My First Grade Teacher Taught Me About SEL
Now She’s 102 Years Old, and I’m Still Learning from Her
by Claudine S. James
Malvern Middle School English Teacher, National Board-Certified Teacher, 2019 Arkansas Sanford Teacher Award Winner
Fifty years ago, when I entered her classroom in January of 1974, I had no idea my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Remley, would provide a model for social emotional learning.
Born in 1917, she started teaching in 1937 and her memory is unrelentless. Mrs. Remley recalled not having electricity in her home until after graduating high school in 1935. Their family earned the money to pay the $1 monthly electric bill by milking cows and separating cream. She had to wait until the summer of 1936 to begin college because her family, like others across the United States, was reeling from the economic hardships of the Depression. After attending college and earning 45 credit hours, she returned to her hometown and taught school for one year. She then taught in several rural districts throughout the state before securing a teaching job at North Malvern Elementary in Malvern, Arkansas.
Mrs. Remley said under the leadership of Principal Eudora Fields, teachers were encouraged to develop and improve relationships with ALL students. However, it wasn’t until 1964 that the school was integrated and received its first African American students. She explained, “The memories of integration over fifty years later, have not escaped me.”
Mrs. Remley recalled that the first African American student was transferred to her room because the principal thought Mrs. Remley could provide a nurturing relationship to ensure the academic development of the student was not hindered.
That same empathetic spirit is what greeted me when I entered her classroom in January of 1974. As a shy seven-year-old, I began attending this neighborhood school.
Entering a classroom with new faces staring at me was horrifically frightening. One of my new classmates recognized me and came to greet me as Mrs. Remley introduced me to the class. “I know, Claudine,” the student said, “her grandfather cleans my dad’s business.” I was already burning inside with fright and nervousness, but those words, from a harmless six-year-old, crept down my spine sending shivers throughout my body and made me want to disappear and forget this momentous day ever began. But Mrs. Remley’s quick and kind response and her caring actions afterward instantly instilled confidence in me.
Years later, on graduation day, as my classmates and I walked across the field to receive our honor diplomas, the memories of my first day in Mrs. Remley’s class resurfaced. I wondered if Mrs. Remley was aware of how her actions had positively influenced my emotional and academic growth. I met with Mrs. Remley a couple of months ago. I was able to talk with her and I thanked her for being a significant part of my initial growth. Mrs. Remley was elated to learn this and shared her personal motto and approach to working with students: “First, I cared about students; secondly, I let them know I cared and then thirdly, I meant what I said!”
Mrs. Remley cared enough to be intentional in embracing the needs of ALL of her students. I am living proof that teachers’ actions change students’ lives.