A Teacher Finds Her Calling in Barbara Kennard’s ‘Dragons in My Classroom’ [EXCERPT]

Barbara Kennard with her students at the Dragon School in Oxford, England.
Barbara Kennard with her students at the Dragon School in Oxford, England. (Photo courtesy Barbara Kennard)

Teachers are tenacious by nature. They know how to adapt, and they constantly strive to sharpen their skills, connect with students, and leave an indelible mark on children’s lives. Barbara Kennard is one such teacher. But in her forthcoming memoir, Dragons in My Classroom, she candidly admits that she didn’t start out that way. She had to learn to become the kind of teacher she always wanted to be. We hope you love this exclusive sneak peek from the book, due on store shelves on June 14. Enjoy! —J&H


I knew I wanted to be a teacher in 1959, when I was six years old. Miss Gluding, my first-grade teacher, was kind and firm. There was no dilly-dallying around with her. She instilled in me a small, healthy sense of fear and a large dose of compassion. Today, we cringe at the idea of a teacher making students feel a little fearful, but it actually helped me learn. I knew from her eagle eye that she meant business when I fooled around in class, but I also felt her compassion for me when I struggled to read. I can still see her sitting next to me in the hallway outside her classroom, our chairs side by side, her small, gray-haired head bent over, watching and listening to me with all her attention, as I read aloud from Our New Friends, one of the many titles in the Dick and Jane series.

I read fast and with mistakes. But Miss Gluding said gently, with a twinkle in her other eye, “Oops, Barbara, one whole line skipped right out off the page. Where did it go? Let’s try again with this index card. When you keep your place, you read very well.”

My mistakes frustrated me, and the fact that I was born almost completely blind in my right eye was no excuse, as far as I was concerned. I worked at something until I got it right. I reasoned, I may not have much vision in my right eye, but I will strive to be perfect in other ways.

Miss Gluding was a saint with me. When I grew impatient with myself, she smiled and encouraged me not to give up. She never asked me to “get it all right”; she offered me strategies and asked me to try again. I wanted to be a teacher, like Miss Gluding.

I started very early on my journey toward perfection and never gave up trying to compensate for my poor eyesight and dyslexia, which no one knew anything about, let alone the word itself, when I was in school. Other teachers, who didn’t have Miss Gluding’s empathy, embarrassed me by calling attention to my mistakes. I remember the terrible humiliation I felt from my sixth-grade teacher’s words when I couldn’t spell correctly. “Barbara,” Miss Bell announced for the whole class to hear, “You have not spelled fascination correctly. Once again, you have reversed the c and the s. You will not be able to read and write very well next year in seventh grade if you cannot spell correctly. Copy it twenty-five times at recess.”

I wiped my eyes. I loved to read and write and couldn’t wait to be in seventh grade. I copied fascination twenty-five times in my best Palmer cursive.

Whenever Miss Bell made me feel bad about my spelling, I tried to recall kind and strong Miss Gluding, and what she had written on my report card: “Barbara is a very good reader.” But because of my painful sixth-grade year, I decided instead that when I became a teacher, I wouldn’t yell at a kid for misspelling a word like fascination, or make her stay in from recess to copy it twenty-five times. I would be a better teacher than Miss Bell.

Yet, in striving to be a better teacher than she, I actually became more like her. At least I knew better than to speak to my students the way Miss Bell spoke to me, for the most part. Instead, I substituted her language for unattainable expectations of myself and my students. By the time I started teaching, in 1980, I was so far down the road to perfection that I honestly thought my expectations weren’t all that stringent. I reasoned that even the kindest and best of my teachers had demanded a great deal from me, and I carried this standard right into my own teaching.

From 1983 to 1987, I taught fifth and sixth grades at a Montessori school in Pasadena, California. My students were classic Montessori kids: quirky, wise beyond their years, capable of the unusual. They thrived on challenge and were themselves somewhat inclined toward the sublime. I was in my element these four years. My own Montessori teacher, Madame Kripulani, who had learned from Maria Montessori herself, passed on the rigors of her training to her students. First and foremost, we were taught that of all the differ- ent versions of Montessori education, the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) possessed the purest curriculum and philosophy about the education of young children. An AMI classroom was not child-centered in the way we think of this concept in the twenty-first century; children did not have free rein with classroom materials. Though they were unique and enticing, there were partic- ular ways in which to use them, which were just as sacrosanct as their attractiveness. However, once a child demonstrated expertise with a set of materials, she was allowed to explore new uses for them: The geometric shapes became pieces of machinery; graded color tablets evolved into modern-art canvases.

My Montessori students got to know me well, and I them, since we had each other for two years, and of course I had to make the second year, when they were all in sixth grade, even more demand- ing than fifth grade. I plunged them into harder work, rationalizing that my charges were a year older and a year smarter and needed more challenges. Their faces were incredulous when I asked them to memorize the etymologies of their vocabulary words. My students, eccentric though they were, did not enjoy making endless charts of word origins, as I had in my seventh-grade English class, but they did it probably out of allegiance to and some kind of fear of me. I could be a bit of a dragon, just like Miss Bell, though at the time I had no awareness that I was carrying out my plan from my own sixth-grade experience to be a better teacher than she was.

Soon the school director reminded me of a Montessori hallmark: “At this age, the students must be given the freedom and the time to discover what interests them. If they become curious about word origins, then it will be appropriate for you to point them in the right direction.”

Her words sounded out of sync with my AMI training, but I was teaching in an American Montessori Society school, where the curriculum and expectations tend to be more focused on each individual child’s abilities and needs. I adjusted my vocabulary lessons by giving students a bit of information about etymology, and, to my delight, a few of them got excited about the origins of some of their favorite spelling words.

While teaching at the Montessori school, I’d also begun to recognize my own learning issues in some of my students’ reversed letters and numbers, skipped steps in directions, and mispronounced non- phonetic words. So I decided during my master’s work to move into the special-ed field. In 1988, I completed two master’s degrees, one in special education, the other in clinical child development. For six years, I taught students with language-related learning disabilities in public schools, which, oddly enough, welcomed my demanding expectations. Special-ed students knew they had to work harder than kids who didn’t struggle with dyslexia or dysgraphia. So, for a while, I was again in my element; this time, I could be fairly demanding. And I knew the kind of support my special-needs students required, for, like Miss Gluding, I treated my students with compassion and held them to high expectations. I knew what it was like to struggle and to have unsympathetic teachers. But I also understood how hard kids with learning disabilities would have to work, not just for a period of time, but for their entire lives.

Though successful as a special-ed teacher, after six years, I began to feel the burnout that begins earlier than many teachers in this field realize. It sneaks up on you. I wanted to return to the general classroom and began teaching sixth grade at the Fessenden School, an all-boys school, in the fall of 1993. My early years at Fessy were both rewarding and hard. The former because I taught my passions: classic literature, a bit of Shakespeare, interpretative writing, and grammar. The Junior Great Books series, Tom Sawyer, and The Red Pony were hits with the boys year after year, although they enjoyed diagramming sentences much more when I created “grammar teams” to play “transitive football.”

The hard part about teaching at Fessenden was what had been hard all along. Despite the occasional fun times in class, I was deemed too strict and too demanding by some students, parents, administrators, and other teachers. After four years of struggling with these issues yet again, I began to wonder if teaching was my calling after all. Yet something in me recoiled at the idea of leaving the classroom. I’d loved school all my life, despite the challenges and hard times I’d had as a student and a teacher. I couldn’t leave. Leaving would be a kind of dying: I’d feel incomplete, empty as a person. I wanted to spend my life teaching, but I also wanted to be a different teacher, someone who didn’t need to be perfect or expect her students to be. To do that, I’d have to shed the “get it all right” persona I’d carried with me since I was a kid. How to accomplish this feat was unclear to me at first; I just knew with every fiber of my being that I wanted to be a better teacher. Little did I know that a unique opportunity would present itself in the seventeenth year of my career.

Copyright © 2022 by Barbara Kennard

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As a young book lover with dyslexia, Barbara found the solution to her reading struggles in Miss Gluding, her first-grade teacher, who showed compassion for her student’s plight—and knew how to help her. From that time on, Barbara knew what she wanted to be: a teacher, just like Miss Gluding.

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Unfortunately, Barbara also had some bad teachers in the years that ensued—including her sixth-grade teacher, an exacting woman who called attention to Barbara’s learning disabilities in front of classmates. Still wanting to follow in Miss Gluding’s footsteps in 1964, Barbara vowed she would be a better one than her sixth-grade teacher; instead, however, she became very much like her, with unattainable expectations for her students and herself.

After seventeen years in the teaching profession, she realized she had to either change her teaching style or change careers. By providence, right as she stood at this crossroads, she was offered the opportunity to teach overseas at The Dragon School in Oxford, England, for a year—an opportunity she jumped at.

In the year that followed, Barbara would rely on her faith in God to give up a lot of what she knew about teaching and learn to do it differently—ways that wouldn’t have room for her perfectionism. In short, she would have to begin again.

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Barbara Kennard taught English and performing arts to elementary, middle, and high school students from 1980–2015 and has received two teaching awards: The Christa McAuliffe Award for Teaching Excellence and The Barbara Kennard Sixth Grade English Prize, established in her name at The Fessenden School by a Fessenden family.

Formerly of Boston, Barbara now lives in Texas, with her husband, pianist Brady Millican, and their cat, Piper.

For more information, find her online at BarbaraKennardAuthor.com or follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Barbara Kennard
(Photo by Cedric Buard)

By Barbara Kennard
240 pp. She Writes Press. $16.95

Pre-order Dragons in My Classroom direct from Jathan & Heather Books or from one of these other fine online retailers: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Half Price Books, Hudson Booksellers, IndieBound, Powell’s, Target, or Walmart.

About Jathan Fink
Jathan is a journalist, philanthropist, and entrepreneur. He is also a travel junkie, foodie and jazz aficionado. A California native, he resides in Texas.

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