When did you first realize you wanted to be a teacher?
When I was in third grade, I knew I wanted to be a third grade teacher. I loved the work, the papers, the field trips, the small group tasks, and all sorts of other teachery things. Mrs. Boggs was my teacher, and she was strict but knowledgeable. I wanted to be like her. When I graduated college, my first position was in 3rd grade. I stayed there for 11 years living my dream!
What keeps you in the classroom?
I was recently approached to take over the RESA GYSTC position in my region. Immediately I knew the answer would be "NO," but I looked over the job description anyway to see if it was something I might consider. I love encouraging and supporting adults to approach teaching in a new way which is why I've worked with the National Writing Project in the past and agreed to teach my first college course this summer. But, nothing compares to shaping the way children think, problem solve, embody compassion and tolerance, bend and compromise, or rebuild after breaking. We have those honest conversations about issues and who's to "blame," how we move forward after hurting, and where all the "things" we work on in class fit into the real world. Hearing a kid pull in a life experience to make connections to new information - that's powerful. Making meaning of the world we live in keeps me in the classroom. Besides, who doesn't want 23 new little BFFs to go through life with each year?
What character qualities make great teachers?
Competency. I want colleagues who know what they're doing.
Hard working. People who are willing to do what needs to be done are my kind of people. When you're open-minded, clever, creative, and supportive, I tend to appreciate you more as a partner-teacher. Being knowledgeable is helpful, but someone who is willing to learn is also a bonus. I have high expectations for myself and my colleagues. Children deserve to learn from people who WANT to teach and always find ways to improve!
What is your favorite part of the school year? Why? (You can’t say summer or recess).
I really enjoy the beginning of the year when I'm meeting students and their parents for the first time. I shake hands with the new scholars changing their last name to mine.
Me: "And you are...?"
Kid: "Savannah Wilson."
Me: "Oh, You mean Savannah Gerlach?"
Almost every time the parents nod in agreement and understand that I'm making the kids my own. I'm taking them in, adopting them if you will, and adding them to the people I care about. I love Open House at the beginning of the year! Plus, it's a time to start fresh, try new strategies, rearrange the room, and redecorate. It's like re-energizing for another engaging and interesting year.
(On a side note, recess is pretty amazing! We have garden beds at our school, and many children will give up their run around and scream free time to ooh and aah over the progress of our plants. It's also fun to hear them make up games, watch them chase each other, and flow in and out of each other's spaces.)
What is the funniest thing a child has ever said to you?
My 12th year of teaching, my first year with fourth-graders, holds one of the most memorable lines of my career. I was teaching about Westward Expansion. The kids had out their CRCT Social Studies Coach workbooks. We were making interactive notebooks, but we were using the Coach workbook for a reading passage in order to use context clues regarding vocabulary terms. They were also practicing with root words to determine meaning. I think we were focused on the transcontinental railroad and telegraph - how that spread of technology really helped the US to grow. In walks my assistant principal to conduct a formal observation. We were good and, as she sat down, everything went as planned. Now, I tend to be silly with my students.
Each year it's a little different seeing as how every year my students have different personalities. But with this class in particular, I was determined to convince that I was psychic. I'm not sure when it started or why, but I was always saying, "Because I'm psychic." "You know I'm psychic." I think I asked the class to turn to page 87 or something that day, and, as I did, I turned to the exact page in the nearest workbook. I said, '"See, I'm psychic." Without missing a beat, Merari looks at me with a clever smile and announces to the class as she swings her arms in a "ta-da" motion saying, "More like PSYCH-O!" She put a little extra emphasis on the OH part, and all we could do was laugh. My AP thought it was funny, and so did I. Those are the kinds of relationships I like to build. A little bit of teasing without crossing the line into disrespect. Merari knew she was funny, and she knew that I thought she was funny, too. It's been one of the most memorable one-liners of my career. Plus, Merari received the Mini-Me Award that year for being the student who most closely resembles my personality and playfulness. The award says something like "For Outstanding Achievement in Entertainment and Wit."
What is your favorite technology to use for engaging students in learning?
This is going to sound really old school, but I love teaching children to create in Word. I've been surprised every year for the past five years that most children, although generally digital natives, have no idea how to create on the computer. So, I've worked hard to teach children how to right click, where to change font, how to insert text boxes, when to change the margins, and how to design charts, tables, and graphs. Microsoft has updated their programs in such a way that translating Science Fair data into colorful and useful bar graphs is a piece of cake.
I wish I had the newest app or device to include in my list of techy favorites, but, honestly, until my students aren't surprised by all the wonderful ways they can manipulate a Word document, I'm going to continue to love teaching them to use Word. Manipulating a program (like an app or online interactive) by clicking and dragging to earn points is one thing, but generating their own ideas and positioning words, organizing graphics, and choosing a target audience to meet their purpose is much more important.
Everyone likes to know the morning routine of successful people. What is yours?
I'm not a morning person. Everyone knows that in my building, at church, and in my friend group. However, when I see my kids coming in, that sort of changes things. It's get-to-business time. This year was different than my previous years because we had PE/Art/Music immediately after the tardy bell. But, most years I have the kids come in, put up their things, get out needed materials, turn in money and forms, and eat breakfast. Something that's been different these past 2 years is our Morning Meeting time. My class really enjoys being able to hash out their issues, get focused on the day, and ask questions about their work or personal situations. They've learned to discuss issues with classmates without calling specific names. They've also learned to take ownership for their mistakes. We always have great class discussions about the ways they see their classmates living up to our INSPIRE Habits of Scholarship or where they feel the class or individuals need to improve. It's an open and honest time to get the day going. It sets the tone for the work periods by reminding everyone to do their part and stay focused on the task.
What do you tell students when they need encouragement?
Whether performing at the top level or dragging their feet with academics, all students need encouragement. I find it easy to recognize the positive first. Identifying things the child is doing correctly with his/her work or behavior is step one for me. Bragging on areas of strength helps set the stage for the encouragement that's needed to climb out of a hole with assignments or behavior.
When I want a child to acknowledge an issue, we talk about what happened. I allow him to share his side and then help him figure out ways to improve. When there's an academic issue, I point out ways the child is improving. Then, when the opportunity arises, I brag on something in front of the class. Those moments really give the struggling child a time to shine, and her classmates can step up and encourage her with applause in areas of strength which then gives her the motivation to keep going.
Now, if we're talking about personal-dilemma situations, like a death in the family or a broken home, I just get real with the kids. I've learned that letting children be hurt and upset is okay. We have to feel the feelings! So, when a kid is heartbroken about something, I listen, allow him to tear up, take his issue seriously, and let him talk. Sometimes I ask him how he would have liked a situation to go instead of the way it did. Other times I ask lots of detailed questions about a person, place, or event that he's missing or doesn't understand. Open communication is key to helping children work through their issues and begin to realize they deserve encouragement. And, one day, they will become the encourager! I see this most often with my students in the gifted program. They can get discouraged about teammates not performing to their desired expectations or when more than one leader steps up in a group and arguing breaks out. I have to encourage the kiddos to take a different perspective, accept the challenge, and find a compromise that they can live with.
What do you tell other teachers when they need encouragement?
I approach my colleagues in much the same way I do my students. I want to respect their need for encouragement by listening, being patient, offering resources to help, and being available to assist them. I'm learning not to give feedback immediately because sometimes colleagues just want to vent.
When I do offer the encouraging advice, I remind teachers to do what's best for their children. I remind them to be an advocate for themselves by voicing their opinions and speaking up when they feel wronged or their children need something. Many times throughout this particular year I've used my own shortcomings to model taking ownership and revising in order to be better next time. (A prime example is how my class was often noisy transitioning through the hallways on the way to Foreign Language this year. That's not completely their fault. If I would stop teaching in time so we're not rushed out the door, they might get where they need to more quietly without being so frantic to get there! I take ownership and am planning ways to improve next year.)
Sometimes, I just have to tell my teacher friends the wonderful things they ARE doing well to draw attention away from the one thing they feel they are completely failing with. If, by chance, I don't agree with the thing they're upset about or needing encouragement in, I simply ask questions to hear the whole story. I don't have to agree. I need to be a friend! My room seems to have a revolving door of colleagues coming in and out. Sometimes they just want to say hello, other times they're asking for materials, and other times, still, they're looking for a listening ear. I want to be someone others can trust to be there when I'm needed.