Sunday, February 9, 2014

You Make All the Difference

By Josh J. Middleton, Ed.D.

I’ll be honest with you; the neurons weren’t exactly “firing” inside my brain during the first few years of formal schooling.  I was a compliant child who showed up for school, but did not see the need to put out too much effort.  In fact my second grade teacher, Mrs. Collins, informed my parents that my handwriting was “atrocious” and that I needed to work harder on spelling.  I also clearly remember in third grade the fun I had darkening those little circles on the spring achievement test.  I made very creative patterns and was one of the first ones done!

My disconnect with school ended in 4th grade when I was serendipitously placed in a young teacher’s classroom in Cazenovia, New York.  Miss Panebianco was a brand new teacher in the 1972-73 school year and I will tell you that she made all the difference between me being a kid who could have fallen through the cracks or a kid who would find success in school.  I am FOREVER grateful to her for making a difference in my education and outlook on school.

A pivotal point for me that year occurred after taking a science test on the major organs of the human body.  I was continuing to put forth that minimal effort thinking I could slide by with a B- or C+.   When the tests were returned, I didn’t get a B or a C, not even a D.  My chapter test on the internal organs was F- !  I knew this would not go over well at home, and it really didn’t go over well with me either.  At the end of that day I was getting to leave the classroom walking toward the door feeling dejected and devastated.  Miss Panebianco quickly saw the countenance on my face and asked to speak with me.  I burst into tears, and while she was comforting to me, she also laid it on the line that afternoon.  Giving me the “I know you can do better” speech, she went one step further and offered me a chance to re-learn the material and take a re-test if I was willing to stay after school the next few days.  I agreed to the offer and found myself in her classroom the next couple of afternoons using an overhead projector to trace a life size depiction of the human body and the internal organs.  I cut each one out, labeled and defined its function and learned to properly place them on the cut out of the human body.  After a few days of doing this exercise a number of times, she gave me the opportunity to re-take the test.  Yes, this story has a happy ending: an A+ on the re-test, the needed spark to help me take responsibility for my own learning, and the initial interest to pursue a career in education.

What Miss Panebianco did for me (and all of her students) was instruct for comprehension, not completion of a chapter or to prep me for a high stakes test.  She accurately and in good conscience assessed me and engaged me in learning the material in a different way.  She knew I could learn the key concepts and definitions in that chapter and in any subject, but it was her care and dedication that made the difference.

I wrote this dedication to Miss Panebianco in 2003 as the cover article in my monthly Superintendent’s Newsletter.  We had not been in touch in the 30 years that had passed, but I was sure to find her address and send her a copy.  I received a touching card back from her just a few weeks later.  She wrote “Your letter means so much to me, more than you might imagine.  It has brought back such wonderful memories and will alter my perspective in the future.”  Now after 30 years I have heard back from some of my earliest students, and it does alter one’s perspective.  Just when you think the whole American Public Educational system has imploded and/or is being hijacked by political groups, you are re-energized and grounded again by remembering as an educator you owe it to your students to give them your best.  The outside political distractions are real, and we have a lot of work to get ourselves back to the table that shapes education.  Our influence in the political arena is so necessary now more than ever, but tomorrow within our schools and classrooms our focus needs to be on each and every student, because like Miss Panebianco, you make all the difference in the world!  Peace and blessings.


Middleton is a retired teacher, administrator, and district superintendent.  He currently teaches Educational Leadership courses for Montana State University and enjoys posting blogs for different education advocacy groups.

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