitute did not return, and Ms. Substitute-Number-Two who had a “disposition that I’m sure will be a better fit” helped make the remaining four weeks tolerable.
Yesterday, I picked Camila up from school. As I stood at her classroom door I could hear the laughter on the other side. The door opened and the children spilled out every which way, smiles plastered across their faces. Camila grabbed my hand and skipped and twirled her way to the car. I knew before I even asked her.
“How was your day?”
“Is Mr. Bandera back?”
“Mom, when I walked into class this morning and saw him my eyes felt like they wanted to cry.”
“The best teacher in the world can have that effect on you,” I pulled her toward me giving her a little side hug as we walked, and I thought about Mr. Bandera. I felt forever indebted to him for creating a space where kids could laugh together and learn together without the test constantly hovering over them. Maybe there were a few things he could teach me.