We sit at a tiny desk in small, blue-plastic molded chairs, and she tells me what she’s learned in first grade.
Lesson Number One: First grade is hard. Harder than expected. At night, when she would replay the events of her day, she found herself more than a few times in tears.
Lesson Number Two: Discipline is important. Learning and chaos do not mix.
Lesson Number Three: When you need help, don’t be afraid to ask for it.
“The kids had me crying more than you know,’’ Shauntell Dunbar said. “I would come home and cry, and my husband would say to me: ‘You can do this. I’ve never not seen you do something that you set your mind to.’ ”
So Ms. Dunbar set her mind to it. It took eight weeks for the first-time, first-grade teacher at the Young Achievers Science and Math Pilot School in Mattapan to learn to fully control her classroom. When things threatened to spiral out of control, she got a classroom assistant, Alicia Mizell, to help out.
At mid-year, when her kids’ reading scores were disappointing, she didn’t hide those results, as a less confident classroom newcomer might have. She redoubled her resolve to improve. And she did.
“I was terrified,’’ she told me the other day. “Oh my gosh. I did not want my students not to meet the benchmarks.’’
I first met Shauntell Dunbar last September, days before she began her classroom career. She is the child of a single mom. She came to the United States from Jamaica at age 12, grew up in Dorchester, has a master’s degree in business, and is the mother of three sons.
And, at age 38, she felt ready to command the biggest desk in Room 18 in this basement classroom of her school. She had butterflies that day when we first met. And, as it turns out, they were portentous.
“Nobody knows how to do everything when they start teaching,’’ said Virginia Chalmers, the Young Achievers principal. “But you have to be self-confident enough to look at what works and what doesn’t. She’s crystal clear about what she expects.’’
What she expects from the students she’s dubbed the Proud Peacocks — 11 boys and five girls — is spelled out on her classroom wall: “My hands are gentle. My words are kind. I’m a good listener. I can control myself.’’
As the kids learned, so did she. Chaos? Unacceptable. Good behavior? That meant pizza parties, Popsicle parties, and special one-on-one lunches with the teacher.
When a kid acted out and dove beneath his desk, she crawled under there with him. When one kid, who presented a special challenge, invited her to his birthday party, she showed up. She visited the homes of her students, sitting across from their mothers, vowing to figure it all out. The message? “The same respect you give your mom at home you have to give to me in the classroom.’’
And then things began to click. Order defeated chaos. Reading scores shot up.
“I have a lot to learn,’’ she said. “I’m new to this profession. Good is never good enough.’’
She’s in this for the long haul. She knows now what her students know: Hard work produces dividends.
“I love seeing the growth in the kids,’’ she said. “I can’t explain the feeling you get when you have a student who gets it. You can see the light bulb going off. That’s why I love it. That’s why I’m going to be doing this for a long time, because every year we get new light bulbs.’’
Who wouldn’t want a teacher like that?
“She’s exactly the kind of teacher we need in urban schools,’’ Chalmers, the principal, told me this week. “Her commitment is extraordinary. I just feel very lucky.’’
As I spoke with Ms. Dunbar, sitting at that impossibly small desk vacated by students now out at recess, a kindergartner on the playground poked his head into the classroom’s open window.
“Are you Miss Dunbar?’’ the little boy wanted to know.
The kid was getting an early jump on meeting the woman, no longer a rookie, who will guide him through first grade three months from now.
Shauntell Dunbar looked up at him and smiled. It was a confident smile that said: See you in September.