Written by: Jeremy Baumhower
The adage is “you can’t judge a book by it’s cover”. I learned this first-hand in 2009.
As I walked into my son’s fourth grade classroom, I was immediately disappointed. I didn’t mean to be, but was. His first four years of schooling were hard. The process of educating a child that is 1 in 68 is not an easy one.
I had created a stereotype (in my mind). A bad one.
Upon first seeing Ms. Joan McCarthy, a fourth grade teacher at Sylvan Elementary, I noticed her age. I didn’t pay attention to anything else– not her smile, not her calming demeanor.. but only the fact she appeared older than the younger, fresh out of college 22 years-old teachers, we had previously experienced.
My fear was Ms. McCarthy was “burned out”. I had no factual reason to believe this. I just made an immediate assumption based on my own personal experiences with education.
As my son was entering the fourth grade, he had an elaborate IEP. He was tested frequently and was always grade levels behind in reading and writing.
Doing homework with him, especially bigger projects like book reports, was taxing. They were some of our hardest moments as parents. He’d rather do anything than sit there and work on something he had just talked about, all day at school.
During our first meeting with Ms. McCarthy, who was already fully prepped for Brady– we expressed real honest fears and issues we were dealing with. We informed her his love of baseball and technology, and stated he wasn’t shy.
It did not take long into the school-year before we knew that something was different. Brady was changing.
The first thing we learned is that Ms. McCarthy would change her identity. She would evolve into a character of the current book, the class was reading. She would try accents, have the children address her by her new assumed name and the conversation would be a constant.
Brady immediately connected and invested in her approach. His favorite thing was a weekly assignment. Each child was designated a certain day of the week, where they would present a news story to the class. They were encouraged to say why they selected the story and would lead a discussion. The presented stories were then stapled to a bulletin board and would stay posted for a week. It was a Facebook-style of sharing news. It was brilliant.
Brady would scour news stories, looking for the absurd and funny. He started reading on his own and unprompted. He only did this one other time, with his baseball card collection.
Ms. McCarthy sent home a note asking if Brady could stay after school, one day a week. She wanted to eliminate our ‘pain’ of tackling bigger projects.
I thought Brady would hate it. I was wrong, again.
Ms. McCarthy’s extra hour a week with my son, was the single-most generous act that I have experienced in any school. She did it happily, and unselfishly.
With every student’s IEP planning meeting, comes a question– “What are your goals for your child?” I had always stated that I wanted my son to be “normal”. I would then attach a future grade as a target date. “Normal by the Second Grade”. The new goal was “Normal by Junior High”.
Over the span of those 180 school days, my son transformed. I don’t know when exactly it happened or the specific trigger, but Brady changed. During the first three quarters, he went from a second grade reading level to being caught up with his peers.
Two years of reading growth and comprehension took place in less than 6 months, with a single teacher.
Ms. McCarthy somehow and miraculously, made school make sense for my child and his unique brain. He went from dragging his feet to racing out the door.
She took his obsession of baseball & stats and connected them to test scores and his grades. He no longer saw the letters (A,B,C,D F) but the numbers behind them. It was brilliant. He still checks his scores every day online. He can tell you what his grades are on-demand and what he needs to do to improve them.
She inspired him to raise his own bar, without having any idea he was.
Since Brady’s fourth grade year in Ms. McCarthy’s classroom, he’s consistently made the honor roll and had a 3.5 GPA for his Freshmen year. I can not begin to impress upon you, how impossible that would have seemed in third grade.
Yesterday, during the annual field day, Ms. McCarthy shared with me some sad news. She is leaving Sylvan and moving to Maplewood Elementary School. Same district, less than 3 miles away.
Our loss– their gain.
I think Ms. McCarthy has been the most important, non-family member, of my son’s life.
When I started writing, I knew I had certain words that my heart needed to say. This piece about Ms. McCarthy, was on my original list. It is my only regret about the closing of the Toledo Free Press. I didn’t get say thank you to her in print.
Joan McCarthy has won “educator of the year” for the Sylvania School District numerous times. She isn’t so much a teacher, but a miracle worker.
I knew my IEP goal for my son was improbable, ridiculous and absurd. She did not. She made him “normal”.
Thank you, Ms. McCarthy. My house, my neighborhood, my world is a better place because of the work you do.
Thank you for the lesson you taught me… about books and covers.