Mrs. Harris raised two fingers and suddenly 25 nine year olds went quiet. I was impressed and thankful for the good behavior. I was about to teach her class the fundamentals of electricity and her cooperation along with the children's attention were necessary to the success of my lesson.
I often think of Mrs. Harris around this time, with a new school year set to begin. She is on the long list of teachers whom I have admired and loved. How do they do it I often wonder? Where do they develop the power to inspire and open young minds? They know their subject it is true but there is a mysterious transformation that takes place when a student first becomes intrigued by a subject and then wants to learn it. I was in Mrs. Harris's class because although proficient in the many subjects that an elementary school teacher must know, she admitted a weakness in science and had asked for help.
The year was 1989 and I had started a new program called Retired Scientists Engineers and Technicians (ReSET) in the Washington D.C. elementary schools. The goal was simple: enlist the help of retired professionals to partner with elementary school teachers as co-agents of that transformation and help young people develop a passion for science. There were seven volunteers and I was one of them. We were a group of energetic retired persons eager to get behind a program that would make a substantial impact on the community and not at all ready to "hang it up" and wanted firsthand knowledge of how the idea worked in the classroom. As a supplement to a teacher's science unit we did hands-on experiments with the children to demonstrate the nature of science. Each volunteer spent one hour a week for six weeks with a class and then accompanied the children on a field trip to a nearby museum or laboratory to see theory in action.
As was the case in 1989 and remains the case today, cooperation and collaboration are the keys to ReSET's success. It's teamwork in its purest sense. Volunteers and teachers meet before the six sessions begin. Volunteers describe the six lessons and teachers determine what will work and not work in the classroom. Volunteers know the science and the teachers know their children. ReSET asks that teachers be in the classroom at all times and to be responsible for the discipline of students and each teacher agrees to partner with the volunteer in classroom experiments. Every class is different and the teacher provides the information that helps the volunteer to feel at home.
Over the years I have been most impressed with the caliber and dedication of the volunteers who are encouraged to share their remarkable experiences with the students. One volunteer was a former assistant secretary of the Smithsonian. Another, a geologist, helped plan the Apollo moon landing. One retired physicist had spent time in a nuclear submarine. and another had prospected for oil in the jungles of South America. Think of an inner city child coming in contact with such people as these!
That initial group of seven has grown to 37 volunteers today and since my time with Mrs. Harris' fourth grade class, over 200 volunteers have participated in the ReSET program. And it's not just the students who benefit. In giving back each of those 200 has gained a sense of purpose, belonging and the knowledge that after a fulfilling career the opportunity to have an impact and make a contribution to society still exists.
I have volunteered in ten different D.C. elementary school classrooms over the years, and am amazed at the good work our teachers do with inner city children. These men and women, the renaissance people of our time, teach writing, math, geography, history, spelling, science and deportment. They also keep an open mind to what a retired person can add to a young person's education. Without a doubt the teachers I have met (two of them are on the ReSET Board) are the strength of our school system.
Recently while drinking an iced coffee at my neighborhood Starbucks I looked up from my reading to find myself looking in the face of a ten-year old. "I know you" he said. "You did those electrical experiments in my classroom." Ah celebrity. If you have never looked at the upturned faces of eager 10 year olds you do not know what you're missing. I have had contact with over 300 third and fourth graders and even worked with a kindergarten class. This year 2010-2011 ReSET will try its magic in a day care center.
I can't wait to be the first person to introduce a two year old to the world of science.
Golden years indeed.