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A Powerful Pig Tale

Susan Notes:
NOTE: Teacher Notebook, was a monthly column in Learning Magazine. It seems like a good time to reprise this one.


Committees on something called teacher empowerment are accumulating like dustballs. In my experience, though teachers have about as much chance of being empowered by a committee as they do of winning the lottery.

My years in the classroom taught me that we teachers are already empowers. All we have to do is recognize it. When a teacher walks into a classroom, she has infinite power: power to heal, to wound, to instruct, to defeat, to inspire. It's all in her hands, and no career ladder or committee mandate will change that fact. We (with the kids' help) make all the decisions that count in our classroom.

Ohe teacher's tale
Consider the story of Janet Williams. Anybody who brings a pig to school as a gift for a student must be able to make her own decisions. Yes, a pig, but we'll get to that part later.

Williams's story is extraordinary even without the pig. She's taught children with special needs for the past 18 years in Rochester, Minn. But becomeing a teacher wasn't exactly a cinch for her. At age 35, she enlisted her 81-year-old grandmother to take care of her husband and three children while she went off to college.

Williams admits that sometimes she feels discouraged by her students' problems. But she doesn't dwell on the difficulties. Instead, she talks about her students' successes--such as how Sid learned to read after psychologists and former teacher told his foster parents that he never would.

"Sid is only 10," Williams says, "and he's just getting started. But I know he'll do fine. He's got guts!"

So does Williams. Like many teachers, she looks for ways to please and prod students: notes to parents, sunflower seeds, candy, free time, a high-five sign. As need arises, Williams provides clothing, bikes, dolls, train sets, books. And once she even supplied a pig.

Why a pig?
Williams had established a tradition of giving her 6th graders special birthday gifts because it's their last year in her class. She wanted something very special for Joel, something to inspire this bright boy to work harder to overcome his learning disability.

Joel lived on a farm that had no pigs, and Williams felt that having his own pig might spark his curiosity. So, after getting permission from his mother and ordering the pig, Williams made a big birthday card that read: "Just Went HOG WILD on Your Birthday." Then, one morning before school, she drove to a farm to collect the pig. Much to her surprise, it wasn't a cute little piglet but a 15-pound beast that wouldn't stay in the copier-paper box she'd brought along as a carrying case.

"As I drove away from the farm," Williams relates, "I had the pig on the passenger's side. With the most teacher-like voice I could muster and an accusatory finger pointing at the pig, I yelled, 'Stay on your side!' For the whole 3 miles to school, I begged that pig to behave. But the critter just squealed and made pig noises at me--and pooped all over the floor of my car."

When she arrived at school, Williams stuffed the pig into the box, jammed on the lid, lugged the box into the teachers' lounge, and asked another teacher to hold down the lid. Then she cleaned out her car.

A pig's--and a boy's--progress
While the birthday boy was being located, the teachers sprayed the lounge with air freshener. When he arrived, Williams led her colleagues in a chorus of "Happy Birthday."

Williams had guessed right about Joel's interest. He immediately started reading up on pigs and keeping a journal on his pig's progress. When Joel learned that pigs are social animals, he and his father made plans to buy more pigs and to build a barn for them.

What Williams did for Joel illustrates what it means to take as a teacher. I don't know of antoher teacher who has brought a pig to school, but that pig is a magnificent symbol of the intuition and initiative that underlie good teaching.

Intuition and initiative are personal; they take guts. And they offer payoffs of personal power and abundant joy. Is there a committee anywhere that could have empowered this woman to buy that pig?

Joy and Pride
Whenever I tell Janet Williams's story, teachers take pride in the power of a colleague to enrich a child's life, pride in her willingness to use her power. And while they're feeling that pride, I also tell them that nobody can bestow a golden scepter of empowerment. As a teacher, you earn your power today--and tomorrow you go back and earn it all over again. Taking charge of your professional life may mean reading a poem or sharing a riddle. It undoubtedly means finding unique ways to reach out to unique children. Who knows? It may even mean sharing a ride with a pig.

— Susan Ohanian
Learning Magazine
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