• September 2014

The Heart of a Teacher: Dive Inside Phil Done's "32 Third Graders and One Class Bunny"

By Hope Katz Gibbs
Editor and Publisher
Be Inkandescent magazine

There’s no denying the fact that what is required of public school teachers has changed dramatically in the past decade.

The introduction in 2001 of No Child Left Behind has reordered what is expected from teachers. So in addition to teaching children for up to eight hours a day and routinely participating in their school’s extracurricular activities, they have to deal with ever-changing standards and professional requirements and cope daily with sometimes cranky, often worried parents. [Read more about the plight of the educator in our Education column.]

Despite all this, droves of teachers remain who are optimistic, creative, and insightful. We parents know who they are, for these special folks have the uncanny ability to see inside our children and develop the qualities that help our kids shine.

That’s why I love Phil Done’s book, “32 Third Graders and One Class Bunny.” I read it when it first came out in 2005 and have kept it on my bookshelf ever since. I pass it on to friends and often pull it out to read again when I need to remember what really matters in life—laughter, kindness, and the joy of being 8 years old.

The Best Gift

After nearly three decades of teaching, Done has amassed an impressive collection of more than 75 apple ornaments, dozens and dozens of neckties, and at last count, 37 “World’s Greatest Teacher” mugs. Along the way, he has become an expert in knowing what truly matters in life. (He also has an unerring ability to quickly identify and discreetly toss any cupcakes with frosting that has been licked.)

Consider the chapter about the Christmas gifts that have most touched him. Here, he tells the tale of Henry—a usually lively child who forgot to get him a Christmas present.

“It was the day before winter break, and with urging from the kids, I decided to open my gifts,” Done explains. “Later at lunch, I noticed that Henry was quietly sitting at the end of the table with no lunch.”

Done asked Henry if he would like to have one of the cafeteria ladies make him a peanut-butter sandwich. Henry shook his head. “Are you sure?” Done prodded. Henry nodded. “Perhaps my opening the gifts had made him sad. Henry hadn’t given me one. Of course, I didn’t expect anything.”

After lunch, the class had silent reading time. That’s when Done noticed Henry hiding behind the piano with a pair of scissors and a tape dispenser on the floor next to him.

When reading time was over, Henry gave his teacher a thin package wrapped in binder paper. Phil carefully unwrapped it and pulled out a card made from red construction paper. On the cover, it said “Merry Christmas, Mr. Done” with a smiley face in the O. Taped inside were eight quarters, four dimes, four nickels, and 15 pennies—$2.75—the price of one school lunch.

A Dozen Memorable Gifts

Phil Done recalls some other memorable teacher gifts that he and his colleagues have received:

  1. A pair of earrings from a child who said they reminded him of his teacher. They were hoop earrings with marijuana leaves in them.
  2. A set of highball glasses
  3. A Barbie doll with a crocheted dress that fits over a toilet paper roll
  4. A box of chocolates. One third was gone. Another third was half-eaten. Apparently the child put them back until he found the filling he liked.
  5. A porcelain mask of Elvis
  6. An emergency survival kit, including Red Bull, the teacher’s favorite candy, and quick microwavable meals
  7. My aide received one earring. When she asked about the other one, the student said he had given it to the librarian.
  8. A used roll of duct tape
  9. An avocado wrapped in aluminum foil
  10. A mug that said “Happy St. Patrick’s Day” (in December)
  11. A wall calendar that was about to expire
  12. Santa boxer shorts—from the child’s mother

Apparently I’m not the only one who loves Phil’s book. The highly popular Real Simple magazine wrote a sweet review of it, and after that came accolades from critics, readers, and even some of his old students.

For more information, visit www.phillipdone.org.

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