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In Praise of Elementary School Teachers

I've never taught in elementary school, but I know I wouldn't have lasted anywhere close to the 28 years that I taught in high school.  I thought of this after reading about the differences in development between boys and girls ("What Schools Can Do to Help Boys Succeed," Time, Oct. 28).

Although the sexes behave differently in high school, the contrast is not as pronounced as it is in 5- and 6-year-old children.  Yet strangely, we expect boys of that age and a few years beyond not to be restless and unfocused but instead to behave like girls.  It doesn't take much imagination to understand why this strategy is a prescription for trouble. Nevertheless, some people claim that elementary school teachers have it easier than their high school colleagues because the lessons they prepare are simple to adults in terms of subject matter. But they miss the point. The lessons are actually harder in terms of pedagogy. Anyone who disagrees should try holding the attention of a small group of young children for a day. It's exhausting.

Then there's the issue of maintaining a proper professional boundary in elementary school.  If a child cries, a teacher instinctively wants to comfort the child.  But in doing so, what constitutes grounds for inappropriate contact?  In high school, the teacher can let a crying student leave the room. Elementary teachers do that at their peril. Who knows where that child will go?

Young children also have vivid imaginations and are highly suggestible. The McMartin Preschool case that began in 1984 and finally ended in 1990 in Los Angeles County proved that to be true. The district attorney ruined the lives of the teachers at the school by relying on claims made by children and their parents that they had been sexually molested and subjected to satanic rituals.  It subsequently turned out that no such thing had happened. All 321 counts of child abuse were eventually dropped in what was the longest and most expensive criminal case in this country, but the damage was already done to those named in the indictment.

In light of the unique responsibilities that elementary school teachers shoulder on a daily basis,  I take my hat off to them for what they manage to accomplish. I couldn't do their job. I wish others would pay them the same respect.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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