FOR MORE THAN TWENTY YEARS students had been stunned by their first meeting with Peggy Minton. Other teachers whose instruction they had enjoyed or endured in the previous eight grades had shown varying degrees of organization and discipline in their styles of teaching, but these teachers all seemed vague, uncoordinated, and dilatory compared with Ms. Minton, who taught first-year Latin with a zestful diligence that many regarded as fanatical.
Ninth-graders come in all shapes and sizes, but most of hers were taller than Peggy Minton, who measured little more than five feet from the top of her plaited hair to the toes of her sensible shoes.
But what she lacked in height she made up for in energy by establishing control in the first moments of meeting every new group of students.
In the early fall, when she entered the classroom for the first time, she would put her books and papers down on her desk, and stand facing her students and awaiting their complete silence. She would remain quite still, almost on tiptoe, her trim figure poised like a bird about to take flight, her eyes darting about the room as though deciding where she might land. When the silence was absolute and the waiting had become an embarrassment for the more sensitive, she would speak.
"Good morning." There would be an inarticulate murmur, accompanied by some scraping of the feet, nervous giggling, some coughing. When the silence resumed, Ms. Minton would say rather sharply, "That was not an appropriate response. I expect you to wish me good morning clearly and in unison. I have greeted you civilly, and I expect no less in return. We'll go over it again. Good morning."
This time the students would usually manage to coordinate a coherent "Good morning," and Ms. Minton would continue. "That's better. I start every class that way.
It tells me that I have your complete attention, and that we can get to work immediately.But there's a boy3'-there would always be one-"in the back row who has something to say.Yes, you- I'm sorry I don't know your names yet-you have a question or comment?"
"No, Ms. Minton." "Then you're wasting our time by making comments to your neighbor. What's your name?"
"Thank you, Julian. I have learned at least one of your names. Now tell me what you have learned so far."
The boy would frown as if thought was a strain and then inevitably say something like, "You start every class by saying 'Good morning.' "
'Correct - and . . . ?"
Another pause for thought, and then, as if by sudden inspiration,
"You want us to say 'Good morning' back to you."
"And why do I do that?"
"Because it means you have our complete attention and we're
ready to start work."
"You've learned a good deal, Julian, haven't you? And one
more thing? "
"We can't talk to each other during class."
"Full marks! Let's proceed. Pencils and paper ready!"
The class would fall apart in all directions struggling with three-ring binders, pencil boxes, and book bags, the scene resembling nothing more than multiple tag-team wrestling with none of the contestants in an upright position. "This is taking much too long," Ms. Minton would declare, still waiting for the last students to find their pens and pencils. "So here's a new rule: when you say 'Good morning' to me, you will have paper ready in front of you and a pen or pencil in your hand. Ready to work means ready to write! Or, as we say in this class, Paratus laborare, paratus scribere."
As she spoke these words, she would write her last words on
the blackboard in both English and Latin, turn around and say briskly, "Write it down!" The class would copy the words-
"Ready to work means ready to write!" Every face in the room
would look up for her next instruction.
As Ms. Minton began, so she continued. By the end of fifty
minutes, she had outlined the purposes of her course in Latin
for the entire year, memorized the names of each of her thirty students, had direct conversation with at least twenty of them, introduced them to the textbook, given them their first assignment, and wasted not one second of her time or theirs.
Every student in the class formed the same first impression: that
she knew exactly what she was doing, that she was determined to do what she set out to do, and that it would be best to avoid crossing her or failing to come up to her expectations. Even the brightest of them found their new teacher sharper, better informed, and more thoroughly organized than they were; they recognized in her a spirit of adventure and of challenge; and they were left a little breathless at the end of the hour.
First impressions are one thing, but staying the course was another of Peggy Minton's virtues. She maintained her
brisk style and hustling encouragement of students consistently throughout the year. Not only that,
her standards were rigorous and high. Because of that, most of her students aspired to achieve them, and those who could not do so received too much reinforcement from her for their efforts to feel that they had failed. In addition, she
fully explained her grading aims and methods in general terms to the class at large and in frequent conferences with students and sometimes with their parents. As a result of what others saw as her fairness and just expectations, her students usually rose beyond their own conception of their potential; the consensus among them, even among the most grudging, was that
they had never worked so hard for any other teacher.
First-year Latin is mostly a matter of memorization. The
many inflections of the parts of speech, their significance in sentences, and the scrupulous accuracy with which these distinctions must be identified, interpreted, and translated-all these tasks were simplified for her students by Ms. Minton's careful and patient explanations. Her students prided themselves on being able to distinguish between scribit, scribet, and scribat; and their understanding of the forms of English grammar marched right along with their acquisition of this strange, foreign, and long-"dead'' language. Learn the rules, memorize the exceptions, and apply your knowledge to the business of translation, Ms. Minton would remind her students continually.
She had little need to enforce discipline in her classes. Her students sensed that any breach of good order would prompt a sharp reaction in a teacher who insisted that every action on their part be deliberate and appropriate. They knew how she reacted when the most trifling matters went wrong; they did not like to imagine what her reaction would be to any major breakdown of good order in her classroom. Nor would she waste her time with the equivocations of the mischievous and the indolent. She gave them such short shrift that they enjoyed only the pity of their peers-a far cry from the popularity and admiration that had prompted their attempts at disruption in some other classrooms.
At the end of the year, most of her students came to the same conclusion about Ms. Minton's teaching: that she was clear, demanding, and fair, and that, if you paid attention, you always knew exactly what you had to do to succeed. The clarity of structure in her classroom enabled all of them, even the most typically lazy or uncaring, to learn. Even though they wondered if she was not something of an oddball to have such an enthusiastic interest in such a quantity of detail, the lessons of methodical organization, discipline, and industry stayed with them long after they had forgotten the curious inflections of Latin verbs.