The Heart of a Teacher: You will fall in love with Phil Done and his bestseller “32 Third Graders and One Class Bunny”

By Hope Katz Gibbs
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 fine 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 matters in life—laughter, kindness, and the joy of being eight 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 touched him most. 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

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

About Phil: Phillip Done is the author of the celebrated 32 Third Graders and One Class Bunny: Life Lessons from Teaching, Close Encounters of the Third-Grade Kind: Thoughts on Teacherhood, The Charms of Miss O’Hara: Tales of Gone with the Wind and the Golden Age of Hollywood from Scarlett’s Little Sister, The Ornament Box: A Love Story, with a foreword by screen legend Debbie Reynolds, and his newest book, The Art of Teaching Children: All I Learned from a Lifetime in the Classroom. For more information, visit www.phillipdone.org.

Scroll down for a preview of Phil’s new book: The Art of Teaching Children: All I Learned from a Lifetime in the Classroom

After more than thirty years in the classroom, award-winning teacher Phil Done decided that it was time to retire. His days of teaching schoolchildren may have come to an end, but a teacher’s job is never truly done, and he set out to write the greatest lesson of his career: a book for educators and parents that would pass along everything he learned about working with kids. The result is this delightful and insightful teaching bible, The Art of Teaching Children. From the first-day-of-school jitters to the last day’s tears, Done writes about the teacher’s craft, classrooms and curriculums, the challenges of the profession, and the reason all teachers do it—the children.

Drawing upon decades of experience, Done shares sound guidance, time-tested tips, and sage advice: Real learning is messy, not linear. Greeting kids in the morning as they enter the classroom is one of the most important parts of the school day. If a student is having trouble, look at what you can do differently before pointing the finger at the child. Ask yourself: Would I want to be a student in my class? When children watch you, they are learning how to be people, and one of the most important things we can do for our students is to model the kind of people we would like them to be.

Done tackles topics you won’t find in any other teaching book, including Back to School Night nerves, teacher pride, lessons that bomb, the Sunday Blues, Pinterest envy, teacher guilt, and the things they never warn you about in “teacher school” but should, like how to survive lunch supervision, recess duty, and field trips. Done also addresses some of the most important issues schools face today: bullying, excessive screen time, unsupportive administrators, the system’s obsession with testing, teacher burnout, and the ever-increasing demands of meeting the diverse learning needs of students.

With great wit and wisdom, first-rate storytelling, and boundless compassion, The Art of Teaching Children is the definitive guide to educating today’s young learners and the perfect resource for teachers and parents everywhere. Click here to check out the book!