When you put six people in a van they learn a lot about each other. Put six teachers from five schools spread across Kansas and they discover that while their individual situations may be different, they are not alone.
Earlier this school year, candidates for the Kansas Teacher of the Year were split into small groups, and they then each gave a tour of their school district. On Friday April 8, Southeast Elementary third grade teacher Carol Denham gave her tour of USD 247. Five teachers from Emporia, Ottawa, and Seaman and Shawnee Heights, which are near Topeka, were shown Southeast Elementary School, Southeast Junior High School, and Southeast High School.
“Making the connections, the networking, seeing what other innovative teachers are doing throughout the state of Kansas was very helpful,” said Mrs. Denham. Seeing that some of the things that I’m doing with my class are things that are being done throughout the state of Kansas helped me to see that I’m on the right track.”
“I’m from this area,” Denham continued. “I’ve lived here my whole life. Southeast Kansas is all I know and I know what I’m doing in my classroom is pretty comparable to what else is going on in this neck of the woods, but it makes me feel better to know that I can go to the larger cities and see some of the same things going on.”
At each of the other tours, teachers were shown area museums, such as the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, and toured the State Capitol and met Assistant Majority Leader Vicki Schmidt of the Kansas State Mrs. Denham had planned to take her tour to Pittsburg State University, but the other teachers had heard about Big Brutus near West Mineral and wanted to see the 16 story tall shovel instead.
For the teachers who had never heard the term “strip pit” and only had a vague notion of the historical impact mining had on the Southeast Kansas area, that final stop at the Big Brutus Visitor’s Center showed and helped them understand the challenges the area is going through.
“I had no idea there had been this many towns down here,” one teacher was overheard as saying as they looked at maps.
“They all came from such large districts I wanted them to be able to see a different perspective,” Mrs. Denham said.
“I’ve never thought about this part of Kansas and how it really was affected by mining,” said Mary Beck of USD 345 Seaman in Topeka. “My part of the state didn’t have that at all. I think the kids and the fact that we’re all doing the best that we can, and we’re outstanding educators, because nobody I’ve seen has been a slacker at all. Everybody has been welcoming. I would not say that it’s been eye opening because I kind of expected that out of Kansans already.”
The Southeast Elementary School averages 29 kids per grade. With two teachers, that’s 15 kids per class, making USD 247 significantly smaller than what the other teachers on the tour are used to.
“Many of them kept commenting on ‘wow, wouldn’t it be nice to have a class size of 12 and isn’t it nice that you know all of the kids,’” Mrs. Denham said. “To go in my classroom and shut the door, it’s the best class size. I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
“Just the differences, yet the similarities that we have,” Mrs. Beck said. “Like, this school is much smaller, but yet still doing MTSS, still seeing kids that are making progress, still doing what Kansas does with the dollars that it does have.”
One area Denham showed the tour group was the PITSCO Science Lab at the elementary school. Every day each grade spends time in the lab, something that the other teachers thought was a great idea.
“I liked what I saw with the science room because I don’t think that we get to spend as much time with science as we used to,” Mrs. Beck said.
While the teachers talked about the challenges of schools across the state, ranging from population changes to financing, all said that no matter where they went they were continually impressed with one thing in particular – the people involved.
“I think that if we went into any school we would see kids doing what they’re supposed to be doing, seeing teachers who are putting everything into their jobs, their families, and who enjoy what they do, that’s what I’ve seen out of this,” Mrs. Beck said. “Plus I’ve got to meet some really amazing people. I’ve seen really good ideas.”
Mrs. Beck said she’s taken several pictures of things hanging on walls, and has taken note of how math and technology are being used differently by different people. Both Mrs. Beck and Mrs. Denham specifically mentioned an effort at the Shawnee Heights school district called Quantum.
“(It’s) a whole district-wide systems of beliefs, expectations and ways to teach things,” Mrs. Beck explained. “I think if I had been a brand new teacher, that would have been a great thing to have been handed and just say ‘here’s how we do things in our district – you can kind of tweak it to match what you need but this is what we do to make sure kids all throughout our district hear the same language, hear the same kind of praises and expectations, all the way from kindergarten through high school.’”
“There are so many things in education that’s a flash in the plan – you jump on the bandwagon and it’s hot right now and you do it for a year or two and then people become disheartened and drop it,” Mrs. Denham said. “The fact that that district has stuck with it and successfully implemented it, I think is a testament to the program itself. They showed us how when they’re teaching a skill they set it to a story and they have certain prompts and cues about where they stand in the classroom as they’re telling the story and the kids remember that. They do a lot of all modalities of learning, incorporating visual, kinesthetic, and auditory. They talked about how their kids will be sitting in a test and they’ll be rubbing their cheek or patting their leg, and those were all visual cues from the story prompting they did while teaching the instruction. That is something I would really like to look into and see about implementing in my classroom.”
“I am honored to have had this opportunity,” Mrs. Denham said. “I am so thankful for the district for recognizing me as being a leader in the school.”
The other members of the group were Laura Jeannin of USD 290 Ottawa, Danielle Mott and Janet Van Nort of USD 450 Shawnee Heights, and Julie Voelz of USD 253 Emporia.