Visit The Friends School of Atlanta on Friday mornings, and you’ll witness a memorable sight: a group of schoolchildren sitting in complete silence, contemplating. This isn’t detention; no one misbehaved. This is Silent Meeting. Sitting in the the front of the meeting room, as she has for nearly 25 years, is Pam Upchurch. And next to her sits her class, silent, gazing, drinking in the new experience. Most experiences are new for them—being only four or five years old.
Pam has been with the school from the beginning. As a parent, I recall taking my daughter on a tour, meeting Pam, and sensing something almost immediately: Her calm demeanor connects with those around her, and with young children most of all.
“I think I was born to teach, especially younger people,” she told me earnestly, without a hint of egotism. “Teaching always energized me.”
It’s hard to imagine that Pam initially wanted to be an accountant. It wasn’t until she landed a substitute teaching job at a preschool near Atlanta that she realized she had a calling. She would almost become giddy when she got the call from the regular teacher. “And after spending a day with the kids, I would just feel so energized–noticing their similarities, their differences. It was just amazing to me.”
During the first six weeks of class at The Friends School, Pam and her colleagues foster what they call a “community of learners.”. They talk to the children. They listen. They get to know one another and build a foundation for the years to follow.
“We don’t just talk to them,” Pam said. “We allow their voices to be heard. And we make them curious about peace and respect in the classroom. When they know the expectation is to be respectful to others, it plays out that they become more in tune to what the needs of others are.”
This complements the school’s longstanding Buddy Program in which eighth graders pair up with the youngest children. “They feel cared for,” she said, “and that instills their desire to care for others.”
Those eighth graders often sit with their buddies during Silent Meeting. Sure, some wiggle and get a little impatient. These are preschoolers, after all. But for the most part, they’re thinking not just about themselves, but about their buddy, their class, and their school. In children so young, it’s really something to see.
By Tim Heston
Tim Heston has written for business magazines since 1996. He’s won some awards here and there, but his greatest achievement is being the proud parent of an FSA fourth grader.