Conferences…and an Outstanding Teacher!

It is not my policy to write about the teachers that my sons have from year to year, at least not specifically. There are times, however, when my thoughts are, of course, informed by what my sons and their classmates are experiencing throughout the year, and I write about them in a collective way, with generalities and take away thinking that comes from the conversations and contexts. There is too much at stake when it is your own child, and, try as I may to be as even handed in my praise or my critique of teachers, when it comes to my own children…well, they are my children and I am only human. So, typically, I avoid writing about people that are in charge of a large chunk of their day.

Today, I need to step away from that practice, and highlight one of my son’s teachers, as I think she deserves to be honored for who she is and what she does so naturally. Additionally, I believe she embodies what I try to describe many times throughout my posts as what I would hope teachers would strive for daily in their work with kids. It is because of this, I want to write about her today, and share her example with you.

I am not telling her beforehand, nor asking if she is OK with me doing this, so for the purpose of this post, we will call her Mrs. W. Maybe, after reading this post, she’ll agree to me letting you know her by name. 😉

It is conference time where we live. It is a time that hopefully teachers are sharing good things with parents, and forging forward together as a team to meet the needs of individual learners. It has been my experience, both as a parent, as well as a professional, that conferences can be wonderful or frustrating experiences, and I have written before about why that may be the case.

This week, I met for the first time one on one with my nine year old son’s fourth grade teacher, Mrs. W. I have gotten to know her a little since moving to this school last year, through committee meetings, school activities, and places where you would typically get to know a teacher. More than that, I have heard parents talk about her in such glowing ways about how she teaches, and how much their son or daughter loved having her…also the ways you get to “know” a teacher as a parent in a school community. When I found out my son would be lucky enough to have her, I was thrilled.

Typically, I get involved in the classrooms that my sons are in, in large part due to my love of being in school settings and teaching kids. This year, partly by choice and partly by circumstance, I am not in their classes as much. My middle-schoolers, well…suffice it to say that they are happy that I am otherwise occupied while they do their thing independently. My fourth grader, he still loves to have me around, but has been having the year of his life, and doesn’t miss me much. It is a bittersweet thing…

Going into the meeting, you should know that I didn’t have any trepidation or anxiety about my son academically. Everything thus far this year (as well as in years past) has led me to believe that he is doing well, is doing what a fourth grader should, and that everything was copasetic academically. This son is my third of three boys, and although he is nine, he is going on 25 in many ways. Resilient, even-keeled, charismatic and creative, he is a joy to be around most days…at least that is what his mother thinks. 😉

This year, there have been times where I have become keenly aware of his gift of gab, his ability to be a class clown, and his desire to stretch himself socially. That is a nice way of describing the “new” him that he has chosen to exhibit in school this year. He has always had these gifts, but he has always known when it is appropriate to display them, and when it is less so to be the little monkey that he truly is. This year, the second year in a new school, it would appear that he is branching out a bit and testing the waters. Perhaps it is maturity and him growing older, perhaps it is comfort in his new setting, but either way – he is downright chatty. Let’s just call it like it is. I just can’t for the life of me figure out where he gets that from…..hmmm….

If there was one thing I was nervous going into this meeting about, it was whether or not my son was driving this highly skilled professional crazy! The good news and happy ending is that no, he is not. Instead, what I heard from Mrs. W’s mouth was a complete understanding of him as a person, which is exactly why I am writing this post in honor of her.

Mrs. W is the embodiment of what I try to describe when I am doing professional development across districts and schools, or when I am in IEP meetings with parents and service providers. She is a person who understands the whole child. I would be hard pressed to describe a student that wouldn’t fit into this teacher’s class in a successful way. The reason for that is because she truly “gets it”. She understands children for who they are as learners in her classroom, as well as whom they are within their families and communities.

That is something that I write and talk about constantly, trying to get teachers and parents to understand. It is a way of approaching the profession and the development of children that is not necessarily intuitive as far as I can tell throughout my experiences. Rather, it is a true gift.

Thinking of the students that you have as a whole, not just the person you see day in and day out in that classroom…but also all of the other aspects that make that person unique and who they are, involves thinking in terms of the students as a son or daughter, brother or sister, neighbor or friend. You would think it would be commonplace, but it isn’t. Many teachers can talk about it in these ways successfully, and even parents can many times “get it” for their own child, but it is difficult to see every child through this lens, and teach according to that belief.

What does this look like, specifically, in Mrs. W’s case? It looks like a classroom with structures in place that the students can depend on. Not only is this use of agenda books, or time for them to get organized coming and going out of class, nor is it just in her behavioral guidelines, expectations and consequences. It is all of that and much more. Her class is a place where kids can try new things, a place where she doesn’t give all of the answers, and doesn’t expect them to have them either. Her class is a place for kids to explore, learn and thrive, no matter what needs they have.

For my son, it is a place where he can be chatty, not too chatty, but chatty nonetheless. She explained to me that she has figured out that he needs to be chatty to be successful. She has watched the patterns he exhibits that when he is talking, it is a way for him to regain focus – to take a break, and then re-engage in the work at hand. She has noticed he moves his feet and bangs them inside his chair while he is writing, keeping his mouth shut, but his legs moving while he writes (which, by the way, is not his favorite thing to do at all). She has figured out that he only comes to her with questions after he has truly given it a lot of thought, so she answers his questions immediately versus sending him back to his seat (something she also described that she reacts differently to for kids in her class that ask first, think second). She explained that she watches him as he sits and reads a word problem or passage in a book, he deeply thinks about what he is doing before attempting it. She understands that sometimes, as a nine year old boy, he wants to be done first, not necessarily best, and she has figured out a way to ask him to try again without him feeling down on himself or the quality of his work. She explained to me that as a teammate on the number of sports teams she knows he participates in, that being done first is sometimes the goal, so she understands this need to hand things in quickly, but she tries to explain to him how school work is different than baseball or basketball in these ways. She detailed to me how it is that she goes around the room and checks in with students and that many times my son sits and stares at the work – seemingly “stuck”. She doesn’t swoop in and offer support, or direction, or answers. She simply asks him if he is ready for a clue or needs anything. He usually says, “No, I am good for now”…and he continues to sit, thinking, sometimes hitting his feet on the chair. She told me that when he comes to her desk to ask her a clarifying question – it is because he is ready for her help, and he has given it his best shot. She knows this not only because she knows him, not only because she knows how kids learn, but something deeper…which is why I need to tell you about it.

You see, as she explained all of these ways she sees him throughout the day, doing his work and trying his best, she also told me of the things he needs to work on. Specific things that she isn’t willing to just wait and see or watch him struggle with, for example double digit multiplication, or writing essays without rushing. It was wonderful when she said, “Oh, wouldn’t it be absolutely LOVELY if we could get him to write down all of those things he is talking about on paper!?” She knows when to let a kid be a kid, as well as where the pitfalls and red flags are that we need to watch out for in order to allow these learners to continue on their paths in their own way. She individualizes everything, in a seemingly effortless way.

I loved when she tried to describe to me, with her hands cupped in front of her, how delightful she finds my son, while at the same time talking about how he needs to grow in the ways that she expects. She told me that she hears the stories he tells of who we are as a family, and can only imagine who he is to us. He is “Smiley” to Grandma and Grandpa, dear one to Dad and me, bothersome and fabulous to brothers, a good friend to all. She gets him.

She knows the intensity and commitment he has in all of the various aspects of his life, whether he is on a team playing sports, or he is one on one helping a friend with something in class, or as an individual learner with great strengths and room to grow academically. This kind of teaching does not come around all of the time. That is why I needed to write about it.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could get him to write down all of his thoughts that come out of his mouth? Yes, absolutely. But wouldn’t it be equally as lovely if we could bottle up what Mrs. W has and sell it on street corners for all teachers to be this way?

She is a leader, a learner, and a teacher. She watches, listens, interprets and frames what she knows about students in ways that show her depth of understanding of individuals and the profession of teaching. I wrote before, I would be hard pressed to give an example of a student that couldn’t be successful in her class. She has a high level of understanding and even higher level of expectations and desires for growth for each and every child under her care. Individualized instruction, based on years of professional experience, but fresh new eyes for every learner, every day.

Kudos to you, Mrs. W! I can’t wait for the remainder of this school year, and all it will bring! I just hope it doesn’t go by too quickly. I love who my son is as a learner when he is with you.

3 thoughts on “Conferences…and an Outstanding Teacher!

  1. Barb Davis

    What a great image of strength, understanding, imagination and action. You have one lucky son to be so nurtured by such a wonderfully skilled and sensitive teaching professional. Congrats to Mrs. W!

    1. Jennifer Sommerness Post author

      Barb, she is a stand out! You would LOVE her! 😉

      I am not only happy for him learning with her, but also that I can learn from her and share with others.

      Especially in a time where teachers are not always celebrated for the work they do, the knowledge they have, and the heart they teach with – I wanted to showcase a fabulous example of how this wonderful profession can be done!


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