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A Kindergarten Teacher Refuses to Participate in the Destruction of Childhood
MS. MacLEISH! Ms. MacLeish!" The door to Room 7 was still locked, but the kindergartners could not wait for the school day to begin. They were jumping up and down in the hallway, trying to peek through the high window and get Ms. MacLeish to let them in early.
From inside Room 7, Laurin MacLeish could see the tops of blond ponytails and brown cornrows bouncing in and out of view. She could hear the jiggling of the locked doorknob. At 8:25 precisely, with the first bell, she opened up.
"Ms. MacLeish, I found a roly-poly!" shouted Victoria Sibons.
"Ms. MacLeish, I caught a caterpillar!" yelled Marcus Maxwell.
"Ms. MacLeish, Marcus didn't catch that caterpillar!" said Ashley Ann Duncan. "This girl gave it to Marcus." Ms. MacLeish did not care; she told Mighty Marcus Maxwell that she had never seen a more perfect caterpillar, and, along with the roly-poly, it went right into the Room 7 terrarium.
"Precious darlings, we have a day that's bigger than big," said Ms. MacLeish. "I need attentive listeners." She explained that she had just gotten back the annual kindergarten highlights video she compiles each year. "Guess what I did when I saw it for the first time last night?"
"You cried!" they all shouted.
"Oh, yes," said Ms. MacLeish. "And what color were my tears, boys and girls? Pink or blue?"
"Pink!" (Happy tears.)
"Of course," said Ms. MacLeish. "To see how much you've grown and how we've come all the way to the merry month of May." Ms. MacLeish has been teaching kindergarten 32 years, and still this growing-up business never ceases to amaze her. When they start in August, their self-portraits have arms coming out of their ears, and by May they have necks, bellies, even lips.
Through it all, no one has a better time than Ms. MacLeish. In the video highlights, the person with the biggest smile at the field trip to the zoo, at the Halloween party ("Look at Ms. MacLeish! She's a butterfly!"), at the 100th-day-of-school celebration, is Ms. MacLeish.
When Lizzy Volcey raced in late, meaning everyone was now present, Ms. MacLeish was the first to break into a chorus of "Everyone Is Here Today" ("Let's give a hip hip hooray!").
Being in Ms. MacLeish's class is like living in a Broadway musical where people walking down the street routinely burst into song. Ethel Merman would have seemed normal in Room 7. If someone wears new shoes, they sing the New Shoe song. "Would you rather read this or sing it?" Ms. MacLeish asked, pointing to the board, and — with Ms. MacLeish leading on the autoharp — the children burst out singing "K Is for Kindergarten Hip Hip Hooray."
"You are the b-e-s-t — kiss your brains for being so smart," said Ms. MacLeish, whose great gift is creating so much fun that children forget they are learning. At one point, Ashley Ann looked up and complained, "It's going by way too fast." Indeed, Ms. MacLeish, of Lake Silver Elementary, has such magic that in 1998 she was named Orange County teacher of the year.
And so it is easy to imagine all the broken hearts this spring when Ms. MacLeish, 53, sent a letter home saying this would be her last year teaching kindergarten. It was no ordinary goodbye letter. Ms. MacLeish was m-a-d. Her tears were not pink. She fears that the kindergarten world she knows and has raised to a fine art is being destroyed. "A single high-stakes test score is now measuring Florida's children, leaving little time to devote to their character or potential or talents or depth of knowledge," she wrote. "Kindergarten teachers throughout the state have replaced valued learning centers (home center, art center, blocks, dramatic play) with paper and pencil tasks, dittos, coloring sheets, scripted lessons, workbook pages."
The breaking point for Ms. MacLeish was an article in the paper praising a kindergarten teacher who had eliminated her play centers and was doing reading drills, all part of a push to help her school get a higher grade on the annual state report card.
It's not that Ms. MacLeish is anti-academic. Please. Her room is crammed with books. Every morning the children print their first and last names on the attendance sheet. Sundays, Ms. MacLeish visits bookstores, and her room features baskets of books by her favorite authors. (The Robert Munsch basket includes a photo of the author meeting Ms. MacLeish, who is, of course, beaming.)
Ms. MacLeish knows she's been lucky to have a principal, Stephen Leggett, who hates the state testing as much as she does and has done his best to insulate his teachers. But she's never seen so much state and federal intrusion into the classroom and can watch the testing moving her way. The fourth-grade test used to be the big deal for Florida school report cards. Now it is the third-grade test, used to determine retention. This year, for the first time, Ms. MacLeish had to spend two days giving state tests to kindergartners to establish base-line scores. "The wolf is at the door," she said. "I must get out before it gets me."
After 32 years, this single woman, who may be the best kindergarten teacher in Florida, makes $51,000. She is not retiring. Instead, she'll be a resource support teacher. This way, she said, she'll have children for 90 minutes at most and won't feel so responsible for their future.
The last week of school, Ms. MacLeish was feted at every turn. Tuesday, at the class play, her kindergartners each handed her a rose with baby's breath, and Orlando's mayor, Buddy Dyer, proclaimed Laurin MacLeish Day. (His son Drew was in Ms. MacLeish's class two years ago.)
Friday the kindergartners got to visit Ms. MacLeish's house, a stunning moment for those who had assumed she lived in Room 7. They walked the half-mile from the school. When a dog barked, they sang. ("I know a dog. His name is Wags.") When they saw a house with an American flag, they stopped to recite the pledge. At Ms. MacLeish's, they played with her toys.
It was 6 p.m. on the last day by the time she turned off the light in Room 7. What a run, what a week, a thousand tears, pink and blue. She'd miss them, every one — she always did — but she was relieved too. To the end, Ms. MacLeish gave her all. (Never let her standards fall.)
The Changes Unwelcome, a Model Teacher Moves On
May 28, 2003
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