Mrs. McKinley & the Quest for Excellence
My first lesson in the quest for excellence came in the 3rd grade.
At the end of 2nd grade, we all found out who our teachers would be for the next year. I drew Mrs. McKinley. She was the tough one.
I fretted about that all summer long. My mother said that she was sure Mrs. McKinley would be nice. But “everybody” at school knew that Mrs. McKinley was the tough one.
The first day of school proved “everybody” was right. Each class had a designated spot in the school yard, where we were to gather. Our teachers could come and get us and take us inside for the first day of school. The teachers for the other classes walked out and told the students to come with them. Then they all walked inside.
Mrs. McKinley did it differently.
She walked out to where we were standing and took a position between us and the school. She stood there. Gradually, we all realized that she was there and started to calm down. In a very low voice that you could barely hear, she said, “Quiet now.” We got quiet.
Then Mrs. McKinley lined us up by height, put us in pairs, and led us in a column of twos into the school.
When we got to our room, we found name plates with our names on our assigned desks. Mrs. McKinley told us that’s where we would sit that year. Then she said, “Now I’m going to explain my rules.”
Mrs. McKinley didn’t have many rules, and she made sure we understood them.
I don’t remember them all, 60 years later, but I do remember some of them.
- When we entered or left the classroom as a class, we would do so the way we had entered it the first time. We would walk together, paired up and sorted by height.
- She said she expected us to act like “young ladies and gentlemen.” That meant that we sat up straight, with our feet flat on the floor.
- When we wanted to speak in class, we should raise our hand. “Do not wave your hand,” she said. “You are not seeing someone off at the train station.”
When she finished explaining the rules, Mrs. McKinley gave us a test on them. Those of us who passed could go outside for recess. Those who did not pass had the rules explained again and took another test. I don’t remember how many rounds there were, but I do remember that I was able to play outside for a long time.
When everyone had mastered the rules, we lined up in the proper order. Then we walked back into class, where we went to our desks and sat erect with our feet flat on the floor. At the end of the day, she gave us envelopes for our parents, which, I discovered later, included her rules. When I gave my mother the envelope, she read the rules, smiled, and said, “I’m going to like Mrs. McKinley.”
I don’t have any but the foggiest memories of other teachers from that period of my life. But I remember Mrs. McKinley distinctly.
She’s the one who gave me my first lessons in excellence.
That excellence wasn’t just about deportment or classroom rules. She was the same way about learning. In other schools and in other classes in the school I attended, you learned the multiplication tables and took a test. If you got a passing grade, something around 65 or 75 percent, you passed. Not in Mrs. McKinley’s class.
Her position was, “You either know the multiplication tables or you don’t.” So, a passing grade in her class was 100 percent. My family moved away from that town at the end of that school year, but Mrs. McKinley’s lessons stayed with me.
Mrs. McKinley was an excellent leadership role model.
She had clear and reasonable expectations which she explained and enforced. Excellence was the goal in everything. She was strict. But she was also fair and flexible when she thought she needed to be.