During TEACHER APPRECIATION WEEK this week, we sprinkled some love on our kiddos' pre-school teachers. Elsa and Cece made so much progress this year, thanks to these amazing ladies.
We put little bags of cookies in the teachers' goodie bags... PS: THIS RECIPE! The best cookie ever. Family fave. And sort of healthy?! I tell myself they are. Peanut butter, oatmeal, chia, flax, apple cider vinegar, coconut oil. No eggs or butter. But... chocolate chips and copious amounts of brown sugar.
I have a pretty basic view of what makes a good teacher. They have to love kids and be committed to seeing them grow. They have to adapt along the way when something isn't going in the right direction. And open communication is a must.
But for a more complete, complex look at what makes a great teacher, I went to an expert.
Meet Colleen Schmit, my funny, energetic, sunny and frank friend from Omaha, NE. Our husbands went through high school (and many adolescent shenanigans) together. So that's how I was able to steal Colleen and make her my friend.
Colleen is a TEACHER turned AUTHOR and child development ADVISOR. Her journey returning to joy in her education career is so interesting! I know you teachers out there will relate. Here's a bit, in her words:
When I began teaching kindergarten at the age of 23, I had a LOT of joy in my job. Life was fun, and teaching was scary but so enjoyable. I made time to build authentic relationships with my students. I allowed time for the kids to talk. They could sit on the carpet however they chose, center time was long and meaningful, and my assessments mainly consisted of anecdotal notes on each individual student. They were learning how to enjoy learning, and I was learning how to enjoy teaching.
Fast forward eight years later, and I was on a fast track for turning into a crusty old lady. I still loved my kids, but my focus as a teacher had shifted. My expectations had become very rigid and unreasonable for five year olds. I consistently requested that they sit crisscross applesauce and give me full attention while I aired “The Teacher Show.” I am sure you have seen this show before. On the “The Teacher Show,” teacher controls the lesson, teacher does most the talking, teacher decides what we learn and how fast we do it. Teacher is the ultimate focus.
This show sucks. Literally. It sucked the joy right out of my job. I had to cancel this show. I knew I needed to take a break, and thankfully I could do so by finding a job still in the field of education but one that would allow me time to reflect on my practices, recharge my batteries, and rekindle my love for teaching.
So for the past five years, Colleen has worked in the department of Child Development at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. And she published the book, Crisscross Applesauce and Shut the H*ll Up: 10 Reflective Lessons for New and Seasoned Teachers, through her own Four Monkeys Press. Here are Colleen's four monkeys!
If your child has a great teacher in his or her life, you'll recognize some of the characteristics on Colleen's list of the top 5 Qualities of Awesome Teachers. Note, she's talking primarily to teachers here! But it's great information for parents, too:
1. Fun Relationship Builder: The key factor to achieving student success in your classroom is to get them to love learning. Guess how you do that? Let them know you like them. Show them you care. Building authentic relationships with your kiddos will help to increase their learning outcomes. Promise. And you have to be having fun, too. If you aren’t liking what you’re doing, how are the kids going to enjoy it? Be nice! Smile! Laugh! Compliment your kids as a group and as individuals. Not every day in your classroom is sunshine and lollipops, but YOU are ultimately the one who sets the climate.
2. Collaborator, not a Competitor: The world of education is a high-stakes environment. We are constantly comparing ourselves to other teachers, schools, districts, states, countries, etc. Barf. We compare not only our students’ scores and demographics, but we compete on silly things too (e.g. prettiest bulletin board, who works the latest, who comes in the earliest, who has the nicest handwriting, who is the principal’s favorite). We cannot waste time comparing. Just worry about you and your students. Now I am not suggesting that you teach in isolation. That is a scary thing! We need to have our crew of teacher bffs that help to lift us up and help us to remain somewhat sane. To form a collaborative environment in a school, you must refrain from mean girl mentality. Stay away from Regina George, and do not let her rule the school. Build on each other’s strengths, share your great lessons, be willing to help each other out! Competition is about me. Collaboration is about us.
3. Creative Thinker: With the demands of all the standardized assessments (that are so sadly a part of our world) comes something scary: cookie cutter thinkers. There are many schools where teachers are reading scripts from basals as their main teaching format. Holy Toledo, we are going to miss out on a lot of cool, innovative things if we continue down this path of monotony and teaching to the test. You could have the next Nobel Peace Prize Winner in your third-grade classroom. What a disservice to the world if all that future Nobel Winner can do in your classroom is worksheets and listen to lectures. We MUST nurture the creative spark that is inside every single one of our kids. Don't let the silly tests steal your joy. Promote creative thinking in your classroom.
4. Recharged Reflector: Too often as a teacher, I felt like my head was just above the water’s surface. I never had the time to stop and think about what I was doing. Make reflection a part of your regime. Since leaving the classroom and writing a reflecting book, I have learned so much about what I wish I would have done my first time as an educator. Reflection is so vital to growth. Probably the biggest quality of a happy and effective teachers is their ability to recharge their batteries. We must take care of ourselves. As teachers, this is something that is missing in a lot of folks’ lives. The balance between work and home is a killer. It is what ultimately drove me out of the profession. I wanted to be everything to my students and my own children. I did so at the expense of taking care of myself. Happy teachers have a balance. They know the importance of securing their own oxygen mask before reaching for the mask of the small child (or children in this case). Take the time to find your joy daily. Something little is all it takes.
5. Parent Partner: In How To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee writes, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it." Boy, does that quote apply to working with your students’ families. When I was teaching, 90 percent of the school's students qualified for free/reduced lunch, and 88 percent were labeled as English Language Learners. Most of my families were from Mexico or Central America. It always shocked me how some of the parents were so nervous at conferences or when coming to our classroom. I never considered that many of these parents may have had negative experiences in school. As teachers, we need to consider families' experiences. One of my favorite ways to promote partnership with parents was home visits with families. It was an instant step in the right direction of building an authentic relationship. You can learn so much about a child by visiting their home environment. If you have never done home visits (for a positive reason), I highly encourage it! If this isn't something you're comfortable doing, there are hundreds of other ways. Just make sure you are doing something. You will need parents on your team.
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Colleen Schmit is the author of Crisscross Applesauce and Shut the H*ll Up: 10 Reflective Lessons for New and Seasoned Teachers. Colleen delivers professional development to help teachers reflect on their current teaching practices, recharge their batteries, and rekindle their love for teaching. Colleen earned her master’s in early childhood education at Concordia University, and began her career as an educator of young children in Omaha. Today, she is a bilingual program evaluator at the Munroe-Meyer Institute at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and is a pre-K CLASS trainer through Teachstone. Collen and her husband, Bob, enjoy spending time playing with their kiddos and eating lots of pizza.