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The Year's Toughest Lesson Is Learning How to Say Goodbye

At the close of the 'neediest year,' third-graders tally triumphs great and small

One by one they shuffle up to the lunchroom stage to get their certificates of accomplishment. Susan Pulford honors her third-graders for reading, math, good citizenship, and even just for showing up.

The flimsy certificates, stamped with golden stickers, delight them. Each tries to collect the award with as much decorum as an eight-year-old can muster. But the slips of paper will never adequately honor the great and small academic wonders that happened every day in Ms. Pulford's room here at John Jacob Astor Elementary.

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It was in this room that Erik Hill stood before classmates and read a book by himself for the first time.

In this room, Melvina Nelson - easily provoked to anger - developed self-confidence and a sense of humor.

Here, Tory Ward went from a bright but undistinguished student to one who scored her class's highest marks on achievement tests.

Pulford had no grand speech prepared as she spoke to her class for the last time. After 27 years of teaching, she knew such a talk would be lost on her pupils.

So in the weeks before that final day, she occasionally told her students how proud she was of them.

"OK guys, before you leave I want you to know that you worked really hard this year," she says, straining to be heard over the growing din. "And I want you to try to do some reading. You read some good books in here and there are other good books at the library."

And then the relationship is severed, just as unceremoniously as it began. The school bell rings loudly, dismissing the class for the last time.

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When school began last September, Pulford was handed 26 of the neediest kids she had ever taught. Four of her students had severe learning disabilities. Others came from unstable homes where they received little or no guidance from their parents. How could they absorb her lessons, she wondered, when so many of their families were unraveling at home?

A welcoming classroom

As she has done in previous years, Pulford worked to make school safe, fun, and stable. She made sure that when the children came to school, she was always there to teach them. In this benchmark year, when standardized tests are administered, Pulford found she had too little time to teach them all they needed to know.

"In a lot of ways I think I overtaught them," she says, laughing. "But it won't hurt them."

Indeed it won't. Pulford's students received the second-highest marks in reading in the school district.

Despite their short history with formal schooling, her students are savvy about teachers.

They can tell when a teacher cares about her students and when a teacher would rather be somewhere else. Pulford is strict but not mean. She's "cool," they say, because she injects humor into almost everything she does.

"You can just tell she's taught for a long time," says Tory Ward, speaking with wide eyes and a bright smile. "Like, what she does actually works."

Tory adds that the best teachers are the ones without children of their own, like Pulford. They have fewer distractions, she believes. And you can identify the good teachers at recess, she says. They're the ones surrounded by kids.

Erik Hill, a lanky boy whose dark locks hang in his face, will long remember Pulford as the teacher who helped change his life. In just nine months, he went from a kindergarten reading level to being almost caught up with his third-grade classmates.

Erik, who wants to be either a fighter pilot or a scientist, thinks Pulford pushed him to succeed. She was a bit demanding at times, but always funny, he says.

Of course, he adds, "I'm the only one that understands her jokes."

Pulford always plans a vacation immediately after the final bell so she doesn't have time to think about the separation.

No matter where she goes on these end-of-year trips, she sends each of her students a postcard. This year, they can expect a note from the Oregon Caves National Monument, in southwestern Oregon.

When she first started teaching in 1970, Pulford didn't have the money to go on vacation. It's difficult, she says, to go from the controlled chaos of a classroom to nothing.

"In about two weeks I'm going to go through withdrawal," she says. "There's a lot of positive reinforcement that goes on [in the classroom], a lot of things that I need. That's why I've never gone into administration."

"The neatest thing is watching them learn," she says. "They love to show off the stuff they know."

Above and beyond teaching

Pulford has been mother, guidance counselor, nurse, favorite aunt, and friend to her students for nine months. She has been to their family weddings and their Little League games. She has spent thousands of dollars of her own money buying them books, videotapes, and other supplies.

With her long blond hair, flowing skirts, and Birkenstocks, she is a 1990s version of Mother Goose. But she is growing tired of her profession. Her job is becoming too political, and she says teachers are becoming scapegoats for society's ills.

The last week of school, district administrators announced they were gutting the entire faculty of another Portland elementary school because its students scored too low on achievement tests. To Pulford, what critics failed to stress to the public is that the school had a high turnover rate of students. It's extremely difficult, she says, to teach kids who move frequently.

Pulford must teach three more years before she can retire. She might then teach education at one of the local colleges, passing on three decades of trade secrets.

"People always said to me, 'You're going to be sorry if you don't have any children.' Well," says Pulford, "I feel like I have."

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