514. Who Gets Credit?

A teacher once asked me to help a girl named Jezebel practice the times tables. Once a day, the class played a game that required knowledge of times tables. Children had to answer quickly, so that it would be clear that they were not figuring out answers – just knowing them. Learning the times tables and developing the ability to rattle them off quickly is not as crucial in life as school makes it out to be, but in third grade, it’s usually treated as a major rite of passage.
Jezebel didn’t see what the big deal was, and as all the other children worked to be first to answer the questions on the flash cards the teacher flashed, Jezebel refused to get caught up in the frenzy. She took her time answering, and looked as if she didn’t know the required facts as well as the rest of the class. She
acted laid back – totally uninterested in competing. That kind of behavior is sometimes used as a disguise by children who are experiencing difficulty.
Jezebel’s teacher, who thought the poor girl must be suffering as she saw all the other children do something she appeared unable to do, asked me to take Jezebel away from the group and help her practice. I have a repertoire of strategies to help children learn times tables. Most third grade teachers do. But Jezebel was annoyed by the situation. She did not want to be removed from the group to get some kind of remedial help. She had been quite comfortable watching her friends compete with each other. She, herself, didn’t want to compete, but she liked watching them have fun, and that’s what she wanted to do.
Right away, she told me she already knew the times tables. I asked her some sample questions, and it became immediately clear that she really did know them. I asked her why she wasn’t answering quickly, like everyone else, and she told me she didn’t like to. After a few minutes of making sure, I sent her back to join the class. She went back, competed, and answered quickly, winning a few rounds. Just so she wouldn’t be singled out any more.
The teacher commented to the class that I had “worked my magic.” I immediately told her and the class that Jezebel had already worked to learn the times tables, and knew them well – that I hadn’t done any “magic.” I don’t usually contradict teachers like that – especially not when they’re flattering me. But Jezebel had already learned the times tables, and in this case, she deserved the credit, not me.
Teachers often deserve lots of credit. But so do the people they teach. And sometimes children take charge of their own learning in a way that teachers don’t notice. Jezebel had known that she had to learn the times tables, and so she’d learned them. She wasn’t doing what other children were doing – shouting out answers and trying to be first. That wasn’t her way. But she deserves credit for learning to the tune of a different drummer.

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