Posted on | September 19, 2010 | 8 Comments
With apologies to its followers, “The week that was” is postponed and will return next Sunday. I am cleaning up after a party, and not any party, but a farewell party for Michelle Ereckson, who after more than a decade teaching at 24th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles has transferred to a campus closer to her new home.
Those who believe in the test score rankings of teacher effectiveness compiled by the Los Angeles Times will be neither impressed nor horrified by Michelle. The Times, in its statistical beneficence, rates her as “average.” At the most fallible end of that ranking system, they may even find themselves applauding test whisperers, instructors adroit in indicating how a child might most profitably answer a certain question.
Michelle is not that. Teaching runs in her blood, literally. She’s the daughter of a teacher. Summing up how this manifests itself taxes my powers of description, so these snapshots will have to suffice. If Michelle’s 3rd grade students tested average, that in itself is amazing. She often demanded to be given the lowest performing kids in an already low-peforming school, many of whom she would hold back until they were ready for the next year.
At 24th Street, Michelle was also the union rep, always at the side of a teacher in trouble, always cooking up cool projects with the other best teachers, but bearing down with brutal frankness on the losers who weren’t pulling their weight. And there were some stunning losers, make that users, including one who taught stoned on medical marijuana and told fabulous lies about supposed miracle work, including having taught a mute child to speak. To Michelle’s utter disgust, that “teacher” left the system bragging that she had extracted a disability pension on the claim of mental duress.*
It takes a lot of indifference to create a failing school, including that of parents who too often see education as no more than free childcare. While Michelle was fierce representing good teachers when blame was reflexively dumped on them, she was fiercer still in defense of kids. When a child was in trouble, she was a tireless advocate.
What readers unfamiliar with urban schools should appreciate is that when there was trouble, it was too often the kind that would terrify an adult, never mind a third grader. Twenty-fourth Street Elementary School does not serve the rich. There are a lot of used backpacks and the parents are lucky to be working class. A disturbingly high proportion of the kids graduate into the gangs that turn promising young lives on paths of mindless violence and ruin. When I first started nosing around the campus down the street from me ten years ago, it was in the 16th percentile, or, in layman’s terms, it was one of the worst schools in LA. Yet in the years I have known Michelle, three of which I actively volunteered at her campus and lost my heart to that school and its teachers and kids, I have not once seen her be piteous or patronizing. Rather, her manner is always jaunty and shot through with her singular mixture of pragmatism and love.
When Michelle organized a field trip for her class to the Santa Monica farmers market, and then to the beach, she bought each child a long-stalked sunflower to hold high in the crowd. Armed with flats of ripe cherries and strawberries, which she bought with her own money, she then took the kids to the beach. For many, this was the first time children born ten miles from the Pacific had seen the ocean.
After Michelle’s class came back, every teacher in the school demanded that their classes be treated to the same event. Michelle organized the buses and, in one year, more than a thousand children had their first trip to a farmers market.
In another special event, she had her class eat lunch with the Dodger chefs, who donated their time demonstrating salad making. It was a hit, but as Michelle’s class became more of a destination/curiosity/cause for middle class and even filthy rich do-gooders, she began thinking critically how to use this without patronizing or spoiling the kids, or, worst, allowing them to become the human equivalent of zoo exhibits for rich gawkers. When people wanted tours of the school, she had kids lead them, generating powerful school pride. She came up with the idea that prize events should be earned and only classes whose kids met reading goals set by their teachers should be eligible for the special events. Gratuitous handouts of “Big Sunday” events struck her as corrupt. She was ferocious about guarding the kids’ privacy (all the photos used here are permitted.)
She attracted that attention because she was one of that campus’ talented, dedicated teachers who led the staff and children in the formation of a magnificent and wholly transformational school garden project. When she arrived at 24th Street School, its sea of cracked asphalt and chain link looked more like a prison than a school. She leaves it with an acre of green space. There are many, mainly outsiders, who take bows for this transformation. The more bows they take, the less they probably did. The saddest part about this is the teachers were never given the credit they deserved, not least Michelle Ereckson. As someone who had a front row seat from the very beginning of the project, I can say without hesitation that the now much admired gardens at 24th Street School would never have taken form had not Michelle Ereckson inspired the greater teaching staff and district to support the project.
She spent every Friday afternoon for years meeting with the garden teacher (whom she recently married) and me refining and revising lesson plans. The way that the garden teaching program is now organized by grade level instead of lurching from kindergarten sessions to 5th grade classes in one chaotic day was her idea one of those Friday afternoons. Under her oversight, no fences were needed to protect the emerging garden space from vandalism or just plain rambunctiousness. Rather, every year began with an orientation for how to behave in the garden; under her leadership, every teacher put his or her class through the orientation.
The year that I worked most closely with Michelle’s class, her third graders planted wheat, threshed it and made dough. For lack of an oven, they then went to a bakery and saw dough like theirs being baked. From there they proceeded to a bread shop, where the manager explained how it was priced, sold and how change was made, allowing each child to work the scales and till in practice transactions. In five lesson days, she combined botany, math, economics and glimpses of a prosperous and interesting adult world that would one day be open to them — if they just studied.
I have never known anyone quite like Michelle Ereckson before, and I’m sure that 24th Street School will never see quite her brand of human genius again. As a new school year begins without her, I am indescribably sad at her having left my community.
There is consolation. At 24th Street, she leaves generations of kids who will be more successful and far happier for having been taught by her. That, in my book, is the definition of a most effective teacher.
-Emily Green, 24th Street, Los Angeles, California
This post has been updated with a few new thoughts, transition tweaks and the note about photo permissions. *It was further updated after reading Don’s comment (below).