Dedicated teachers deserve fair contract - and more

It is heartening to hear that our hard-working public school teachers may finally have a long-awaited contract. For the dedicated folks who mold our young minds, this is about respect as much as it is about money and benefits.

Tuesday mornings during the past two school years, I have volunteered in Sandy Kennedy-Anthony’s kindergarten classroom at Vare-Washington Elementary School in South Philadelphia. Blessed with a relatively small class of about 15 kids — half of the charges she taught last year — she weathered daily challenges with humor, grace, and above all else, patience. Boy, is that woman patient!

It is mind-blowing to me how much she and her support staff have taught these babes. When they entered kindergarten in September, they had to adjust to the demands of a full day away from home, thrown in with kids they didn’t know, many of whom spoke little English. Hispanic, caucasian, Asian, and African American, the classroom was a delightful melting pot of cultures and languages.

Before she could teach the three R’s, Ms. Anthony, as her students call her, needed to support those who missed their mommies — most just 5 years old — as she helped the children learn to trust her and molded the group into a cohesive unit. For a portion of each day, she had the help of supportive services assistant Betty Zollo, learning support teacher Christine Ryan, and sometimes other volunteers from local colleges who lent a helping hand. With 5-year-olds, you need many helping hands.

Some of the lessons were extraordinary. The children learned about the life cycle of butterflies, chronicling the stages from egg through larva, pupa, and adult. They wrote about their observations in 5- and 6-year-old speak with “creative” spelling. They were wide-eyed, just mesmerized through each stage.

Ms. Anthony took advantage of her melting pot, encouraging the children to tell their peers about their customs and holidays. When one child traveled to visit family members in Mexico, she showed them where that country was on the globe. Another child, who came from England for several months, exposed his classmates to his delightful accent and shared stories about his life across the pond.

For Hanukkah, I brought each child a dreidel, the spinning-top that Jewish children play during the holiday. I showed them the Hebrew letters that adorn the dreidel and explained what each sounded like and what happened when the top landed on that letter. None of them had ever seen a dreidel before or had ever heard of Hanukkah.

They were mesmerized by the books I read about latkes, lighting the candles, and hiding the afikomen, the piece of matzo hidden for children to find at the end of the meal. They each tasted matzo with jelly or hummus, drawing more “yums” than “yuks.”

When I returned from the winter break, Ms. Anthony told me that several of the parents enjoyed playing dreidel with their kids (I had included instructions). The kids told me how much better they were at spinning the top.

Beyond the countless hours Ms. Anthony devoted to her lesson plans, she also spent much of her own money on supplies and teaching tools. In public school there are never enough new crayons and pencils, or much-needed sharpeners, poster board, and other learning tools.

While I have the great pleasure of supporting this amazing kindergarten teacher, there are many Ms. Anthonys in the public school system who devote their time, energy, and passion to their students. I encourage anyone with extra time in their schedules — even an hour or two a week — to consider volunteering in a classroom. Or use your 50 percent off A.C. Moore coupon to grab a box of crayons to donate. Remember how much fun it was to use new crayons?

The joy I get from those precious kids is priceless. The hugs and thank yous are wonderful. But watching a child who came into the classroom in September scared, unable to sit still, and barely speaking English, blossom into a confident reader and writer, is incomparable.

Terri Akman lives in Philadelphia. terribakman@gmail.com