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Lessons Learned With Miss Brooke


At a recent high school reunion, talk at our table turned to our favorite teacher from fifth and sixth grade (we looped with her!), Miss Jean Brooke. I was not surprised to hear from so many of my former classmates that Miss Brooke has remained their favorite teacher through high school, college, and life. I know she has stayed with me in my imagination throughout my teaching career, and even into retirement. How could one unassuming elementary teacher make so large an impact and become a cherished part of so many lives? Teachers, isn't that just what you want for the relationships you are building with students today? If you want to be remembered as that favorite and unforgettable teacher, tomorrow isn't too soon to start!

What made Miss Brooke so important and her influence so long-lasting? Here are just a few aspects of the two wonderful years that we spent with her that certainly stand out to me:

You were her favorite.

Wait, you weren't her favorite. I was! No, it was neither of us. It was Jenny (name changed to protect the unassuming innocent). Well, it was actually Jenny and me. That's how it went in our minds. Each of us thought that we were the favorite and might've shared that spot with a super smart, super motivated classmate who always had the right answer and was kind to everyone. (Yes, she was a real person, and maybe, just maybe this post should also be dedicated to her! How does a kid with all the intelligence and talent in the universe still manage to be a role model for collaboration and kindness? That's how I remember our sweet Jenny, and I tried throughout my career to transfer a little of her to my students, especially in that often misunderstood and underserved gifted group.)

If you read my post about The Good Table, you know that, at least in my little corner of education, where we sit in class is a highly emotionally charged topic. I know it's important to others because we've all seen how college students take the same seats every day in class, movie goers tend to prefer certain seating areas over others, and we all have our restaurant preferences - table, square or round, or booth. Miss Brooke had a unique seating plan. It took little time, and made a huge impact. Every Monday morning, the first student in each row would move his/her desk to the back and then everyone else in the row moved one space closer to the front. Everyone had their chance to sit up front - a very good thing, since we were all her favorite!

In each of our minds, then and now, that was the lineup: Miss Brooke's favs? Jenny and me! (Me being whoever you are!) How did this happen and and how has this feeling persisted? One of my classmates thinks we were part of a secret experiment, to see what would happen if you treated kids with respect and kindness in addition to preparing them educationally for a future that you would not visit with them. Oh, and since it was the sixties, we also had to be trained to duck and cover for those Soviet bombs which might fall from the sky at any moment. So much to do in a short school day, and so little time to make an impact.
But make an impact she did. We were her favorite!

She valued you and your responses.

She called us "people"! We were actually people to her! Valued people worthy of notice and respect. None of that "One two three, eyes on me!", call and response,  or "I'll wait." (Guilty here on too many counts of that!) She simply stood calmly before us, made eye contact with just about everyone as far as I could tell, and said ever so elegantly and somewhat quietly, "People." Her people got quiet and attentive pretty quickly. We knew she had something to say that we needed to hear. Long before we ever heard the term, we were truly Miss Brooke's peeps. She had us in the palm of her hand.

Miss Brooke was the master of "wait time".
I was a good twenty years into my teaching career before discussion of "wait time" became a thing. And yet Miss Brooke used wait time like a pro. She would always ask for several responses when she asked a question during a lesson. She would patiently listen, making eye contact, consider thoughtfully before responding, "Uh huh." and then move on to the next answer. She would finally make a summation combining the input of each of us as she acknowledged the correct answer that was then chalked on the board (Isn't chalking back?!?) and copied dutifully in our notebooks. (Yes. Miss Brooke used Interactive Notebooks in the sixties. If she called them that, we never knew, but we all used notebooks, filled them with notes from class, and interacted with them on our own. We all just called them notebooks. Nothing fancy. No glue ins that I can recall, other than maps.
Oh, and the answer to the question? I was right of course! She used my answer. No, wait, maybe it was Jenny's answer or Sally's or Irwin's. It was all of our answers so we all felt smart and validated, and no one's in particular. Miss Brooke just listened and found a way to give us back what we all needed. The right answer along with the joy of being an active participant in our own learning.

She made her outside life a part of our class.
Miss Brooke lived and traveled with her parents. Although she traveled to many places, she shared that her favorite place was the American Southwest. Wherever she went, she brought back memorabilia for each of us. She would collect shells, sand, earth, and rocks, and bring those souvenirs back as she shared her vacation memories with all of us. (She listened to our own vacation memories with wide-eyed wonder, as if she was seeing each location each of had visited for the first time ever.) I may or may not still have a necklace and a keychain from Miss Brooke in my special turquoise plastic jewelry box . She tumbled those rocks herself. I had no concept until recently what a long and noisy process rock tumbling actually was.

She made each of us a part of her outside life.
To celebrate learning, Miss Brooke would take small groups of kids out for lunch over the weekends. She would sit and listen to us, tell us about things she enjoyed, and let us know how proud she was of each of us. I remember being at one of these lunches with Jenny and Miss Brooke. It was all about Spelling that day. Spelling! It was a celebrity moment that I have never forgotten, being at lunch with two of the smartest and kindest women around.

She placed value on enrichments and down time.
My parents called our school "the country club". We had enrichment classes, and they had never heard f such a thing.  My favorite was creative dance. No one cared that I was not a great dancer. It was creative dance, just moving to different types of music any way the music moved each of us. There was extra art time (loved that!) and time to explore square dancing and musical instruments. I'm pretty sure there were sports and science related enrichments too.
Miss Brooke's contribution to our "country club" enrichments was to not require us to make up any work we missed while out of her class for enrichments. Miss Brooke was all about brain breaks before that was ever even a thing too. None of us seemed to be any less smart or any less successful on tests due to our participation in enrichments. I can still remember that feeling today of being so excited to wake up and head to school every morning to see Miss Brooke, learn with her, and visit an enrichment or two.

She made learning fun.
Miss Brooke made learning games for us to use when our work was done, and often the games were part of our work. We were reminiscing at our reunion about a map game she made with electric circuits that lit a bulb when we matched the state name to the place on the map.
We worked in groups. We collaborated with partners. We learned to make salt and flour mixtures to show topography and explored the wonders of dioramas. We talked about our learning with each other and with our teacher. She never gave us the answers. She drew them from us. We owned those answers and remembered them.

Miss Brooke had pens that used turquoise ink. She let us write with them at her desk. She told us and our parents where to buy the pens, ink, and later on cartridges of turquoise ink. I can't even describe the feeling I still get today when I sit down to write with turquoise ink. I'm pretty sure I used only turquoise ink through high school and college. She taught us that writing isn't a chore - it's a beautiful part of life.

Miss Brooke was an avid reader and showed us that reading is a joyful experience. She discussed books that we had chosen from the school library with us, showing the same wide eyed interest that she showed whenever she listened to us discuss any topic. Even book reports were fun when we knew that Miss Brooke would read them, and tell us what she thought.

She spent real time with us when she didn't have to.
Most of the kids at our school went home for lunch. Our moms were not all Donna Reed, wearing pearls and heels, as they served us a picture perfect menu each day. Not all of our moms were even actually home. Some kids stayed at school and carried a lunch. There was no cafeteria and no food service, but once a month, the PTA sponsored a "Mother's Day Out" lunch. Volunteer moms served us hot dogs with ketchup and mustard and potato chips in our classrooms. The hot dogs tasted even better back then because we had no idea how unhealthy they were! My favorite memory of "Mother's Day Out" is that Miss Brooke helped to serve us all, and then she sat down and joined us for a hot dog lunch.
Miss Brooke was a constant that we could all count on. She greeted her people with a smile every day, was never too busy for any of us, stayed past dismissal time, and never seemed to run out of the room when we went to specials or enrichments.

I could go on and on about the many ways Miss Brooke impacted my life and teaching career, butI won't do that here. I do hope that I gave a little of what she gave me to each of the students I've had over the years. In any case, I do know that Miss Brooke made the world a better place in so many more ways than she will ever know.

I have searched the internet high and low for some sign of this cherished teacher, but all I could find was an interview in local newspaper from the time I was lucky to be one of Miss Brooke's people. Actual elementary gifted programming ("The Scholars Program") started in our district when my classmates and I were already in high school. This direct quote from Miss Brooke across time gives us a glimpse into the teacher she was.

"Most teachers, like Miss Jean Brooke, relate everything they do to their jobs. On vacation trips, she takes pictures and later shows the slides to her sixth graders at Sunnyside School as a geography aid. Her classroom at the school is a gay and lively place. An aquarium in one corner shares space with plants, games and books. In the front of the room is a map of the United States. There are no names on the states, but when a student correctly identifies one by its outline, a blue light flashes at the top of the board. Learning is fun for Miss Brooke's students. And teaching is fun for her. 

"The satisfactions are obvious things," she said. "The light in children's eyes; the day they suddenly grasp an idea we've been working on; the times when a student will say something that is so mature." 

Enthused, too, about the hard-working Sunnyside PTA, Miss Brooke explained. "Parents want the best for their children, and I want the best for them, so it seems very natural for us to work together.”

I hardly think Miss Brooke was like "most teachers" of the time. She was certainly like no other teacher I ever experienced as a student. Thank you, Miss Brooke, from the bottom of my heart, for all you gave to each of us every day. You were eons ahead of your time, and you made a real and lasting difference!

From your favorite,









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4 comments

  1. What a lovely post. I do hope that Miss Brooke will get to read this post! What a lovely tribute to a favorite teacher.

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  2. What a beautiful tribute to a great teacher who has made such an impression on you. I know her influence has made you a wonderful and caring educator. Thanks for sharing this with us.

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  3. I couldn't stop beaming, as I read about Miss Brooke (& her turquoise pens!) I'm sure you are the "Miss Brooke" to so many of your students, too, Retta. What a lovely post!!

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  4. So sweet! What a fabulous tribute to an incredible teacher and profound inspiration for those of us in the classroom. Lucky you!!!

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