A Lesson In Teaching In Room 211, A Teacher Tells Pupils: You Will Be Working Hard

Posted: March 21, 1988

Thirty sixth-graders chatter and move about freely in groups as they study vocabulary words at desks clustered into four "work stations."

They play "Wheel of Fortune" vocabulary games, and during "Vocabulary Jeopardy," Jennifer Lynn gives the answer:

"Having a thick, dark appearance."

"What is murky?" a boy calls out.

Their teacher, Michael Thomas, 27, is in his first year in the Philadelphia School District, and he has made it a point to come up with different learning tools for his pupils in Room 211 at Mayfair Elementary.

At his age, Thomas is a rarity among Philadelphia public school teachers. He is young in a system where almost half of the city's 12,000 teachers are over age 45 and one-fourth will be eligible to retire in five years. Only 14 percent are under 35.

Like many of the 500 or so teachers hired by the district this year, Thomas, a native Philadelphian who lives in West Oak Lane, has some experience. He's been a pre-school teacher at a small Baptist church school in South Philadelphia, a part-time instructor at Temple University and a substitute teacher.

Because the district was under a hiring freeze between 1976 and 1984, most new teachers coming into the system have experience at parochial or private schools.

Six months into the term, Thomas, a man of average build who has a faint beard and mustache and hip burgundy-rimmed glasses, has carefully crafted an easy, relaxed atmosphere in his classroom. But the 30 students who now learn with freedom - if they play by the rules - were almost petrified upon meeting Thomas on the first day of school.

Thursday, Sept. 10, 1987. "Before we start things," Thomas begins after the students are seated, "I want you to know that Mr. Thomas is what you'd call a no-nonsense teacher. Let's establish that from the beginning, so there won't be a problem later on down the line.

"There are a lot of things you will learn to do here," he says, passing out index cards. "The first is to follow directions. Do exactly as you are told to do."

Before he finishes his instructions on filling out the cards, he separates two whispering boys by moving one to the front row.

Next, a girl walks into the room and Thomas looks to his left toward the door: "Are you in Room 211?"

A nod.

"You're late."

Turning back to the class, he admonishes a boy to sit up in his seat. All the students respond.

"You will be working hard," he says. "You will be pushed to work hard . . . One of the things that will make me most happy is that you do not look bored. If you are bored, pretend you are not."

Then, only after the class leaves for recess, Thomas lets down his guard and smiles mischieviously:

"I just wanted to let them know from the beginning who's in charge. Depending on how they behave, I may ease up a bit later on. But I think this is going to be a good class."


Room 211 has perfect demographics in a system struggling to desegregate its schools. There are 15 girls and 15 boys; 14 pupils are black, 16 are white. The black students are bused from as far away as Southwest Philadelphia and Logan to the Mayfair school, at Princeton and Hawthorne streets.

The classroom is bathed in sunlight on sunny days. Bulletin boards are brightly decorated. Students' art projects fill a back wall, and during winter, large, white paper snow-flakes adorn the glass panes in the classroom door.

And always, there are lists. The rules for behavior on science lab days is posted above the windows on one wall. And a daily agenda, written in chalk on a corner of the blackboard, details which subjects the students will be working on each minute of the day.

Wednesday, Nov. 26, 1987. The pupils are sitting at groups of desks, or ''work stations," in which several desks, lined side by side, face another row of desks. The effect is the students appear to be working at four large tables.

The new arrangement allows students who learn quickly to help others in the group.

"In every group there is an M.G. (mentally gifted) student so the other students can be around those who do well," Thomas says. "They can see how (the brighter students) work."

The work stations also illustrate Thomas' "holistic" philosophy about education. He sees education as a "social process" in which students naturally share ideas and information. For example, in a lesson on giving a demonstration speech, he once had students bring in recipes and ingredients to bake bread or cookies.

Today, four mini-lessons in vocabulary are going on. The students also conduct science projects in the four teams.

At times, with all the group work, the room gets a bit noisy. If it gets too boisterous, Thomas has a sure-fire method of restoring order. He raises one arm straight up in the air, hand pointed to the ceiling. "My hand is up," he sometimes says. "I want complete silence in two minutes."

Though the classroom may seem a bit informal, Dorothy Pittman, whose son Michael is in Thomas' class, says Thomas is in complete control because students know "he doesn't play around. When his hand goes up, they know that means silence."

Another parent says Thomas takes so much pride in his class being well- behaved when they line up to go downstairs to the lunchroom or to recess, that one day when he thought they were too noisy, he marched them back upstairs to their second-floor classroom and down again.

The students have come to enjoy his methods despite his occasional gruffness, his "hours of homework" and his frequent lectures on how they need to study harder.

"Everybody thinks he's one of the best teachers here," says one of his pupils, Colleen Haniman, 11.

To Kristin Van Osten, 11, Thomas is a fun teacher because "we do different things. We elected class officers and he lets us plan our own parties."

At noon, one work group eats brown-bag lunches in the classroom rather than in the cafeteria. The kids want more time to rehearse a play about Cinderella, to be presented in a couple of weeks to a group of first-graders. The play is a book-report assignment, and the pupils have written the script from the story.

It is one of the things Thomas does to "make things more fun," says Pierrette Boyer, who as "Cinderella" has donned a long, yellow chiffon dress and is teaching Kevin Smith, the prince, how to dance for the ballroom scene.

By now, Thomas has also earned the respect of parents, who say he is an enthusiastic and caring teacher.

Denise Tustin, a vice president of the Mayfair Home and School Association, whose son, Matthew, is in Room 211, says Thomas has impressed many parents with the way he keeps in touch with them, calling them at home to let them know how their children are doing and what they need to work on.

"I've been very, very impressed and very pleased," says Tustin, who took Matthew out of a Christian school and put him in Mayfair several years ago.

"You expect to be treated more like a number in a situation when your kid is in such a big school . . . but he (Thomas) is paying a little closer attention to the kids. He can really tell you where they are."

She also says Thomas has done an excellent job of motivating a group of students who were "pretty wild and not working up to their potential" last year when they had a series of substitute teachers after their fifth-grade teacher became ill.

This year, she says, "Matt's working harder than he's ever worked, but he's also doing better than he's ever done. He's doing beautifully this year. The kid puts in two hours of homework (a night)."

Several other parents also praise Thomas. Dorothy Pittman says her son has become less timid about speaking up in class this year and has gotten better grades.

"I think he's absolutely fantastic," she says of Thomas. "He has a whole lot of enthusiasm. I'm not saying the other teachers are not as good, but he does seem to have a lot of enthusiasm."

And Terri Hill says her son Rahiim has had to study harder in Thomas' class, and is more challenged: "Things had always come really easily for him. Now it's harder."

Tustin also says Thomas seems to understand how to be strict at times and also how to have fun: "One day Matt came home laughing about how they had taught (Thomas) how to dance."

Mayfair's principal, Frances Schwartz, who has given Thomas an excellent rating in her evaluation, says she, too, is impressed with Thomas' commitment to his class. She said he often gets to school much earlier than required, (typically, he gets in shortly after 7 a.m. although school doesn't start until 8:45), and he has rallied pupils and parents with his teaching ideas.

"One day, he will be a master teacher," says Schwartz.

However, the principal says Thomas sometimes takes on so many activities that he gets overwhelmed. For instance, things got hectic in December when Thomas volunteered to have his class participate in the annual Geography Bowl contest.

He agrees he became frazzled because he worried he could not take time from the mandated standardized curriculum to adequately coach his students.

At first, Thomas says, the curriculum, which outlines what must be taught at each school at each grade level, was "too much, just too much to manage."

"It is just a sea of skills and information that must be taught in sixth grade," says Thomas. "Reading skills, science skills . . ."

While many experienced teachers have criticized the curriculum - initiated three years ago by Schools Superintendent Constance E. Clayton - as an erosion of their authority to decide what goes on in their classrooms, Thomas says he has learned to live with it, seeing it as a guide to be used with some flexibility.

On the whole, though, Thomas believes the accolades he is receiving simply result from his love of teaching.

"The teaching is in me," he says. "It's not an obligation. I don't feel obligated to do it. I do it because I can't help it . . . It's like a calling. I don't know where I get all my ideas. I believe that a good teacher is born."

Tuesday, Jan. 5, 1988. The students from Room 211 are across the hall taking a computer class, and Thomas leaves the building during a free period to buy supplies for his class (graph paper and chalk) with his own money.

For years, teachers have complained there are simply not enough supplies to go around. Yet another initiation rite for Thomas.

Upon returning, he looks in at the work his pupils are doing on the computers.

The students say they have figured out Thomas by now.

"I like Mr. Thomas," says Anthony Hill, 11. "He's tough, but again, he helps us to learn by being so tough."

Artrina Mason, 11, says, "You have to be tough. I think he's a good teacher. Some of my other teachers didn't care if you learned or not. He cares."

And although 11-year-old Matthew Tustin says Thomas is the "best teacher I ever had," he adds, "Sometimes he gives you a scare."

A little later, it's scare time. After having to interrupt his science lesson to chastise students who are not paying attention, Thomas gives one of his lectures:

"Certain people in here refuse to do their homework," he says. "I ask for complete sentences and get one-word answers. If you do not pass, you cannot go to the seventh grade next year. Please hear me out. Don't say I haven't warned you."

Not long after this session, Thomas angers several parents when he gives the first science test that includes essay questions instead of the usual multiple-choice and true-or-false quiz.

Sixteen of the 30 pupils fail, and Thomas gets four angry phone calls and three letters, one signed by several parents, questioning his fairness.

But Thomas says he understands the parents' complaints:

"They want raised standards, but not at the cost of having students who normally do well, beginning to fall a little. It takes stretched muscles to step up higher on another level. You shouldn't be satisfied at being where you are."

By February, Thomas has sent the required warning notices to parents of 14 pupils, telling them that their children may not be promoted under the district's strict promotion policy.

At yet another stern lecture, prompted by the warnings of failures, Thomas confides to his class the frustrations of being a teacher.

He talks of "breaking my back" to be the best teacher he could be while many students have been careless about studying.

He is almost teary-eyed when he says, "Don't be surprised if I'm not here next year."

Since that lecture, Thomas has noticed an improvement in the work of some of the pupils who are in trouble, and he is heartened.

But he really doesn't know if he will be back next year. If the enrollment at Mayfair, which declined from 530 students last year to 450, drops any further, there may not be a need for Thomas. As the most recent hire at Mayfair, he could be transferred to another school.

In the meantime, Thomas is confident and self-assured.

He believes he has performed well so far this first year.

"But I'm hard on myself," he adds. "I never think I am giving enough and doing enough."

His goals are for his pupils to become excited about learning, to get everything they need to do well in the future.

"I want to feel proud if their teachers next year come and say, 'You really prepared those kids!' "

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