Lessons Learned

Our second annual teacher roundup asks local educators to share their best takeaways.

Megan Dennis

Kindergarten teacher, Spring Hill Elementary School, McLean

Years teaching: Six

– Kindergarten is a year of rapid growth. They come in as babies. By the end of the year, some don’t even look like the same people anymore.

– Nothing is boring to them. It’s all in how you phrase it. I sing a lot. If we’re going to the rug, I sing that we’re going to the rug, and it’s the most exciting thing they’ve ever done!

– Being a kindergarten teacher is like being on stage. The kids are your biggest fans, but they’re also your biggest critics. One day I wore a new pair of polka-dot pants and a boy said, “Ms. Dennis, are teachers allowed to wear their pajamas to school?”

– When I first started teaching, I thought I knew exactly what I was going to do. I had a plan. Then I got to the classroom and realized I didn’t know anything.

– When a child misbehaves, I try to channel that energy in a positive direction. For example, I may appoint him or her to be my messenger and deliver a note to another part of the school with a buddy. I might not really need to send a note, but sometimes kids need a purpose.

– When I was in school, I misbehaved a lot. The principal had to call my parents often. I keep that in mind with my students today. I try not to single them out and make them feel they’re bad. At this age, a lot of them really cannot help it.

– Why a 5-year-old would feel the need to tell their teacher that their dad sleeps naked is beyond me, but I’ve realized that I have to be prepared to talk about anything and everything.

– When I only had the kids for a half-day, I only saw their best side. Now that we have full-day kindergarten, I see it all—the good, bad and the ugly. Especially by the time 3 o’clock rolls around.

– In kindergarten, we’re not just teaching kids how to read and write. We’re also teaching them that they have to sit on the rug at the assigned time and listen to other people—that they are part of a community.

Photos by Erick GibsonKia Quander

Eighth-grade teacher, Interlude program for students with emotional disabilities, Gunston Middle School, Arlington

Years teaching: 12

– I used to work in a correctional facility—a prison. It was mostly young men. Many told me that middle school was the time when they made the decision about which way they were going to go in life. So I decided I wanted to teach middle school, to help get kids on the right track.

– Every day is a challenge. You never know what you’re going to get.

– Bad behaviors emerge when kids are struggling academically. When I can find out where they are—what they need to relearn and what I need to reteach—they don’t act out anymore. One boy wrote in his journal, “I like doing homework now.” That’s heaven to me.

– Kids need to have genuine success every day.

– One of my favorite things to say to students is “Prove your point.” That’s part of their education. They need to be able to explain not just that they got the answer, but how they got the answer.

– I understand that not everyone has perfect support at home. But you know what? Chances are that same problem is going to be there next week and the week after that. We all have to work to get past our problems and keep going.

– When a student says, “I’m stuck,” I ask, “Well, you’re stuck how? You’ve got to let me know what you’re stuck on so we can figure it out.” It’s all about life and decision-making. What happens to you if you get stuck in real life? You can’t just hit the brakes and quit. Same thing at school.

– I don’t tell kids what to be in life. I only advise them to be the best at whatever they choose to do, even if that’s flipping burgers. When you go to a restaurant, do you want to get the person who flips your burger, drops it on the floor, and then says it’s OK and puts it back on the grill? No. You want the best burger-flipper helping you.

– I realize my students are not going to turn to me right now and say, “You’re doing a good job, Ms. Quander! Thank you for being so strict on me! I know it will help me later!” But I like to think that even if they are not making the best decisions now, they might one day remember something I said and it’ll help them choose the right way to go. There was one student who came back to see me. She said, “Ms. Quander, I hear you on my shoulder sometimes!”

Photos by Erick GibsonMikey Samayoa

Fifth-grade teacher and soccer coach, Francis Scott Key Elementary School, Arlington

Years teaching: Five

– Every job I’ve ever loved has involved kids—whether it was camp counselor, babysitting, tutoring or coaching soccer. I’m a big kid at heart.

– Fifth grade should be the year that kids never forget. They’re at the top of elementary school. The teacher’s role is not just to prepare them academically for middle school but also to help them become self-confident, focused and ready to roll with the punches. Because middle school is a big change.

– My kids call me Mikey. It started with my last name being way too hard to pronounce. Plus, Mikey just fits me better.

– I push the shy kids to sing or talk out loud. I tell them, “Even if you felt like a goofball, you at least gave it a shot.” I feel there’s a lot of learning that happens when you make a mistake.

– A lot of kids today are stressed out and do way more in a day than any of us did—especially those who have six after-school activities, and sports, and drama, and instruments, and are trying to make travel team or championships. They’re definitely living in a faster, bigger life than we ever did. I can’t imagine how hard it must be for some of them.

– As repetitive as the “teamwork” slogan may sound, it’s true. And it’s how I coach. It’s getting kids, getting players, getting human beings to be part of something bigger than themselves and to stop worrying about how many goals they’ve scored. A player doesn’t score a goal; a team does.

Photos by Erick GibsonJina Davidson

Photography and art history teacher, Wakefield High School, Arlington

Years teaching: 20

– You don’t have to be artistic to appreciate art. The only requirement for my class is that you have eyes.

– A good assignment challenges students to view the world differently. I sent them out to find circles in nature and shoot them. Now everything they see is a circle.

– Art history is everywhere—even in pop culture. Kids who study great works of art come to realize that the entire world is full of little inside jokes. They get the parodies and the literary references. Art is part of our cultural language.

– My first year of teaching, I was worried about being perceived as a serious teacher, so I was strict and overzealous. My class was perfectly quiet and orderly, but boring. Then one day, while carrying a huge box of markers out of the supply closet, I tripped and landed face-down, spread-eagle on the floor. You could have heard a pin drop. After what seemed like an eternity, the entire class, including myself, erupted in laughter. We laughed until our sides hurt. Then something magical happened. The dam of seriousness I had built around me crumbled and I was free to be the teacher I had always wanted to be. I realized that to be a better teacher, I shouldn’t pretend to be someone I’m not. Unfortunately that was not the only time I revealed my inherent clumsiness to my students, but the clumsier I was, weirdly enough, the closer my students and I became to each other.

– As a society, we place a premium on visual media—be it movies or advertising or the Internet. So why is arts education so often seen as an elective?

– There are no bad subjects. It’s the skill of the photographer that makes it art.

– Teaching teenagers, I learn new slang every day. I say, “All right, I’m old. What does that mean? And can I use it in a sentence without sounding stupid?”

– Students’ personalities show through in the way they take their pictures.

– If kids know you care about them, they will work for you. I always care about these kids. Twenty years has never extinguished that.

Photos by Erick GibsonRory Dippold

Seventh-grade economics and civics teacher, Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School, Falls Church

Years teaching: 10

– Kids want to know three things at the start of the year: Who’s teaching me? What are we going to be doing? And who else is in the class? I try to get all those questions answered in the first 15 minutes.

– I wasn’t a very inspired student. I remember we had lots of textbooks, and the teachers did the same thing every year. That’s why I have so much interest in real-world connections.

– I’m a big believer in project-based learning. My students form political parties and hold elections; find problems with their school or community and devise policies to fix them; and create businesses and sell products to fifth-graders for “Dippold dollars.” They also hold a mock trial.

– The premise of project-based learning is that the project is not an add-on to the curriculum. It is the curriculum, and it’s student-driven. It is more engaging, more like real life than learning from a textbook.

– I think, at this age, kids are just interested in figuring out where they fit into the world. They have an interest in making a difference and learning what they can do.

– Why shouldn’t middle school students tackle challenges like creating and running a business, making a budget or marketing a product? These are problems that adults try to work through every day. It’s interesting to see how students’ perspectives change when they do this. They say, “Wow, it’s a lot of work.” They leave my class with a new understanding of what their parents do.

– We now have breakfast in the cafeteria because of the students. We have a salad bar. We have a welcome committee. In the past, only the guidance counselors greeted the newest class of incoming students to the school. Now we have organized, student-led tours. This is all from student ideas.

– Every year, my students present their projects to local civic leaders. It’s neat to see how their confidence improves. One student wrote to me, “I never felt that I could present in front of adults—and that they would listen to me.” It was very powerful.

Photos by Erick GibsonKaren Allen Ready

Third-grade teacher, Nottingham Elementary School, Arlington

Years teaching: 25

– Your day may turn out to be something completely different than what you had planned, but a lot of times that completely different experience turns out to be completely fabulous.

– I have a favorite poster. It says, “Everyone’s a reader; some just haven’t found their favorite book yet.”

– When I was a student at Gunston Middle School, I was asked to demonstrate a “mime-slap” with my drama teacher, Ms. Cochran.  I was so excited to be called to the front of the class that I didn’t listen carefully to her directions.  I actually slapped her—at which point she stepped back, took a deep breath and told me that if I ever slapped her again I would fail her class. I got it right the next time. Listening to directions is important. So is picking yourself back up after you mess up.

– I long for the days when teachers decided the order in which things were taught—when we could enrich lessons with our own experiences. I think that’s what makes the units that I teach on ancient Greece and ancient Rome so much more meaningful to my students. I can say, “Did you know that in Pompeii there are little white stones between the larger stones that act as reflectors of the moon, the same way the highway reflectors work?”

– You know you’ve been teaching a long time in the same area when your public appearances are treated like celebrity sightings. My husband says going out to dinner with me is like dating a rock star.

– I tell parents, “If they forget their homework, leave it at home.” Don’t bring it in for them. Let them experience the consequences. Let them learn from those mistakes.

– I was probably destined to teach because I loved school so much. Listening to my teachers read transported me to another place. I actually called my third-grade teacher, Ms. Sterner [from Oakridge Elementary], when I got my first teaching job!

L. Carol Ritchie is a freelance writer in Arlington.

Categories: Parents & Kids