Words to the Wise: Inspiration from Veteran Teachers

I’ll never forget a moment when I was seven or eight riding in the gray Plymouth Voyager minivan and my mom, for the millionth time, explained the meaning of a word I’d encountered in my (fifth) re-read of a Babysitter’s Club book. “I don’t get it, Mom,” I said, “it seems like you and Dad know everything. Will I ever be as smart as you?” She laughed. “Honey, I’ve just lived longer than you. When you are middle-aged explaining words to your own children, you’ll understand that knowledge is most often just another word for experience.” To be sure, I’m now right there in my own Honda Odyssey explaining words to my own kids. The thing she forgot to mention is that she, now in her seventies, would always be the person I would turn to when a word (or the world) didn’t make sense. Still, her point stands. And that’s the point of this particular blog.

We reached out to teachers across all of our divisions with what we guessed was a minimum of 15 years of teaching experience under their belt, because we don’t make space for wisdom nearly enough in our teaching growth. We asked for two things in particular: (1) tried and true methods have they discovered and (2) advice for teachers in these challenging times. What we learned is that our faculty collectively have put a ton of time into their craft, and that they all have learned a thing or two or twelve. Too often in the noise and flash of our everyday we forget to tune our ears to the soft ebb and flow of experience. Thanks to everyone that contributed. Being around you makes us all a little bit wiser, and we need your experience now more than ever.

Describe the “tried and true” in your teaching craft. What are some teaching strategies, tools, procedures, and/or student learning activities that have withstood the test of time in your classroom?

“I have many teaching practices that I return to year after year. First of all, I sing everything! Nothing gets a three year old child’s attention like a silly song. This especially works during transitions from one activity to another. We also always start a new unit of study by creating a vocabulary list of words we know associated with the new subject and add to that list daily. I have watched vocabularies flourish with this practice. We also allow lots of opportunities to share during circle time and throughout the day. Three year old children tell amazing stories and I don’t want to miss one! I also believe in free choice activities at the beginning of each day. Children are excited to see what their teachers have ready for play and they learn negotiation, creativity and build friendships without being guided by the teacher. We are here to support their works, not lead them.”

-Lea Crongeyer (23 years in education; 13 years at St. Andrew’s)

“(1)Using humor to reach the shy/introverted student. (2) Using songs/music to teach parts of speech. (3) Making board games and using mini-theater to teach mythology. (4) Teaching students how to “chunk” information to prepare for assessments. (5)Taking a personal interest in each student to build an authentic rapport. (6)Turning reluctant readers into excited readers by sharing my love for reading and helping them find books they’ll enjoy for the independent reading assignments. (7) Having students share their books with each other through skits, dressing up as main characters, power points, and book trailers using music to enhance their presentations. (8)Using student made comic strips to check reading comprehension. (9)Choosing summer reading books and class novels that are universally appealing. (10) Using the writing process and more…………….I think that making learning fun is the key to making my lessons/activities successful. If I get excited about reading, grammar, or vocabulary, the students usually do, too.”

-Hannah King (37 years in education, 37 years at St. Andrew’s)

“I’ve found it true that students who become enthusiastic about coming to school and learning are those who come to understand that teachers care for them. So, building relationships and empathizing with their struggles have been pivotal in getting them engaged and committed to learning. In learning a language, I believe that finding laughter in what we do is another important element. Laughter relieves anxiety and the unrealistic expectations of perfect answers; we can laugh at our mistakes and try again believing that in trying we will master what we think impossible, like speaking fluently to a native speaker.”

-Nancy Rivas (22 years in education; 16 years at St. Andrew’s)

“I think one of the most impactful things I have learned over the years is the importance of conversations/dialogue with your students. Whether I am on the playground or sitting next to a child sculpting with Play-doh it is the moments of a back and forth that create true learning experiences. It is in those moments we can call on prior memories and build upon these concepts. This is when oral and receptive language is developed. This is when you get to see those wheels turning! A child rolling a wooden ball down a ramp will see the direction and speed the ball rolls but if I can take a moment to prompt with some questions or suggestions the results can turn into true “ah-ha” moments.”

-Taylor Davis (16 years of teaching experience, 13 years at St. Andrew’s)

“Whole – Part – Whole Method: this method is simply what it says. We show the whole lesson, break it down into parts and bring it back to whole. Whether its drill work or an offensive set in basketball. We also use the Positive-Negative-Positive Method when correcting undesirable results. We point out something positive sneak in the negative and reinforce the positive a second time.”

-Burney King (34 years in education, 29 years at St. Andrew’s)

“At the beginning of each school year I am pretty firm on rules and expectations in my classroom. As we get to know one another I then start loosening up on my parameters, but my students always know “how far is too far”. Being consistent in all areas of our day helps my students feel safe and secure. And I make sure we always have fun! Sharing parts of my life as my students do with me helps us create an atmosphere of family.”

-Beth Peterson (24 years in education; 25 years at St. Andrew’s)

“Tried and true fundamentals, for me, begin with the students: engendering curiosity and promoting a student-directed class help to engage students of all ages; when students are engaged, they are motivated. To foster engagement and motivation, we look at the “why” behind each lesson: why are we learning this? / Why is this important to you? I place students in teams and ask them to begin by explaining the value of what we are learning and then we discuss this value (values) as a class.”

-Andrew Cohen (21 years in education, 1 year at St. Andrew’s)

“Honestly the first thing that pops into my head is what is called ‘Must Do’ and ‘May Do’. I stole this idea from a colleague years ago and it still works beautifully and accomplishes exactly what it is intended for. When I need time with individual students or small groups I use this strategy. On the board I give a short list of items that need to be completed. These can be extra practice pages, spelling games, IXL practice, really anything I think is needed. I try to stay away from busy work and make it meaningful and relevant to what we are studying. It also could be a time for children to catch up on anything they haven’t finished. Once they have finished the “Must Do’s” they can move on to the “May Do.” These are fun activities that the child can pick from. They are differentiated and the students have choices. They range from math games, quietly reading in a chair, creating with my art supplies, legos, etc. I also tell them during this time I am off limits because I am working with students. I tell them there are only three reasons to interrupt me: if the building is on fire, if they are sick or bleeding, or if zombies are chasing them through the room. They always think this is too funny, but it works! This really allows me to have time with individuals or small groups without being interrupted. After the first month or so of school they do not even ask what the may do list is. They just know what they can do. I think this is truly a simple way to do centers without having to create elaborate materials. It gives the children choice and independence which is always something we are working on in third grade.”

-Carolyn Wilmesherr (24 years in education, 11 years at St. Andrew’s)

“1. Always give your instructions a positive slant, and avoid the word “don’t.” 2. Give students the tools to visualize what they are reading and practicing. By describing one’s own visualization, you can bring it alive for the students. 3. Incorporate the arts into everything activity as much as possible. 4. Incorporate dramatic activities into the curriculum as much as possible. 5. Within a class period, try small bites constantly, especially with tasks that are more humdrum: a small bite of grammar for ten minutes, a small bite of vocabulary for ten minutes, etc. 6. Never allow down time; always be ready to transition to a new activity. 7. Tell things as stories as often as possible. 8. Knowing that the kids will talk, give them something concrete to talk about, legitimizing the talking, which you know you will have anyway. 9. I have a background in gifted ed, which means I am really making the kids stretch their comprehension and their evaluative and creative skills. My believing that they can stretch themselves helps them also to believe that they can. My goal is always a serene classroom, where I am the facilitator, not the dictator. The above strategies make this goal possible.”

-Harriet Whitehouse (34 years in education, 14 at St. Andrew’s)

“Through the years, the best strategy for me as a teacher has been setting clear, fair expectations for my students. Starting on the first day of school we work together to create an environment that is safe and caring, while also having clear boundaries and expectations. Once the students get into a routine, things run like a well-oiled machine. They come into the room knowing what will happen each day. When they children understand what is expected of them, it is so much easier for them to focus on their learning. Structured sounds like a stern, cold word. But, it really lends itself to a place where children know it is safe to make mistakes and have fun. Having a consistent day to day learning environment just lends itself to a place where learning will naturally take place.”

-Rachel Newman (20 years in education, 9 years at St. Andrew’s)

“It may seem a bit counter-intuitive, but the words “tried and true” may best apply to the teaching of History classes, while for Economics and Entrepreneurship classes the phrase “trial and error” may be more appropriate. In both scenarios, however, the challenge before us is the same – “Relevance.” In History classes we strive to make sense of the past, and more importantly to find that connection that is relevant to our present and our future. Rather than borrow the worn-out cliche’ about “those who fail to learn the lessons of the past…” I would instead offer that we cannot truly understand ourselves and our society in the present moment without an appreciation for the past that brought us to it. Nor can we imagine a clear vision for our future without an full understanding of who we are and where we’ve been before. I have been privileged to learn from and work with some of the best History teachers in the profession at the high school, college and post-graduate levels, and one trait they all share is their abilities as master story-tellers. Through stories and readings, discussions and role-play, we are able to imagine ourselves in another time and place in the hope of acquiring a better understanding of why people lived and behaved as they did, and benefit from the lessons they can teach us about ourselves and how we might best live in community. Economics and Entrepreneurship, on the other hand, invite us to imagine and seek out the relevance of something that has likely not yet been created. The focus is generally on a “problem” in the present, and the prospects for creating a “solution” in the not-too-distant future. The relevance here is not with the “tried and true,” but with the “trial and error” – making attempts at a “solution” that may succeed or fail, learning from those failures, and following up with further attempts. In both cases, it has been about meeting students where they are (although I will admit that the widening generation gap has posed some challenges) and tapping into their imaginations, curiosity and creativity. Being a life-long learner and also being willing to give up a reasonable amount of control is helpful. Look for readings or discussion prompts that generate interaction and critical analysis, or activities that require collaboration and group engagement.”

-Dan Roach (29 years in education, 23 years at St. Andrew’s)

“Since each student has a different learning style, I try to use different strategies to challenge students keeping their learning style in mind.”

-Christy Hardy (42 years in education; 31 years at St. Andrew’s)

“Always set the bar high in your classroom. Your kiddos will over achieve, or get extremely close. They will go where you lead them. Teach phonics everyday, starting the first day of school!!!!! (Specifically Heggerty!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) Always, include devotion in your daily morning meeting. Having that passion for teaching no matter what lesson it is forces you to bring out the best in every student. That passion is deep down within your soul and it oozes out whenever you are teaching. Children can feel it. They know. When you love what you do, it’s no longer a job. Everything becomes second nature.”

-Terri Turner (20 years in education, 20 years at St. Andrew’s)

“Finding multiple modes of communication and info sources to keep my curriculum fresh and engaging. I know if I’m bored, the kids will be too! Students learn more and better when we change up the routine.”

-Linda Rodriguez (26 years in education, 4 years at St. Andrew’s)

“It is not unusual for co-curricular teachers to teach 200 or more students each year. Learning the names of your students is challenging but necessary, as well as the necessity of addressing challenging behaviors in every class you teach. Introduce yourself to each student individually, and have them introduce themselves to you. Hearing a student say their own name is very helpful, and making sure every student knows each other’s name is essential. Name games are a wonderful tool, particularly when students return to in person learning. When circumstances allow, our classtime begins with “Yoo Hoo” being sung by me, using their name, and the students singing back with my name, giving us both an opportunity to greet each other by name. This gives me the added bonus of hearing their singing voices. It also makes our time together more curricular and less episodic. Establish your classroom rules and procedures from the very first day. Modeling how to sit or stand, or lineup or raise your hand, is not wasted time for young students. Allocating sufficient time and attention to the management of routines particular to your curriculum will streamline your teaching time moving forward. As the year progresses and we get to know each other, my students will frequently want to tell me things that are important to them. And then everyone will have a raised hand and a comment. “One Thing” is a tool I use to streamline this: beginning with the leader, I call on every student without the necessity of their raising their hand so they can each tell me “one thing.” Sometimes it is monumental (my mommy has a baby in her tummy); other times it is what they had for breakfast. I also tell them they can say “I don’t have anything to share today.” When this time is over, we can transition to our music time with everyone having had a chance to be recognized. Because it can be six days in between my classes, with the youngest students on campus, these activities encourage successful use of time for curriculum and enhancement of a relationship from the beginning of the school year. Co-curricular teachers don’t have the luxury of allocating time throughout the day to return to a topic, so management and procedures are critical to student success.”

-Susan Lawler (28 years in education, 28 years at St. Andrew’s)

What teaching advice would you give a new teacher entering the field in these unprecedented times?

“When you are addressing a student, think about the words and tone you would want someone to use when addressing your own child. That helps to put the situation in perspective.”

-Christy Hardy

“Have a plan A, B, C… and be flexible; always assessing the needs of your students. Model the level of expectation and behavior you wish your students to have. Be honest and fair in your feedback; don’t overpraise. Help your students see the big picture. Give them hope!”

-Nancy Rivas

“Be flexible. Most days don’t go like you planned and that’s okay.”

-Beth Peterson

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions or to offer suggestions. Let yourself be guided by your own imagination and creativity. Time is both your friend and your adversary, because you will never be able to create more than will be absorbed by the time you have available. Yet you may find yourself wishing for more time at the end to do those things you did not get around to doing.”

-Dan Roach

“I would tell them they are going to mess up. I certainly did. Everyone does. It is ok. Also, you will try things that do not work that you think are great. Also, simple is better.”

-Carolyn Wilmesherr

“Let your lesson plans take a backseat when the moment requires it. Take the verbal and non-verbal clues of your students as your guide to listen and answer a question, or comment reassuringly and with confidence that everything really will be OK. One particular blessing of being at St. Andrew’s is that we can pray with our classes when we need to. When the situation presents itself, we can stop and ask God to be with someone we can’t be with, because prayer goes where we can’t go.”

-Susan Lawler

“It’s okay not to know how to do everything. Be willing to fail and try again. You don’t have to have all the answers. You can learn a lot from your students. Run ideas by your colleagues – let them help. Communicating with parents is a good thing – don’t be afraid. Your students must trust you and know that you care about them – let them in. Be a team player.”

-Hannah King

“Do not be afraid to look silly! Young children respond to a teacher having fun in their craft! Also, I cannot over state how much the relationship between families and teachers are key to the success of your school year. Once that trust is established, great learning can be achieved!”

-Lea Crongeyer

“Above all else, follow common sense. Common sense works better than any educational strategy. Also, follow your heart and your passion, because heart and passion will outshine any restrictions imposed by these unprecedented times. They are what makes one real.”

-Harriet Whitehouse

“There will always be winds of change in any school environment. Hold on to what you know to be good and true about teaching but also be able to adapt and grow along with trends and research.”

-Taylor Davis

“Over plan! Over plan! Over plan! Have at least 1 breakout room activity in each lesson. Try to ensure that everyone is engaged, whether in person or virtual.”

-Linda Rodriguez

“Be consistent where you can. This year, as we have been learning at school some days and at home others, the children have adapted well because my expectations have been consistent in both formats. Something as simple as keeping the same schedule and doing the same routines has helped them transition from school to home and back again with very few mishaps.”

-Rachel Newman

“Stay organized and plan each class to the minute, HOWEVER be flexible to deviate from each class plan using student interest to provide a foundation for engagement. Also, make sure to “critical thinking” questions; regardless of age / level, students should be tackling higher thinking open-ended questions.”

-Andrew Cohen

“1. Give all your energy, your love, your knowledge, your happiness, your enthusiasm, your silliness, and your smile to your kiddos. Your children will reciprocate. This makes for a happy and healthy class. 2. Never stop learning. Share, get new ideas from others, and read, read, read. 3. Consistency is key!!!!!”

-Terri Turner

“This is a tough one. I use to could answer this so easily but not so today. Parents are constantly evolving and trying to stay on the cutting edge with them is difficult at best. If I had to offer one bit of advice it would be know who you are working with, kids/parents.”

-Burney King

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