Elementary students from across Crawford County woke up bright and early to go to their first day of school last week.
Unbeknownst to the students, weeks before school started area teachers began making the final changes for their class and preparing a welcoming environment for their students.
Missy Brynds, R.V. Haderlein Elementary first grade teacher, always knew she wanted to be a teacher. She has taught at the Girard School District for approximately nine years and has taught at another district prior for 10 years. Over the years Brynds has taught the youngest students in school, kindergarteners and first graders.
“It is exciting because with the younger ones it’s easy to get them excited about learning,” she said. “You can take a skill you need to teach and turn it into a song, you can find some sort of a clever game that makes it a little bit more interesting or sparks their interests.”
For Brynds, a well-prepared and structured environment is particularly helpful for her students.
“I think it’s very valuable, the structure of your classroom and environment, and I spend a lot of time making sure it’s a pleasant place to walk into,” she said. “I want to make sure it’s visually pleasing to the students and that it’s neat and organized. I think it sets the tone for the year.”
Of course, Brynds said, the lesson planning is a big deal too.
“You’ll want to make — for the little ones especially — the first two weeks of school just kind of almost magical, with extra projects,” she said. “We have lots of name games we incorporate, something that makes them feel special just right off the bat.
It also sets the tone for the rest of the year, she said.
Her room has baskets and cubbies to keep the space organized. Looking around there are workstations, where children practice vocabulary, reading, among other things. Other teachers in the building take this approach in their classroom as well, but instead of a chalkboard table, they might use a white board table and so on.
On the floor is a colorful rug, where the children listen to her read and where they can sit criss-crossed-applesauce on the floor and take notes. They also have “bubble time” there as well, to mix in some fun while learning, Brynds said.
“I couldn't teach without my carpet,” she said. “The lessons take place there, with the whole class gathered on the carpet.
“We have a literature mini lesson in the morning and it might be over a letter skill, like what does ‘ch’ sound like together. We also brainstorm together and take notes.”
Brynds spends time on Pinterest in her spare time at home during the summer and throughout the year to see what other teachers are doing. By August, she moves out of summer mode and moves into school mode, where the Pinterest projects she wants to try comes to life.
One of her recent projects can be seen right outside her classroom, a bulletin board welcoming the students to her class.
“When August hits, I’m definitely back to work,” Brynds said. “I’m thinking about different changes I want to make to our daily routine or schedule.
“It makes it more fun for me coming back all of these years to do something a little different, try something out.”
Of course, there’s the logistics, getting places for their supplies ready cleaning out cabinets, she said. While preparing for school she maps out the first couple weeks of school in her new lesson plan book and pulls things out of the cabinets for the students’ projects.
“It’s all ready to go, you got to be organized and ready because the younger ones are impatient and are ready to go,” she said. “You don’t have time to pull things out while they are here.”
Because the Girard School District is a one-to-one district, she also plans for iPad use in learning.
Even the desks in her school are structured to benefit students, Brynds said. The desks are gathered into pods because “a group setting is better for communication than being at separate desks or in a straight row,” she said.
Brynds also prepares her students’ math workbooks. The books are “nice and new” but it’s difficult for her first grade-aged students to tear the pages out. With the help of her husband, they cut the pages of all of the books with a bandsaw and she sorts all of the pages for all 20 of her students.
“In kindergarten and first grade we have troubles with the little ones tearing up the pages,” she said. “The pages rip and it makes them upset and it’s not worth it. So we try to do that ahead of time.”
Her family usually gets involved each year. They have sorted pages, helped make pieces to her bulletin board and have helped other teachers get settled into their classroom after a remodel a few years back.
“As summer ends, they are kind of like I was, they are ready for school and ready to be back at it,” Brynds said.
Just as her family is there for her, other teachers are too. They work together as teams to discuss teaching techniques and bounce ideas off of one another.
“We have supportive administration as well, along with a reading coach for the reading program and she’s available if you are having trouble either teaching this concept or have some struggling students, she can get additional resources or might purchase something that the class needs,” she said.
One important important things for Brynds — and other teachers too — is building relationships with the students and families, which she said helps students have a more successful school year.
“Even teachers with years of experience [get nervous], it's a new year and our job is to make students feel welcomed and also take them wherever they are at level wise and help them grow as much as possible academically throughout the year, that never changes,” she said. “Year after year I’m amazed at what students can learn over the course of the year and if families support them at home — reading with them and talking about their day — it makes the whole system work, everybody supports the student.”
Theresa Wymore is a fifth grade teacher at Northeast Elementary School. This year also marks her 19th year in classrooms, which includes time as a substitute and a full time classroom teacher. Wymore was set to be in the field of science, but she later decided that her career would be education.
“When I had my children I learned that they had such different learning styles, then I substitute taught for over 10 years, and I saw that there were so many different learning styles and that’s what fascinated me, that there was more than one way to teach,” she said.
Over the years, she saw creative ways to make learning more fun.
“I feel like if you don’t have the fun factor in there the teacher isn’t going to have fun, the kids aren’t going to have fun,” she said.
To keep her classroom fun, Wymore keeps an eye on social media and for teaching seminars.
“To me, teaching is the most creative, innovative job,” she said. “It’s constantly changing and with technology I never taught the same way twice.”
Wymore also uses her own experience to prepare her classroom lessons. Wymore said she did well in school, but one day her 8th grade teacher asked her to create a bulletin board on different wars and she struggled to understand which order the wars came in. This is when she realized that she was just reading chapters and answering questions on tests with no “sense making, you just memorized and spit out.”
She prepares her lessons with ideas of how to take children back into history, bring science to the tables and make use of grammar through multi-disciplinary projects.
“That is more important than memorizing something and taking a test,” she said.
Wymore said she also takes advantage of Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) Fridays (STEM), “sometimes that goes right along with what we are doing in science or math,” she said.
Wymore applauded her school principal and superintendent for providing the opportunity for these hands-on projects through STEM and the use of one-on-one Chromebooks.
“That has just changed the way we teach,” she said.
Wymore, too, makes sure her classroom environment is environmentally friendly. The school has a theme each year and this year it’s outdoorsy. Walking into Wymore’s classroom, students are greeted with images of various animals which are placed along the walls.
“I wanted an environment that led us into camping as much as possible,” she said. “We can use the [classroom] environment to about food webs and thing to observe when going out camping.”
Wymore cut, laminated and labeled each fish and bird on the walls. She also has done the same with historical figures along the walls and up above on the ceiling. Wymore also brings in historical artifacts and other pieces she finds to help the students have an opportunity to see a real life version of what they are studying.
She also makes sure students move around during the day. Not only do the students have optional seating and the desks are arranged in pods, Wymore said she also uses program tools such as “Go Noodle” which encourages children to get up and move.
“Research shows your brain can only focus for so long, you need to get up and move before focusing again,” she said.
Wymore also creates student teams to work on various projects. For example, to practice vocabulary, students would be placed in teams and then the teams would go against each other during a vocabulary game to give the students an extra challenge. The students often uses technology, such as Google Docs and Slides, to present their project work.
Education is a place where Wymore, too, is always learning.
“My first year of having a classroom, I thought my learning curve would be straight up … my learning curve is still straight up because technology is constantly changing,” she said.
Wymore said she looks forward to what the new school year brings and being part of helping children grow.
“I want parents to know that I respect you and your love and parenting skills for your child,” she said. “And I want this to be a partnership where we are both going to be life coaches for your child to help them be a successful person.
“We are not just raising fifth graders, we are raising citizens.”