She directs their accounts patiently, but firmly as any lawyer in a courtroom, trying to get the whole story from children who don’t want to tell it.
He pushed you? And what did you do to him? Who did you tell? And what did Coach say? Why are you in here? Then to the other boy; what did you do? Is that the right thing to do? So, what do you need to do now?
After apologizing to each other, both boys settle down in the classroom with a book to read and wait for the rest of the class to return.
It’s a scene that has played out in White’s classroom hundreds of times over her 28 years of teaching, and she handled it with the same respect she demands the students show each other. Respect is the most important thing in the classroom, she says.
Lately, White has been getting a lot of respect from her own peers. The Randolph Park kindergarten teacher has been inducted into Jacksonville State University’s Hall of Fame and has been honored for her work as a mentor to fellow teachers.
“If you give respect to the children, and that means respecting them as learners, as curious little beings who want to know, if you can respect that, they will give you respect for what you know,” White said. “In the classroom there has to be respect and an honest love.”
That respect can also be passed to the parents, who are taking their cues from the relationship between the teacher and the student, she said. It’s something she’s passionate about and it’s part of the reason she is so admired by her peers, both as an educator and as a resource.
“I have been her colleague, her principal and now her superintendent,” said Superintendent Joan Frazier. “She gets in her classroom and does the job of instruction in a creative and passionate manner.”
White insists she’s not special, though.
“I’m drawing on the knowledge and experience of other teachers,” White said. “That’s what I think education is all about. We all have something to give and being willing to share it. It benefits everybody when you do.”
She received training from other teachers early in her career and continues to learn. She also passes on the knowledge that she has gained from all her years of experience to new teachers.
“Someone does have to help the younger ones,” White said. “If you can’t help, then you’re doing a disservice to the profession.”
White’s recent awards don’t come as a surprise to Randolph Park Principal Sandra Gunter. She’s known White for more than 20 years and has witnessed her dedication firsthand.
“Miss White is normally about the first person here every morning,” Gunter said. “Usually, she’s here late (into) the afternoon. She takes an interest in each of her children individually. She gets to know them and their parents.”
In some cases, White has even taught some of the parents of the children in her classroom and she brings the same enthusiasm in the classroom she brought back then, Gunter said.
That’s because White still finds her job rewarding.
“The rewards don’t stop coming,” White said. “It’s rewarding to me because I can see where it benefits society.”
White has taught kindergarten for most of her career. She taught second- graders for a few years, even teaching a few of her own kindergarten students a second time. She decided quickly, though, that her love was the kindergarten classroom.
“I still feel kindergarten is where I should stay,” White said. “Children come for the most part ready to learn new things, ready to learn how to read, ready to learn how to count, ready to speak, ready to sing. They are just ready and you don’t have to fight to get it and for the most part they aim to please the teacher. If you expect a lot, you can get a lot.”
Her mission is to help them along and prepare them for the rest of their education.
Her classroom has changed over the years. In some ways it’s unwelcome change.
Technology has taken over the classroom in the past three decades, she said. The students used to go on field trips to the grocery store, the post office, the veterinarian, the police station and the courthouse. Now students learn about those places by watching a video, but it’s not the same, White insists.
“Not the same as getting on a bus and practicing good behavior and school rules and respect. It’s not the same,” White said. “Some children come already with it, because their parents have exposed them, but then there are many of them who don’t know a hill of beans about what goes on in the real world.”
Students have changed over the years, too.
“They are more knowledgeable of ugly things,” White said. “So, I’ve always got to be the right model.”
But her classroom is still the active, talkative, energetic classroom it was 28 years ago. It still expresses her zeal for learning. Her reward is the love of her students. When a kindergartner says they love you, they mean it, she says with a smile.
“I have yet to wake up and not want to come to work,” White said.