by Chris Kenrick
Hey, did you hear about the time Mr. Done worked in a restaurant and he was carrying 10 salads on a tray and he dropped it? Or about when he was in third grade and put gel in his hair because he had a crush on Miss Greco, his teacher?
Phillip Done's third- and fourth-grade students at Addison Elementary School in Palo Alto have heard both of those stories, and many more.
In his classroom, the storytelling has a purpose — to make a connection with students, creating an environment that he believes fosters the best learning.
Done, who's taught for more than two decades, has spent years cultivating the art of storytelling, not just for kids, but also for fellow teachers and for the world at large.
This year, he's taking time off from the classroom to promote his latest compilation of stories, "Close Encounters of the Third Grade Kind," published by the Hachette Book Group.
Done's appearance at Kepler's Books and Magazine in September drew lines out the door. He has spoken in Sacramento, Seattle, Denver, appeared on various television shows and at the Keystone State Reading Association Conference in Hershey, Pa.
Done delivered the "welcome back" speech last fall for teachers and staff in the Sunnyvale School District — a motivational speech for 600 educators in the district where he himself attended elementary school and spent his first nine years of teaching.
His topic was the qualities of an outstanding educator.
"What makes teachers excellent — what makes them stand out — is the connections they make with the children," he said in an interview with the Weekly.
"It's not about STAR Test scores, standards, lesson plans, math books, spellers or overheads. The most important thing is the connection you make with the child. They are motivated by stories from our lives."
Done calls it "personal teaching."
"The storytelling isn't just for fun and filler; it's purposeful. If you connect with children, it does many things. They're more apt to respect you and believe in what you're trying to do. There's more buy-in to the program. There's more closeness."
Done recently encountered a Wells Fargo Bank teller who had been one of his students 20 years ago. During the transaction, the teller flawlessly recounted a story Done had told his class way back when.
"We underestimate the power of storytelling," he said.
"When you have 25 children in a classroom you have to create a tone of warmth and camaraderie. These children are all working together for 185 days. The teacher needs to set a tone whereby children can work well together, be willing to make mistakes in front of each other.
"How do you create that? You tell stories, showing them your own vulnerabilities and mistakes."
Done began his storytelling — and writing — efforts not so much with students as with teachers in mind.
"There's a lot of pressure on teachers. It's not easy being in the trenches," he said.
"I wanted to do for teachers what Erma Bombeck did for mothers — give them some laughs and some hopes."
However, after the 2005 publication of his first book, "32 Third Graders and One Class Bunny," he found that many of his readers were actually parents.
"I get e-mails every day — in the beginning it was 20 to 30 a day — from all over the country. The people who write are the parents, because the book is a glimpse of their child's life in the classroom."
He acknowledged that some parents are overbearing. But, he said, "You have to realize they're just caring for their child.
"Ninety-five percent of parents are fantastic. They drive on field trips, make costumes, send in treats on birthdays — they're there for you.
"You do have your one or two. You've been told by the previous teacher who these parents are.
"You need to immediately let the parent know that you're a team. At the parent-teacher conference, I sit next to parents, never across from them.
"If a parent senses that you care for their child, that you're doing your best and you know what you're doing, there are usually no problems."
Done wrote his first book in Budapest, where he taught at the American International School from 2000 to 2005. He never could have written it here, he said.
"As a California public school teacher, you get one hour of release time a week — your time away from the children, when they go to the library or P.E. Otherwise, all day you're on show. I call it the best stage in town.
"When you're done at the end of the day you're exhausted, wiped out. It's all you can do to put some dinner in the microwave.
"If you're good, there's nothing left. You've given it all to the children."