6th Grade Matters
It was the Autumn of 1974 and I was just starting 6th grade at Pforzheim Elementary School in Pforzheim, Germany. It was the fifth elementary school I had attended in five years. As a child in a military family, it was not unusual for me to change schools, but it was very unusual to find myself in a tiny school sharing a teacher and a classroom with 4th and 5th graders. I wondered, “What am I going to learn with 4th and 5th graders in my class?” I was not happy. As a result, I had a terrible attitude, and I was rude to my classmates and my teacher. I remember frequently interrupting my teacher during class by blurting out “I already learned that!”, “I already know that” and “I learned that when I was 5 years old.” Finally, my teacher, Ms. Joan Maas, gently pulled me aside and said three things to me: 1) “You’re smart, but you’re not smarter than me” 2) “I can teach you” and 3) “You’re making the other children feel bad.” I went home and cried because it had never occurred to me that my words were hurtful, or that I made the other students feel bad.
I changed that day, becoming cognizant for the first time, the impact my words and actions had on others. I never interrupted the class again, and Ms. Maas designed an individual program for me that not only challenged me academically, but also provided personal development that helped define me as a person. She taught from a global perspective and assigned activities and work that cultivated transferable skills such as communication, leadership, time management and critical thinking. Every week we negotiated a curriculum contract documenting what I would accomplish during the week, be it reading a novel, writing a short story, or completing workbook assignments. On Fridays, she would ask me questions about what I had learned during the week, and we would go over my “deliverables” to see if I met the terms of my contract. Sometimes, I would have a long-term contract assignment like writing, casting, and directing a school play, complete with set design and costumes.
I still use the fundamentals and tools I learned in Ms. Maas’ class. In fact, her teachings are reflected in everything I do, and everything I enjoy in life. She taught with such intention that even the songs I learned enhanced my personal development. The lyrics from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” taught me about racial prejudices. I learned to appreciate the music and the story, but I also learned to understand the message and apply it to my life. Every personal interaction I have reminds me of Ms. Maas because I still aspire to treat people in a manner I know would make her proud. I cannot meet a deadline, attend a meeting, or sit across a table to negotiate a contract without remembering her, my curriculum contract, or the way she enhanced my education with her many gifts. She inspired me and cultivated the best in me.
Today, over 46 years later, I am a successful business owner, and a professional student finishing a third master’s degree. I love business, I love learning, and I love the arts. I attribute my success to the broad experiences and life lessons my 6th grade teacher introduced me to. Who knew I would learn so much in that tiny little school in Pforzheim, Germany; in a classroom I sometimes affectionately describe as the classroom like the one on “Little House on the Prairie?”
I often reflect on that day back in 1974 when Ms. Maas pulled me aside because I know in that moment the trajectory of my life changed. I am a better person today because of her and the unique experience of my “little school.” I am profoundly aware of the impact my teacher had on my life, the values she instilled in me and the solid foundation she set that made such a difference in my life. I think the quote from Flavia Weedn says it best, “Some people come into our lives and leave footprints on our hearts and we are never ever the same.” My amazing teacher, Ms. Joan Catherine Maas, left her footprint on my heart one day back in 1974, and I was never, ever the same. I am truly grateful.