Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Teaching in a Place Like Mayberry

Andy Griffith was one of my favorite shows when I was growing up. Little did I know, I would end up working at an elementary school in a town like Mayberry for most of my career. 

As I return to teaching after my brief year of retirement, I've been contemplating what a blessing it is to teach in Utah's own little Mayberry. Remember Opie's teacher, Miss Crump? 

Helen Crump's got nothing on me. Well, okay, she may have been dating the sheriff of Mayberry, but I feel like I live in a rural paradise, where everybody knows my name, and I feel like I have the respect a teacher deserves here. The parents and community are so supportive of our elementary school, which makes my job as a teacher so much easier.

If it takes a village to raise a child, you better have a lot of willing villagers if you're trying to teach a whole class full of children. Lucky for me, I had the best village of all, a down-home place like Mayberry, as I took on the task of teaching my fifth graders.

Did I mention I had 35 students my last year? Did I tell you that as the inclusion teacher, I had three children who were mainstreamed into my classroom through the special needs program? Did you know one of my sweeties was battling glaucoma at the tender age of ten, and was learning Braille to help her adjust as her eyesight worsened? Did I tell you that I had several of the smartest kids I've ever taught?
Adia and I showing off our leopard spots.  She is learning
Braille so she can continue her love of reading later in life.
I laugh as I read articles about the inclusion of special needs children with "typical children." Typical covers the gamut, I guess. Any regular ed classroom is filled with "typical" children, meaning, any child who isn't covered in the special needs program.  In any given mix, a teacher is going to have children who are unmotivated, dyslexic, learning disabled, emotionally troubled, neglected, shy, gifted, athletic, and, if we're lucky, a few who are simply healthy, happy, and well-rounded.

Our challenge is meeting all of our students' needs, and helping them all to progress from where they are academically to the next level.  No child left behind? With this big bunch, any day was a good day when I got all of their names straight, and remembered who the leader was. There were some days I was so busy teaching children, the curriculum may have not been my biggest priority.

Adam and Mrs. V
I believe it does take a village to raise a child. We had so many good people in our village to help us succeed last year. I could never have done my job without the many adults who were involved in our classroom.  

First, and foremost, I would like to thank my special needs assistants. These paraprofessionals were my lifeline when days were chaotic. Our liaison with the Utah School for the Blind made sure that Adia had worksheets and textbooks with print that was large enough for her to read. My fifth grade team was so supportive of what we were trying to do with maximum inclusion. They each willingly taught science to my class without an instructional assistant so our dear assistants could have a lunch break. 

Every teacher needs a parent like Becky!
The parents of this group of children were phenomenal. We were linked by email and texts. If I ever needed anything, I would send out a quick message, and I always received the help and supplies I needed. (BIG TIP FOR TEACHERS: Collect parent emails at the beginning of the year, and send class emails whenever you need to update families or send reminders.) There was never a shortage of parent volunteers with this class.

One mother in particular, Becky, made it possible for me to attend planning meetings with my team by teaching wonderful hands-on art lessons to my large class. One day each month, my room was filled with the fresh scent of citrus, classical music, and an energetic art teacher who wanted to get my kids excited about the arts. I couldn't have had better support from the administration, my team, and the children's parents.

The biggest blessing I had in our little village was the children in our classroom. These kids supported one another in ways that made teaching such a large group manageable.  In a class this size, just like in a large family, there were those who took on the roles of mentors, peer tutors, and big brothers and sisters.

One of Seth's goals was to complete a worksheet, copying his numbers from 1-50.  Mrs. V and I weren't having much success getting him motivated to look at it, let alone complete it. Nash offered to take him out in the hall where it was less distracting, and help him get it done.  I honestly got busy and forgot my boys were even out there, when Mrs. Anderson came in laughing.  

"Do you know how amazing that Nash is? He is out there singing the numbers to Seth while Seth writes them down. He's singing, 'You just wrote a tweeeenty. Now you're gonna write a twenty-ooo-oone. Twenty-one...twenty-one...you're writing a twenty-one. Good job.  After twenty-one, you're gonna write a twenty-two...'"

The day that Seth finished the whole paper was a BIG DEAL. Finally, in January of his fifth grade year, he completed an entire worksheet. The whole class cheered and clapped when we found out he had accomplished his goal. The next day, he and I celebrated the way we do in fifth grade when the kids pass of their big math goal;  we went to Bullies across the street for a treat.

At the beginning of the year, I just paid for a whole class's worth of milkshakes so I could take a small group over each month to celebrate their accomplishments without worrying about cash. There was only one problem. Seth didn't like milkshakes, but he DID like funnel fries. I called in my order like I always did, early in the morning when they were busy prepping for their lunch crowd.

"Bullies."  I recognized the voice right away.

"Cassie, it's Mrs. Jackson.  I have a student who doesn't want a milk shake.  Could I get funnel fries instead?"

"Is this for Seth?"

"Yes, it is!"

"We'd be happy to make some funnel fries for Seth!"  You just gotta love small town service.

Brandy Schaugaard, the owner of Bullies, was another key person in our village. Every month when I took my students to her locally-owned fast food restaurant, she would always make a big deal out of the kids, and praise them for being so smart.  She would take a picture of us all together before we walked back to school. Bullies doesn't open until 11 for lunch, but she was always happy to unlock the doors for us at 10:15 so we could come during our morning recess. I loved the special treatment Brandy always gave us.

If you can't picture what it's like to live in this little paradise, just imagine Opie, Aunt Bea and Andy Taylor in Mayberry. That's just a glimpse of the kind of village we have here.  I count myself lucky to be a teacher in such a wonderful place with such wonderful people.

To read more about these amazing kids, and what made the difference in this exceptional year,  check out:  The Secret of the Best School Year Ever. If you've never tried Morning Meetings with your class, I highly recommend them!
I wish this were not so blurry, but the thing that is so clear to see in this picture is
how comfortable Adam is with Mrs. Anderson.


  1. What a year! And what a group of special students! Your writing captures the tender moments, beautifully. Thank you for sharing, Denise!

    1. Last year was a crowning moment, for sure!

  2. I was one of the smart ones....(Love, Talmage).

    Boy, after reading this I really thought he was going to say something profound---I guess he did :)

  3. i wish that you could still teacher our grade still. We will never forget how funny you were... if we look at the 5th grade picture with you in the corner with the fake teeth. I hope i can still be in the same classes as Seth; me and him are tight. (Talmage)


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