Over the past nine years visiting classrooms to present our reptile program, we have made mental notes of conduct we appreciate from teachers, staff, and students.
One of our most recent visits to an elementary school took us through a decaying neighborhood blemished with walls of graffiti, windows secured with bars, and trash piled at the sides of many of the houses. Our hopes for engaging students began to fade. As we came in sight of the school, we were confronted with a myriad of children crossing streets and walking the sidewalks that led to school. Many were accompanied by their parents.
When we finally located the entrance to the parking lot, it was blocked by a series of orange cones and guarded by a man directing traffic. We drove past, hoping to find another entrance. When that didn’t materialize, we returned to the traffic guard to ask what to do. But before we could ask, he motioned to us.
“You our snake charmers?” he called out after recognizing the logo on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife car. He moved one of the cones aside. “Welcome! We’ve been expecting you!” He directed us into the parking lot. “Park wherever you find a space. Glad you’re here!”
Stunned that even the guard expected our arrival, we parked the car and headed to the office. “Sign in here,” the secretary told us as she picked up the phone to call the teacher who had requested our visit.
As the teacher led us toward the classroom where we would set up, the traffic guard darted past us in the opposite direction. “Glad you’re here!” he announced again in passing.
“Nice guy,” I commented to the teacher.
“He’s our principal,” she said. “Very hands on.”
It wasn’t long before two classes of second graders marched into the room and sat on the floor in front of us. Teachers positioned themselves on either side to maintain discipline, but that never became an issue as the students had been well prepared for this program. Both students and teachers paid attention to our presentation. And since the teachers had prepared the students with some knowledge in advance, the students offered intelligent answers to our questions, as well as presenting intelligent questions of their own at the end of the program.
Back to the Office
When the program ended, the teacher assigned one of the students to guide us back to the office. Once there, the youngster turned to us. “Thanks for coming,” he said. “I really enjoyed it!” He headed back to class just as the “traffic guard” hurried by once again.
“This was a great experience,” I told the principal. “Teachers paid attention, students were well prepared and participated, and discipline was a non-issue.”
The principal smiled, disappeared into the next room to drop off paperwork, then emerged quickly. “It’s like anything else,” he said. “If the teacher doesn’t pay attention, the students won’t pay attention.”
I started to say something else, but the principal kept moving. “Nice talking with you,” he called back as he scurried down the hallway, “but it’s cafeteria duty time!”
Once again we were reminded that neither the grade level nor the neighborhood condition dictates the classroom experience students derive from school. The quality of leadership and the skills of teachers make all the difference!