Some thoughts on a School

by R. Passov

My founding partner, Jennifer, is right. Eventually I’ll run out of tricks and have to to start teaching math. Still the tricks are fun and, actually, they do help. The trick I brought to Sonia’s 3rd grade class in North Hampton, MA. is – truth be told – one I found in a math book for kids: I draw strange symbols on the board, get the class to agree to a consistent interpretation for the symbols then arrange the symbols in patterns that, run against the pre-agreed upon interpretations, become sentences in English.

As a group got near to the end of a correct deciphering, their squeals gave them away. What a privilege to watch.

Sonia suggested I arrive at the beginning of the day to watch the class settle. Each of the 22 or so students had a brown paper bag. They scrambled over one another while digging through their bags, all of which contained the same items: something made of dough wrapped in cellophane, that looked like a hot dog and something else, also wrapped in cellophane that I was unable to assign to any particular food category. At least half the students unwrapped packages only to play with the contents.

After breakfast, Sonia brought the students to a carpet at the front of the class. While she sat off to the the side, she began the day’s instructions: “Jayden, it’s your turn to choose the greeting.”

Jayden chose a peace sign. “Ok,” said Sonia, “give your greeting to Drea.”  “Peace,” said Jayden. “Peace and happiness.”  

Sonia turned to Drea: “Give your greeting to Mikel.” And so it went, each student gleefully obeying as Sonia orchestrated one greeting then another. After the greetings, Sonia selected a student to be the crew leader. Mikel, a tall, skinny boy, walked over to artwork hanging on the inside of an open closet door.

The artwork supported seed packages used as envelopes. Inside each was a popsicle stick on which was written the name of a student. One by one Mikel pulled a stick, read a name and then read from writing on each seed envelope: “Susie – Chairs. Dillion – tables.” And so it went until the last envelope: “Jackson – the joke of the day.” At which point the whole class erupted.

The task assignments handed out, each student went about their business:  Susie re-arranged the chairs so students could work in groups. Dillion – the same for tables. All the while, Jackson thumbed through a joke book. Just as the students were finishing their tasks, Sonia brought them to attention: “Jackson – have you found your joke for today?” “Yes.” “Ok, well go ahead”

“What is ….”

The kids rocked back in forth, some laughing because they thought the joke funny, others because they thought otherwise. After a few moments, Sonia spoke up: “Ok, ok. Morning’s done. Let’s get to our seats so that I can introduce our guest.”

My session went great. Near the end a student asked if what we had just spent 45 mins doing was in fact math. Yes, I answered: We assigned meaning to symbols and then, using only operations that stay within the assigned meanings, we made sense from non-sense. Several students asked for extra copies of the symbols to share with a parent or a sibling. That, Sonia said, never happens.

After I left the school, I treated myself to the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had (Catalpa in North Hampton) and reflected. I know I’m not a teacher: Entertaining 9 year-olds with math tricks takes very little skill or experience. Standing in front of students 6 or so hours per day, 5 days per week, however many weeks per year without losing their respect and while allowing them freedom to explore is a skill bordering on art. Sonia has it.

I had witnessed a small miracle in leadership: By the time Sonia was ready to start the teaching part of her day, each student had participated in a ritual that allowed for them to feel not just safe but also as an owner of the space that was allowing them to feel so. I was privileged to have been given the chance to observe.

After coffee I toured North Hampton. Smith College is nearby and the main exhibit at the campus museum is a collection of statues and carvings depicting saints as envisioned by artists and craftsman, working across France and Germany in the 15th to 18th centuries.

One in particular caught my eye: From an unknown workshop in France, it’s an almost life-sized carving of a Saint Fiacre. Apparently, “Fiacre (c 600 – 670 ce) was Irish but “…lived as a hermit dedicated to secluded prayer in northeastern France.”

Saint Fiacre did the sorts of things one would expect of a Saint – cleared a forest to build a refuge for the poor, for example – and something I wasn’t expecting. Apparently he sat “…on his stone among the trees [and] the stone miraculously softened … relating to [the Saint’s] ability to cure hemorrhoids.” Who knew?

When my day was over, I met up with Sonia and her husband for dinner. I offered a slew of compliments, then asked a question. I know another young man who’s struggling through his second year teaching in a New York City public school. According to Gabe, he teaches 5 classes per day, each the same – social studies – and always with an eye toward the state tests.

He doesn’t like the limitations put on him and is thinking of quitting which would be a shame since I know he’s a great teacher (he was one of the first recruits to my math program.) When I asked Sonia if she feels the same pressure, she answered: No. Our students aren’t great test takers but we have a great principal who fights above our heads so that we can teach what we think works best.

I was surprised to learn her students weren’t high performers. Sonia is perhaps the most gifted teacher I’ve ever met and I have a lot of schooling under my belt. Well, Sonia offered, let me tell you something about my students.

The small child who never took off her coat arrived straight from Rwanda the prior week with not a word of English and attached to two parents neither of whom could read in any language.

Mikel, the tall skinny kid who gave out the class assignments lives with a very demanding, tough mother and three other siblings. Every ten weeks the father takes a week away from the front lines in Ukraine to return to North Hampton where the family has been given refuge status.

Wilson, the large child who seemed so sweet but constantly asked questions about the lessons planned for the day, as though he harbored dire concern for any possible change, lives in a car with his father while they wait for his crack-addicted mother to return from somewhere.

Another child is also homeless – Drea who seemed the sweetest of all. “I care for all of my classmates,” she said. “I hate to see anyone unhappy and will always try to make them happy.” How nice Sonia offered after this was said.

At dinner, Sonia recalled how the day before, in front of the whole class Drea screamed “Fuck you!”  “Did you really want to say that?” Asked Sonia. “No, I guess not. I won’t do it again,” offered Andrea.

But she will do it again.

Another girl, who at the start of my session felt an urgent need to let me know she had been to a Chinese-language immersion program, brings non-alcoholic beer to class everyday. Apparently, Sonia said, the parents believe non-alcoholic beer helps to keep their children calm. 


As I traveled to that school I carried with me a picture of the world as it existed when I was in elementary school. The kids were the same: hopeful, expectant, needy and absorbent, all in the best ways. But while I’m sure my elementary school classmates carried the full breadth of challenges with them, today’s children are in a very different world.

How, I asked Sonia, do you keep your composure as that young girl spouts off.  

You need to understand why the young girl is saying what she’s saying, Sonia offered. It’s clear by the almost instant remorse that she doesn’t want to be where she is, but of course her challenges are beyond her coping skills.  

How do you maintain your authority in the face of such challenges, I asked? Simple, Sonia said. I know that the source of my authority comes solely from my being able to make each student not want to see me disappointed. That’s all I have.

After a moment of silence, Sonia looked to me and offered that I was lucky to have left her class when I did. For the two hours immediately following my session, the school went into a full lockdown.

A 3rd grade student in the class next door had “…one of his not infrequent psychotic breakdowns.” He had somehow managed to get liquid soap from the hall bathroom onto the floor of his classroom. This prevented the teacher from following him as he ran up and down the hallway threatening to kill everyone in the whole school.

Sonia explained that she handed out iPads and earbuds and instructed the students to use both and distract themselves through fun and games. “They’re used to it,” she said.

And yes, she offered, we all know that boy needs deep, consistent psychiatric help. But to get that help would cost their small school at least $100,000 per year and it’s not clear exactly what will trigger the decision.

I love my job, Sonia offered. I love these kids and feel I am doing what I’m supposed to do. We protect ourselves, she went on. The faculty takes care of one another, and the principal takes care of the faculty. And we don’t teach to the tests, she offered. We try and teach these children how to cope.

Sonia’s students are learning more than how to cope. They are learning through witnessing. They are seeing a compassionate, gifted leader put her heart and soul into their lives – a gift that will endure well beyond a grounding in STEM.

We live in a place and at a time of enormous contradiction: The investment that Sonia and others make grows an equity worth more than all the start ups combined and yet we’ve become able to bear its destruction. Here, in America, we’ve somehow allowed for a society where there are rights more important than those of these children.