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Clif Cleaveland

Barbara Williams Thomas, who died on Jan. 27, demonstrated what inspired teaching is all about. She was a friend and a patient for years before my retirement from medical practice. We served on a board together. We periodically kept each other posted on various community issues. I emerged from every conversation more optimistic about the state of the world.

The setting for a particularly memorable encounter was Washington School, the alternative, public middle-high school in Hamilton County. Students are referred to Washington School following expulsion or suspension from public middle and high schools. Students, who had been incarcerated, spend time at Washington School as part of their transition to regular school. A student who meets the behavioral and academic requirements of the school may return to his or her previous school after a prescribed interval that may vary from a month to a semester or longer. Almost 90 per cent of students succeed in their regular schools after their stint at Washington School.

Years ago, I visited the school as part of a program sponsored by the then-Arts and Education Council (now known as Southern Lit Alliance). The school was remarkable for the sparkling appearance of its varied spaces, the quiet in hallways during change of classes, and the innovative programs both in and out of classrooms. Students wore uniforms. They could collect good behavior or kindness points, which would earn additional privileges such as time in a nearby recreation center on Friday afternoons. A student might nominate a classmate for recognition as the "good citizen" of the week.

After a long and distinguished career as a teacher and administrator in Hamilton County schools, Mrs. Thomas shunned retirement, choosing instead to teach mathematics at Washington School. She had been a key advocate for establishing the school. Following its approval, she located and arranged for the donation of surplus furnishings for the school. Knowing of my visit, she invited me to visit a class that she taught in middle-school mathematics.

Her pupils presented a challenge. Their ages and academic levels varied. Each student had to be brought to a level of math that would permit smooth entry into class when returning to his usual school. Students came and went as each semester progressed. Class size hovered around 15.

A student greeter met me at the door to Mrs. Thomas' class. He introduced me to the class. He asked if I would care to play chess at one or two small tables set up in the back of the classroom. Mrs. Thomas had introduced chess to her class. Students who excelled in their assignments were rewarded with time to play a game with a classmate or visitor. The greeter had earned that privilege for this class.

Class began. Mrs. Thomas presented three different, practical problems in geometry and algebra. After discussing approaches to solutions, she circulated among students to assess their work and to offer suggestions, if needed. Class was conducted in the style of a seminar in which students shared their ideas about solving the problems. I saw engagement and teamwork. Once solved, a student would discuss an approach to the problem and solicit questions. I had never seen mathematics taught in this manner.

Mrs. Thomas also taught high school mathematics at Washington School.

In a conversation after class, she referred to her students as "my babies," children who simply needed extra love and attention to handle a rough patch in their lives.

Barbara Thomas was a difference maker in so many roles — wife, mother, grandmother, citizen, church member. She chose the most challenging of settings for the grand finale of her remarkable career as educator and mender of troubled lives.

Contact Clif Cleaveland, a retired physician, at ccleaveland@timesfreepress.com.

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