Reflections on a Career: “The Big City”
By Anna Belle Staley
(Chapter 3 of the memoirs of Anna Belle Staley, Renton, Washington)
September of 1943 found me eagerly awaiting the experience of becoming a part of the Seattle Schools. At that time, all teachers in the system met at either a high school or what was then the Civic Auditorium for a morning session of orientation. In the afternoon, teachers reported to their assigned buildings. I believe, that year, the faculty at my school provided lunch in the building after which we prepared our rooms for the first day when our students reported. An experienced teacher, but also new to that building, greeted me enthusiastically. In the process of becoming acquainted, we discovered we both attended the University Presbyterian Church. We became instant friends and that relationship continued until her death in 1988.
My first assignment in Seattle netted me a school located on the north side of Queen Anne Hill. There, I had eighth grade content subjects, as I recall, American History and English, each morning and six music classes every afternoon. A before school glee club rounded out the schedule. When it came to the English class, I fared very well, but history was a burden and I’m surprised the children didn’t rebel. Even so, we made it.
After having taught for only four years, my mind was always alert to benefit from the experiences of the “veterans” in the classroom. Whereas they’d used their gimmicks and techniques for years which worked for them, I soon learned what became successful for them, didn’t satisfy me. Saving the lesson plans, tests of whatever year after year prevented any semblance of creative teaching since each class each year had different pupils with different needs or ideas. Besides, subject matter, itself, doesn’t remain stagnant. New concepts develop; new ways of presenting information for pupil interest and the honing of one’s own skills must develop and change.
One incident stands out in my mind which proves the importance of that “personal touch.” The old-fashioned desks enabled one to sit alongside a pupil and I remember sitting with one of the girls and explaining some factor relating to English. It took only the few moments to open the door of understanding.
Pictures in an old album reveal I must have taught a science class, also. I remember my mother and I visited Bonneville Dam where I gleaned all the statistics and information for the class to construct the dam using papier-mâché. That gave us the opportunity to study light around the world.
As a new and younger teacher, I sometimes suggested different ways of doing things and I can still hear the response of one established teacher: “It’s never been done before.” I heard it so many times I composed a ditty that I shared with my new friend. The title? The above quote. I don’t remember the refrain or melody, now. In some instances, my innovations proved to be successful.
The woman who headed the music department for the Seattle Schools was a friend of a couple that my sister and her husband had met during their civil engineering days. That woman and her assistant became good friends to me. Of help to me, suggested music books and lists of songs (folk, ditty, rounds, etc.) gave me ideas of how to proceed with the music classes and I fared very well in that department. I still have a copy of a Christmas program the glee club presented one year.
Even though I enjoyed my work, I found such a tight schedule tiring. In 1945, I had a horrible bout with labyrinthitis, which kept me out of school for several months. One class which I greatly enjoyed and to whom I’d read the accounts of Byrd’s expedition to the South Pole and his reports about the penguins, gave me a stuffed penguin for Christmas. One of the pupils in that class became a Hollywood star. I can still see in my mind his ruddy complexion and red hair.
The woman principal in the school many considered as one of the seven difficult administrators with whom to work. She didn’t make life hard for me so we managed to get along very well. Time slips away from me, now, as I recall some of the events at the school, but I think she retired at the end of two years of my association with the building.
A man took her place who didn’t meet my expectations of what a principal should be. One day as I sat in his office as children streamed out of the building, running and screaming, he commented, “Hear that. If I tried to do something about it, I’d end up with an ulcer.” The man’s interest in himself over that of children reflected a “spoiled boy” syndrome. I remember at a social function, the faculty sang, “For he’s a jolly good fellow, For he’s a jolly good fellow, For he’s a jolly good fellow, Which nobody can deny,” that caused him to beam.
As music teacher, I accompanied children to the symphony concerts provided for the school children. For some reason which I don’t remember, now, the principal chose another teacher to chaperone one concert. That made me angry. I called the office, asked for a substitute that afternoon and went to the concert myself. With poor rapport with him, I asked for a transfer to another school after being in the Queen Anne building six years. I believe my special friend had also transferred prior to making my decision to change.
It’s very apparent my “philosophy” of teaching hadn’t quite gelled or I would have had written records to illustrate what shape my teaching took during those first years. Expressing my beliefs didn’t come until I had the urging and guidance of a fine principal.
I had the choice of a school in the Ballard area with another of the seven difficult administrators as principal or one in the Rainier Valley area with the principal the son of the superintendent of schools at Friday Harbor. When I heard the name, I commented, “If he’s even half as good as his father, he should be excellent.”
The fall of 1949 found me assigned to a seventh grade class at the new school with, again, content subjects each morning and six music classes each afternoon. Even having a portable classroom didn’t dampen my pleasure in having new surroundings and new associates.
An event which gave me much satisfaction occurred several weeks after the opening of school. The principal always ate with the first group of teachers in their small lunchroom. He sat at the end of the table and I occupied the chair to his right. One day, his six-foot plus frame exultantly settled in his chair and he asked,”Why didn’t you tell me you knew my folks?” To which I quietly replied, “I thought I’d let you find that our for yourself.” The fact I’d made no attempt to ingratiate myself upon that former acquaintance, greatly impressed him and we became good, good friends. At no time during his principalship did he irritate or displease me or make my tenure unpleasant or unrewarding. In fact, he often encouraged, guided and helped me to grow as a teacher and a worthwhile contributing faculty member.
After one faculty meeting, he called me at home and said, “I didn’t hear your voice in the meeting today.” I probably excused myself by admitting I really had nothing to contribute. His reply came as a surprise. “You have good ideas and I want you to contribute to the discussions.” He did encourage me and I know full well had he not pushed me “out of the nest” I never would have become more vocal.
At all times, the principal had his finger on the pulse of that school. Children respected him, he disciplined when necessary, and managed a well-run faculty. One chore which I disliked, playground duty, enabled me to become acquainted with other than the children in my class and as a result, helped me avoid, probably, a discipline problem.
I remember some teachers wailing, “Poor Miss Staley, she has a problem on her hands.” The problem? One of the vivacious lively boys in my group. No problem surfaced and I credited it to my duty on the grounds one day. I stood in plain sight observing the boys playing baseball. Suddenly, a ball sailed my way and instead of running or shielding myself, I reached up, caught it, and threw it back. The “problem” kid nearly lost his teeth as his mouth gaped wide open. That one act caused us to understand each other. I had no problem.
One girl in the class soon became a positive influence upon the thirty-two members. Her creativity, charming personality, and love of good music contributed to the activities. I was invited to her home for dinner one evening and learned to admire two women who were partners in an accounting business. The girl and her older brother shared the companionship of a boy and girl belonging to the other woman. The latter woman and I developed a friendship that lasted for fifty years.
One student (of forty years ago) wrote me a letter in March of 1993 which read, in part: “You were my heroine in seventh grade.” Within a few days, I responded to her letter and asked her why she considered me her heroine. She replied, “You made and kept school very interesting and were interested in helping all of us, not just the ‘geniuses.”‘ She related she couldn’t recall anything about any other experiences in any other classes she had at the school except being very late for class once and being sent to stand in the back of the room. (That wasn’t my class!) Her mom had something to do with making her do something over at home and then insisting she go in late for further punishment and embarrassment.
The remodeling of the school the year before my assignment resulted in large beautiful classrooms with more than adequate chalkboards and bulletin boards. Lovely display cabinets in the hallways provided teachers with the vehicle to display classroom projects that wouldn’t have been seen otherwise.
One project we developed had little noses glued to the protective glass of one of the display cabinets. The title at the back of the display cabinet stated: Watch Our Symphony Grow. That year as I attended the symphony concerts, I took notes as to the physical features of each orchestra member paired with the instrument each played. The typed descriptions occupied an important spot on the room bulletin board and when assignments had been completed, each pupil chose an orchestra member, molded the head, hands and feet from clay and painted the dried clay figure to conform to the physical features so each member of the orchestra could have identified himself/herself. Using pipe cleaners, pupils attached the head, hands and feet to them.
My mother and sister sewed the clothing and dressed each figure. Pupils made music stands from wire and balsa wood. Balsa wood provided the medium for the construction of the string section and most of the woodwind section. The pupils used twisted and shaped foil for the brass, the flute and piccolo. The percussion used some of each of the mediums depending on the instrument. Halved rubber balls comprised the bases of the tympani.
I’ll never forget the precision and accuracy demonstrated by a slower pupil in constructing the harp, perfectly shaped of balsa wood, colored strings and even the pedals. The inspiration for the construction of the instruments came through the samples I’d made to be used as patterns. Balsa wood, too, became the medium for the construction of chairs. As each figure, instrument, chair, stand or item connected with the symphony came to fruition, each occupied a prominent place in the hall display case and that became a focal point of interest for many weeks.
I made a crude shell from plywood and heavy corrugated cardboard with curtains and raised sections for the families of instruments. Our symphony received public recognition when Lou Guzzo wrote an article for publication in the Seattle Times and related the orchestra traveled to the Puyallup Fair one fall for display and to advertise the symphony’s programs. Here, again, I’m indebted to my mother’s scrapbook for that record.
With my career moving ahead so well, I decided to unload the heavy work of content subjects each morning and six music classes each afternoon. I chose, instead, to have a self-contained classroom. That became the vehicle for more creative and rewarding teaching for me. All subjects matter became related and all activities coordinated to form one goal of motivation for an interest in learning and teaching, also.
That brings one question into perspective: What is a classroom? To many a child, a classroom is a place where four walls inhibit actions and thoughts, where body movements are restricted, where minds are influenced by adult standards and where students become only a statistic or a seat number.
To many a teacher, the classroom is a place where children are controlled by an adult, where authority must be exercised and respected and where parents are welcome only “by appointment.” Many teachers become so concerned with curriculum demands children aren’t allowed to live.
To me, the classroom did indeed have a limited area, but I believed pupils should be able to move freely as long as that activity didn’t interfere with the rights and privileges of others. It became a laboratory where skills could be developed.
I’m simply amazed as I look at class pictures which reveal my classrooms housed between thirty and thirty-five pupils and not once did I yowl I had too many pupils. From my first year in a one-room school, I must have developed an innate ability to organize, to plan, and to execute the classroom activities in such a way every child was challenged not only to complete assignments, but to actively participate in subject related projects.
Learning From “The Big City”
by Anna Belle Staley
This chapter is excerpted from the journal which Anna Belle Staley kept throughout her career. Ms. Staley is now 91 years old, but because of this journal, she still has a vivid portrayal of her early years as a teacher.
This chapter captures Ms. Staley’s enthusiasm for her profession, and includes samples of her challenges and triumphs.
She is honest in acknowledging certain struggles she faced as a novice teacher. For example, she notes “history was a burden and I’m surprised the children didn’t rebel. Even so, we made it.” It is somewhat ironic that she saw history as a burden, since her journal is now a historic document!
In the third paragraph, we see that Anna Belle did not build her professional strengths by inheriting “gimmicks and techniques” from others or even by saving her own lesson plans. Instead, she found that “New ways of presenting information for pupil interest, and the honing of one’s own skills must develop and change.” Indeed, Ms. Staley was a creative teacher who brought out the creativity in her charges.
In the fourth paragraph, we learn that Ms. Staley recognized the importance of the “personal touch” and that, when necessary, she would sit alongside a pupil in order to “open the door of understanding.”
Ms. Staley adds an important human touch by including anecdotes on how her innovative approaches were received by her peers and administrators. She often heard the refrain “It’s never been done before,” but never let that stop her.
Indeed, we see that Anna Belle’s qualities were recognized when a principal urged her to speak up in meetings: “You have good ideas and I want you to contribute to the discussions.” Detailed encounters like this are often lost to memory, but fortunately, Ms. Staley recorded these in her journal.
This chapter includes a wonderfully detailed description of a project in which the pupils worked together to create a miniature model of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. And, she includes this sentence, “I’ll never forget the precision and accuracy demonstrated by a slower pupil in constructing the harp, perfectly shaped of balsa wood, colored strings, and even the pedals.” This is a concrete example of the way Ms. Staley brought out the best in each of her pupils.
When Ms. Staley answers her rhetorical question, “What is a classroom?” we see her teaching philosophy spelled out. Indeed, this chapter [and Ms. Staley’s entire journal] has been an inspiration to many, including “moi,” your “web master.”
While most of us have not kept lifelong journals, we can still learn more about the craft of memoir by studying Anna Belle’s chapter. It is a personal account which records the ups and downs of teaching and closes with some philosophical conclusions.