University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky adds another installment to his ongoing series on Great Georgia Teachers.
In this piece, Smagorinsky highlights Rabun County teacher Becky Cross.
By Peter Smagorinsky
The image of the 21st century classroom tends to be pretty bleak. Creativity has been sacrificed on the altar of accountability. Kids grimly prepare for test after test, and when each is over, they prepare for the next one. Corporate textbook materials plan the instruction, script their classroom interactions, provide their assessments, and drive innovative teachers into another line of work.
If Charles Dickens were around, he’d portray schools as sooty factories that choke the life out of learning.
I’m always relieved and inspired when I hear of teachers who, in spite of the current effort to standardize teaching and learning by means of centrally planned policies and designs, still find joy in their work.
Welcome to the laughter and enthusiasm available in the first-grade classroom of Rabun County Primary School’s Becky Cross, a two-time winner of her county’s Teacher of the Year Award, National Board Certified Teacher, 30-year veteran, and great Georgia teacher.
When my son was in tae kwon do, he was urged by his master to develop an “indomitable spirit” that would carry him through duress and obstacles. Teaching ardently through three decades of declining resources and public support surely qualifies Mrs. Cross as having such a positive disposition.
The kids who’ve come through her classroom learned from Mrs. Cross not only Three R’s but a frame of mind to embrace them as central tools with which to navigate life with passion and engagement.
Laughter. That’s not a word I think about when I think of teaching in today’s classrooms. But it’s perhaps the defining idea behind Becky Cross’s approach to helping kids learn. As she has said, “being silly” is fundamental to learning, which “is so much more fun when you bring the humor out in the children. That really grabs their attention and they tend to listen more.” I can’t think of too many 6-year-olds who’d disagree.
Being silly doesn’t mean being stupid. Rather, in Mrs. Cross’s world, silliness means singing and dancing to start the day as a way to ramp up kids’ enthusiasm and engagement with the curriculum. If life is a stage, then she directs the action so that the play is the thing; and as Shakespeare intended when he wrote this line for Hamlet, the play is both performance and reality.
Silliness does not necessarily detract from serious work, but in contrast can make serious work more meaningful and important. It’s central to the fundamental theme of Becky’s work as an educator: the development of relationships that engender the trust that is central to teachers’ ability to cultivate students’ assets.
Films often depict teachers like Becky Cross as singular characters working outside the system. And to her colleague Vickie Ellenburg, she “is a natural-born teacher. She’s gifted and she takes it very seriously. It’s not just a job to her.”
Like most great teachers, however, Becky is also a product of many influences. The Rome, Ga., native has an undergraduate degree in early childhood education from LaGrange College, a master’s from Piedmont College, and an educational specialist degree Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee.
Becky wrote in her personal statement for her second Teacher of the Year nomination, “You can’t be a good teacher unless you’ve asked for help, shared ideas, observed in great teachers’ classrooms. I am the teacher I am today because of all those who have shared philosophies, materials, teaching techniques and encouragement throughout my career.”
In turn, she has helped mentor other teachers: “I am pleased my friends and colleagues feel comfortable seeking advice, sharing stories, and collaborating on a variety of topics such as instructional planning, teaching techniques, and even recipes for the Cake Walk at our annual Fall Festival, or a March of Dimes luncheon to be held the next day in the school cafeteria. These diverse ways in which I have been able to influence other teachers and the ways they have influenced me is the real reward in a long career in education. Teaching can be a very stressful occupation, but forming strong relationships can create an environment that is enjoyable and comforting in times of professional or personal hardship.”
These leadership skills recently prompted her district administration to offer her a job as the assistant principal in a newly consolidated district elementary school. Becky considered the offer, yet “After much deliberation of trying to determine where I could best use my strengths to help students, I came to the conclusion that being in the classroom, with students, was where I wanted to stay.”
Others laboring under the same environmental influences might have become embittered by the current educational climate. However, Becky has, according to her principal, Lisa Patterson, “a sense of calling to the classroom, and no child leaves Mrs. Cross’ class without knowing that she cares for them and will fight endlessly for their rights.”
That profound dedication to the well-being of children undoubtedly has enabled Becky to persevere with an indomitable spirit through the frustrations of the last decade or so, keeping her attention focused on the only thing that really matters: the kids entrusted to her care.
According to Becky, “I realized I wanted to help students who didn’t learn like everyone else learned,” an indication of the importance she places of tending to the growth of other people’s children. Although she runs the risk of being evaluated as deficient because she takes on students who present challenges to teachers, her firm commitment to the diverse learners of Rabun County allows her to maintain her focus and tune out the distractions.
Rabun County is poor by Georgia standards, with a 21.5 percent of the population living below the poverty line. How does a skillful teacher, beyond all that song and dance, teach skills that will help students succeed in life, especially when they start out with few advantages?
As a first-grade teacher responsible for all academic disciplines, Becky Cross emphasizes the synthesis of concepts through thematic inquiry. “Everything I teach is integrated,” she says. “If I’m teaching a story in the language arts book, it will carry over. Our story this week is ‘Animal Groups.’ That’s a science topic. When we get to math, we’ll do some graphing and we’ll use the animal groups in that.”
She couples this curricular synthesis with what many call an implicit character curriculum that promotes her students’ moral compass. She says, “We need to make sure they have a strong foundation. We teach a lot of responsibility. As they grow up in life, they have to be responsible to be able to get jobs and be on time. At a young age, we want to make sure they have their agendas and they do their homework and they’re successful at it.”
Her remarks echo Martin Luther King’s view of a quality education: “We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.”
As some of my friends might say, Becky Cross is a great Georgia teacher because she knows how to keep it real. The curriculum needs to have meaning, the class needs to have spirited energy, the skills need to contribute to the formation of a healthy character, the instruction needs to have practical implications.
Kids in Rabun County who start out under her tutelage get all this, and laughter too. That’s a combination that I think we all want for our kids.