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."
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
still very early in the year, but from their eyes alone already
it's clear, Lightfoot's message is getting through.
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."
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
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.
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."
Art of Teaching
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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."
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.
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?"
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.
Hand With New Curriculum
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."
she's determined, she says, to feel her way through the new, stricter
curriculum without losing touch of that goal.
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
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.
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.
Dr. Phil would surely point out, Lightfoot teaches her students
how to treat her by how she treats herself. And the lesson is getting
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."
I put much more time into my work," said Marino. "I write pretty
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.
bewildered expression flashes on Colter's face. He giggles. "Nooo,"
he says, "she does that for everybody."