Independent K-12 School in Atlanta

The Paideia School

Kelly Richards

Kelly Richards, a longtime teacher in Paideia’s elementary school, taught her last day on June 5th of this year. She began her teaching career in 1970, taught for several years at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, MA, and started her work at Paideia in 1983. Brian Eames recently sat down with Kelly to talk about her career with children and the challenges and joys that teachers face.


What were your earliest years of teaching like?

The very first year that I taught, I knew nothing! Someone in the school had somehow given me permission or asked me what I would like to do, and I said, “Let’s put on a play.” We did A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the third and fourth grade! Who does that? But it was awesome because I didn’t care...after all, what did I know? I thought, ‘This will be great! We’re going to have fairies, we’re going to have funny guys....’ When I was twelve a neighborhood parent, Kitty ________________, had done A Midsummer Nights Dream with local kids just for fun, and I got a hold of a copy of the script we had used. I made it even shorter because that was when we were 12 and these children were mostly 8 or 9. But I had seen Kitty do it with us, and I remembered how much fun it had been when I was a kid. We pulled it off. I wish I had a film of it. I remember how much fun I had doing it.
That was the one of the really fun parts of being a very young teacher, but there was lots that was hard. In the first one or two years in my early teaching I was alone in the class...frequently in tears.

What made it so hard?

Teaching forced me right from the beginning to do a lot of emotional growing in order to deal with the emotions of the people I was with all day long. I grew up in a family that was very mild-mannered. I can remember the first few kids I worked with who had huge tempers and how frightening it was! One of them I remember was bigger than I was--a really robust kid. I was sure that if he got angry--like throwing chairs kind of angry--I wouldn’t be able to hand it. I had to develop a voice that said, “No. Put the chair down.” Or I had to become open to the idea of physically putting my hands on his shoulders and holding him. That was new for me, and it was hard to learn.

I learned from teaching that I had my own kind of attention problem. I had to learn persistence. The default in my life as a very much younger self was to find something else to do if I got to a really hard place, or to simply walk away from people who irritated me. But you can’t do that in a classroom. You have to work your way through the hard places; you don’t get to choose just the easy children. You are going to be called to figure out what to do in situations you really would rather not be in.

I think that working with kids you are always confronted by places you might not have wanted to go because those kids push your buttons. They are right there in your face. The kids you need to learn from, they are the ones who show up in your classroom, and they are hard. They have been hard for me. I often end up really loving those kids, and I look back on them as gifts, but at the time it was a lot of sleepless nights and anxiety. That is part of the job. Teaching means you are going to grow all of the time, maybe not in directions you had chosen, but you are going to keep growing.

Did you have many mentors in your early years?

Not formally. It just wasn’t available at the time. But I did learn lots from watching other people. I listened to what some teachers would say to kids, and if I really liked that, I’d start using it. One of the very first teachers I worked with taught me something I have used ever since. I noticed that whenever she wanted to get the attention of students, she whispered. I thought, ‘That’s brilliant!’ And from then on, for a long time, I whispered when I wanted students to be quiet. I’ve picked up practices in lots of places from lots of people, including apprentices and assistants I’ve taught with.

The very first teacher mentor I ever had was in college. I went to work once a week in the Philadelphia public schools in a first grade classroom. I did this entirely on my own. I met Lovey Glenn and I asked her if I could come in and be a volunteer in her classroom. [There was actually a movie made about her in the late 60s.]

Lovey was this beautiful black woman who was wild, and she had this group of inner city kids who would follow her into anything. What a firecracker. One day she got up on top of one of the desks and announced that the class was going to have a parade. All the kids made musical instruments that they paraded around. They loved her. I had no idea up until then that a teacher could get up on top of a desk. I had some radical teachers in high school who--maybe--sat on the front of their desks to talk to us, and that was radical. But this was Lovey in her mini-skirt and crazy hair and jingly bracelets, and she was so much fun. I don’t know that she would ever have thought of herself as a mentor, and I’m not sure I realized she was for me at the time, but when I look back, Lovey just gave me so much permission in one year of teaching. And she also had a classroom where different things were going on in different parts of the room. And since nothing in my own growing up had been like that, I saw right away, ‘Okay, right, we can do this. I see how this works.’

So a lot of fun for me over the years has been watching what other people do and saying, ‘Does this work, or in what ways does this work, or can I do this too?’ It’s like when I put on that first play, I was really drawing on Kitty the director that I had had when I was twelve in the neighborhood Shakespeare plays. If somebody asked me if I could direct a play, I said yes because I would be Kitty and do what she did. Then I learned to do Lovey Glen, and I learned to do Shelley Marcus here in little pieces. I took things from lots and lots of people.

But some of my most important mentors were those who helped me when kids were really hard for me, because I always felt like leaving. It was really hard for me to stay through difficult kids. I always felt like a failure, like it was my personal problem that they were as miserable as they were.

How has that changed?

Paul BianchiPhoto: Don Chambers

When I was young, I didn’t have the perspective to see that this kid wasn’t just like this with me; he was like that in the whole world, carrying around all this pain. I think I felt the pain, and I just needed it to be over. I needed to fix it, and it was really hard. It still is, but I have a deeper perspective on it. As a young teacher, anyone who could help me with that stuff was really important to me. I could figure out really quickly who was going to help me. I would go to them and say, ‘I need help. I can’t do this. I said X and Y and this kid said QRST and W, then left the room! I don’t know what to do.’ And they would hear me and help me.

You have led a group for assistant teachers at Paideia for over fifteen years now, engaging teachers relatively new to the profession in discussions about classroom craft, navigating relationship with lead teachers, parents, etc. Is that mentoring?

I see the group itself as mentoring. It offers support and a collegial forum in which for asking questions and firming up or clarifying ideas. But I can also take a clear leadership role. Sometimes when we're talking about a situation that's tricky each person will suggest possible actions to take, but there are moments when I feel strongly about a point of view - often it's the "why" behind the "what" - and I'll hold forth some on what I consider Best Practice in that situation. It's just like the way we teach children - sometimes the group explores, sometimes the teacher points out. They're both important.

Your teaching has evolved over the years. Have those changes been in response to changes you have noted in your students, or changes in yourself?

I certainly do not see any difference in kids today compared to 1970 in terms of who they bring in the door with them--their personalities, their worries, etc. I have, though, seen a really big difference in reading. Kids in the third grade now cannot read what kids in third grade at Shady Hill could read when I left--so about 1983. They really can’t. There is the occasional kid who can, of course. But most just don’t have that kind of...persistence, maybe? And they don’t come in with the same degree of skill as readers. I think there has been a shift. Every year we get easier books for our classroom, not harder books, and more of those books that are part of a series. ‘Oh, do you like that book? Good! There are fifteen more just like it.’ If I read a book aloud like an E. Nesbit book--a real literary kind of children’s book I would sometimes read at Shady Hill--I find I just can’t. I think an individual kid might be able to read that at home, but we just can’t read it in class. It doesn’t work. And because of that I find my teaching has had to change to a certain extent.

But, there is a really interesting possibility that part of why I teach differently is that in the meantime I have become a parent. I think I see kids really differently from having become a parent. I have a different sense of what they need, and I feel more connection to their emotional lives and a concern for that. As a young teacher I was really wrapped up in creating really interesting curriculum. ‘Let’s build a cactus out of cardboard! This will be great!’ I could function that way with kids. I remember all sorts of project I did with kids that were all-consuming, and I was very much like the older brother or sister that they were happy to follow into some project. Now I look for different things in my curriculum. I want kids to be independent...I want them to have an ownership of things. I have also changed how attuned I am to skills, which perhaps I did not take as seriously when I was a young whippersnapper. I think I see kids much more individually now. I think it has become more and more important to me that my classroom be a safe place for kids. From my own children, I have seen how much kids shut down when they are anxious, and then they can’t learn! Or they can only do certain kinds of learning.

You are in the unique position of having been married to a teacher [Peter Richards teaches 4th and 5th graders down the hall from Kelly.] What has that been like?

When we first came to Paideia I taught with Peter for four years, and at that time we were also the parents of a newborn to a four-year-old. In the beginning it was ideal because we had so much flexibility. Basically we shared a job and a half. Either of us could be at home with a kid, either of us could be at school: one person was going to be in school all day and one person was going to be in school half the day--that’s the way we worked it out with Paul. By the time our oldest became 3, though, it was too much of the sameness. It really was too much talking about school, finally.

Many times kids from my class have gone directly into Peter’s class the next year. I love that. We compare the things we observe in the same child over time. We do talk about kids, but we talk about teaching more. Peter will tell me something that he did that he is really proud of, or vice versa. One of the things that has been really fun that we mostly do on a long drive is that we brainstorm together. ‘How would you teach this?’ That’s so fun.

I love the connection that Peter and I have had through our teaching. I love that our family was all in school together, that our family was all on vacation together.... And, I think Peter is a fantastic teacher. I really appreciate him in a way that I imagine in most marriages you don’t get to appreciate each other, and I know he feels the same way. Sometimes I’ll look up and see him standing in our classroom just beaming, just loving what he sees. And I do the same. That is so cool.

What do you look back on most fondly, and what do you think you will miss about classroom life?

I have loved doing plays with kids since that first production of A Midsummer Nights Dream. I did little plays when I taught in Poland, and when I returned to Shady Hill we did plays every year. When I first came to Paideia, Peter and I started doing The Revels. A few years later my class was putting on The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Fairy Rebel, a whole series of Pilgrim/Separatist plays. Now Tony and I have started in on the “Buddha Play” and Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech. I want kids not to worry about their “performance” on a day to day basis, but I really like coaching them into maximum performance for a performance. And I love how kids get bonded together doing a play. With so much of what we do in school, there is no culmination apart from the marker of the end of a year. A play creates a wonderful feeling. You work and work and work and put it on. So I look back on that with a lot of pleasure.

Another thing I get really proud of with kids are projects: art projects, sewing projects.... I look back with enormous fondness on things we’ve cooked...things we’ve painted.

I think I’ll miss having an audience. I love some of those moments where I get to be inspired about something in the company of a whole bunch of people who are going to sit and listen. We get talking about something that seems really important and everybody is right there with me. And I appreciate that I get to have such an important role in kids’ lives. I think that’s where parenting led me to a lot of humility. For good or for ill, we are with kids more time during the week, more waking hours than they are with their parents. Quite a responsibility comes with that. It’s a lot of trust placed in us.

I really enjoy the times with parents when it feels like we are on a team. There are lots of parents that I have gotten a kick out of being “related to” for that period of time. It’s almost like I recognize that parents are really vulnerable through their children, so I often feel like that is a kind of tender relationship.

What do you think has drawn you back to Paideia for so many years?

When I came back to Paideia after my mommy hiatus, I really came back for the community, the chance to work in tandem with others, to all be pulling in the same direction. I had missed that in the time I spent at home, and I have felt deeply grateful for it ever since. I relish the sense of teaming up that I have with Tony and all the specialists we work with; but the team includes our colleagues, Mary Lynn and Barbara, Paul, the tutors, all the parental support we get. It extends to all the other faculty, because whether we work directly with each other or not, everyone contributes to making this place what it is, and of course we teach each other's children so we know each other in that vulnerable way. The whole school functions as a team. I can't imagine any place I could work where it would be more fun, where there would be more hugs, where I would be happier to return after a long summer away, and sadder to leave.