Lightfoot's Gospel


Elementary school teacher Alison Lightfoot sets out

to teach life lessons once again — this time, with larger obstacles but greater assistance

By Joshua Kors


Read the president's website on No Child Left Behind, and the overriding comparison is between teachers and dentists.

We need teachers to rigorously test our children, the administration's site says, "for the same reason we take them to the dentist to see whether or not they have cavities — because we need to know…. If the dentist finds that their teeth are not healthy, then we get the cavity filled, and we teach them how to brush correctly, to use dental floss and avoid too much sugar."

Whoever wrote that never spent a day inside the classroom of Alison Lightfoot. Watch the respected fifth grade teacher at work at Walnut Creek's Indian Valley Elementary, and you see she's less of an academic dentist — chipping away at a summer's worth of verbal and mathematic decay — and more of a preacher or missionary. Her gospel? Kindness, the value of listening, mutual and self-respect.

Tone Dr. Phil down a notch or two, give him a long, brown ponytail and a khaki-colored skirt, and wha-la! — you have Alison Lightfoot in the flesh.


                          October 14, 2004


Though she's felt hampered by the strict regulations of the No Child Left Behind program, teacher Alison Lightfoot has still been able to pass her enthusiasm to 5th graders in the Walnut Creek School District.





"Don't get me wrong: Spelling and fractions are important," said Lightfoot. "But I've been doing this for 12 years, and in that time I've realized that my biggest goal is reaching out to these children as human beings. As a teacher, when you pass on a sense of dignity, self-respect — that's your legacy."


Lightfoot instills that legacy of respect by showing respect, by keeping soft eye contact with her class and listening to each of them for long stretches of time. On this day, the 41-year-old stands in front of a few statements she has written in red magic marker about the value of listening and how being listened to makes a person feel valued.


It's still very early in the year, but from their eyes alone already it's clear, Lightfoot's message is getting through.


"She's a really good teacher because she'll listen to your explanations," said 10-year-old Ryan Vincent, his eyes peeking out from under his blonde mop-top. "She says hi when she sees you in the hall. She's always polite. I think that's part of the reason why we're at school — you know … politeness, to learn to be a good person."


That gospel of personhood is set for mixed fortune this year. On the downside, in order to conform with President Bush's No Child Left Behind program, new state regulations will now strictly govern what subjects Lightfoot and other California teachers can cover and when, minute by minute, they must cover them. The upside? Lightfoot will have one more missionary in the Walnut Creek school system this year.


Her daughter, 26-year-old Jenifer Lightfoot, begins her first year of teaching this month, two miles down the road from her mom, at Buena Vista Elementary School.


"The best part about my mother is she gets down on their level. But she's never patronizing. She's a great communicator," said the new second-grade teacher — Miss Lightfoot, to her students. "She's been a real mentor to me. And now I get to apply what she's taught me in my own classroom."


The Art of Teaching


When the Bush administration pushed forward with the No Child Left Behind Act, one of its goals, as stated on the administration's website, was to create "increased flexibility and local control" in schooling. As Miss Lightfoot points out, that's not exactly what's happened.

While in previous years Lightfoot would have been able pursue a looser schedule, guided by her mother's listening and self-esteem lessons, this year her second-grade class will adhere to a strict, government-mandated lesson plan. The plan, drawn up by the state and the Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company, informs teachers which books will be read, what subjects will be covered, when and for how many minutes.

On a recent morning, the young Lightfoot was to read her students "Dragon Gets By," a cartoon tale by author Dav Pilkey, before moving to spelling practice, then grammar instruction and finally journal writing.

"It's very formulaic," said Nancy Smith, who teaches fifth grade next to the elder Lightfoot at Indian Valley. "You're sitting up there with the book and you direct them. Okay, we're doing spelling, now short vowels. What can happen over the long run is the art of teaching gets slowly taken away."

Not all of the city's elementary teachers feel precisely that way. Alison Lightfoot for one says the new curriculum is an adjustment, but she's determined to maintain her humanity lessons as the centerpiece of her classroom. She's just going to have to teach those lessons, she says, in a different way.

"At first I was concerned" about the curriculum changes, Lightfoot said, "but then, when you teach the children respect, dignity, that becomes their foundation. Everything else comes on top of that." Lightfoot gestures to the Tupperware bins in her classroom filled with Judy Blume and E. B. White classics. "At the end of the day it's not essential which books or curriculum you use. That changes year to year anyway. It's how you treat the children during those lessons that stays with them."

Soon enough Lightfoot put that thought to action, beginning the free writing segment of the day by asking the class to think of an event they want to remember when they're old. When a boy with eager eyes and flames on his t-shirt shoots his hand into the air to share a personal memory with the class, Lightfoot smiles and extends her hand in his direction.


The scene is a close mirror of what's happening each day in the classroom her daughter runs just two miles down the road. There Jenifer Lightfoot stands before her second grade class and with genuine curiosity in her voice asks, "What is science?" The question is greeted with a surge of enthusiastic voices. "Toothpaste!" says one boy. Rather than reject the answer outright, Lightfoot grins, deciding instead to take a play from her mother's playbook and pursue the response. "Okay," she says, "why is toothpaste science?"


Later that day Lightfoot borrows her mother's methods once again. During a small nature excursion, to the hill behind the school playground, a bout of shoving breaks out. Rather than castigate the shover, the young teacher instead approaches him and invites him to join her at the front of the line and hold her hand. He's delighted to do so. The shoving stops. Problem solved.


Old Hand With New Curriculum


"As a teacher, you're a model, for good or bad," said the elder Lightfoot. "If you want them to be human, you have to be human too. I think of it this way: These children, we pass them on to the world. So it's my goal to make these kids the kind of people we want to have in our society."

And she's determined, she says, to feel her way through the new, stricter curriculum without losing touch of that goal.

Of course those who know Alison Lightfoot best never doubted that she could maintain her mission this year, regardless of the academic or bureaucratic obstacles she faces. She'll get it done, they say, and get it done her way: gently and without fanfare. For proof of her quiet tenacity, Lightfoot's friends and students point to her right hand.

Lightfoot lost the three middle fingers on her right hand in a childhood accident. But so casual is her attitude to the missing digits that you'd never notice they were gone, if their absence weren't pointed out. She shows no shame, no reticence about the hand. She even writes with it, a nonchalant adjustment, balancing the pen with the thumb, pinky and middle knuckle.

At an age where kids can be viciously judgmental, none of the students whisper, giggle or mock her about her hand. Instead they see it as she does: as simply a non-issue.

As Dr. Phil would surely point out, Lightfoot teaches her students how to treat her by how she treats herself. And the lesson is getting through.

Asked the most important thing he has learned in Mrs. Lightfoot's class, 10-year-old Gabriel Marino answers without a pause. "Good handwriting," he says with a sincere expression. Handwriting? Good handwriting? "Yeah, I used to write things down real sloppy, you know, not put much time into my work. But then I figured … well, if she can do it, then so can I."

"Now I put much more time into my work," said Marino. "I write pretty neat."

Daughter Jenifer Lightfoot has only been teaching a few weeks now, but already, echoes of her mom's classroom are there. "I know (Miss Lightfoot) is a good teacher," explained 7-year-old Joey Colter, "because when I'm talking, she really listens. And when someone else jumps in and starts to talk, she asks them to listen to me." She must really treat you special, says the enterprising reporter.

A bewildered expression flashes on Colter's face. He giggles. "Nooo," he says, "she does that for everybody."


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