The elementary school site where Ms. L teaches serves a predominantly Latino population and English is the second language for most of these students. The instructional staff consists of twenty fully credentialed teachers. This elementary school has been on program improvement status since 2001 due to low standardized test scores.
When questioning the staff at my school site as to what teacher would be considered exemplary in terms of their contributions to student learning, one instructor (Ms. L) was suggested by nearly all of the instructors that I approached. Ms. L has been working in education for thirty-one years and has held a variety of positions including working as an Academic Coach for English Language Arts, a Special Education and Resource Instructor for 18 years, as well as a first and second grade classroom teacher. Most of Ms. L's experience has been within the this one district, but she began her career as an educator within the Central Valley of California after completing a credential program at a local State University campus. Ms. L identifies herself as White (Not Hispanic) and does not speak Spanish, yet she has primarily worked with a population of students that are English language learners (ELLs) throughout her career. When asked if her lack of Spanish speaking ability hindered her effectiveness as a teacher, she responded that at times, abstract concepts were much more difficult to teach to ELL students, however most of the subject matter in the first and second grades was more concrete and as long as she utilized sheltered instructional strategies, most students were able to understand the subject matter.
When considering her professional philosophy, Ms. L stated that she believes all students have the ability to learn whatever their ability level is, whether this is physically imposed as a result of a learning disability, or where this is defined by scores on standardized tests that have been completed. Ms. L strongly believes that it is the responsibility of each teacher to motivate and engage every student in their class in an effort to create meaningful opportunities for learning. It is the purpose of public education, according to Ms. L, to create a desire within students to pursue life-long learning.
The set-up of Ms. L's classroom reflects this belief. With an emphasis on safety and 'educational flow' as she calls it, she has endeavored to create a learning environment that is accessible and functional. Students are grouped in sets of four and share a desk with one other 'elbow partner.' This set-up allows for multiple opportunities for peer interaction throughout the day's lessons. Additionally, there are two separate 'story areas' where the class can gather together and work as a larger group.
As Ms. L currently teaches a first grade glass, literacy is a major focus of her room. Many children's books are set-up around the room and accessible to all students to use throughout the day. In addition to the children's books throughout the room, each table grouping has a set of leveled-reading books that all students can use during instruction, or 'check-out' and take home to read with their families. The alphabet and a number line are displayed prominently along two walls of the room and an entire corner next to the story area is devoted to phonics and phonemic awareness instruction with large books, pocket charts with letter cards and word sort cards. All classroom materials are kept within locked cabinets and storage bins stacked along the walls.
In considering the standardized instruction required by her elementary school's program improvement status, Ms. L stated that it is increasingly difficult to connect with students individually and tailor instruction to their needs. While she feels that the quality of the scripted curriculum has improved over the years that she has been a teacher, the pacing of such curriculum is prohibits appropriate student intervention. This typically creates a situation where lower performing students are referred to special intervention programs outside of the normal classroom with a district coach in order to address special needs. This contributes to a lack of personal connection within the classroom between the student and the teacher.
Despite the challenges faced by standardized tests and curriculum, Ms. L has managed to stay enthusiastic about primary education and her role as a teacher. This positive attitude is reflected in Ms. L's demeanor and kind manner with which she communicates with all of the students, within her class and out on the playground. Ms. L maintains this enthusiasm by continually taking advantage of district professional development opportunities to not only learn new teaching strategies, but to also share her experience with other teachers. Having co-teachers and student teachers within her classroom, as well as her involvement as a support provider for the California Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment (BTSA) Induction Program, helps to keep her energy level up, as well as pass on her love of teaching to a younger generation.
In reflecting on my conversation with Ms. L, I find that despite the many challenges teachers are facing currently within the California public school system, the focus must remain entirely on the students within your classroom. Enthusiasm has to be drawn from within yourself, as well as from those that share a love of learning and want to pass this on to a younger generation of students. There will continue to be changes in the way that the state or certain districts mandate what and how our students should be taught, but it is up to each teacher to strive to ensure that the material taught within their classroom is accessible, relevant and meaningful.