Moving to third grade this year has been an amazing journey. Prior to teaching third, my experience was in first grade, and while I loved first grade for different reasons, I was excited to make the move.
If you do not know me, you might not know that I am in fact energized by change. Once, while living in Mississippi, my husband (it might be important to note that he is an engineer) came home to find our bedroom a fresh new shade of green. The over-analyzer in him, was less than pleased. Mostly because we did not spend time making a spreadsheet and pie chart about the “difficult” decision we were facing, but that is a different story.
I met the beginning of this school year with excitement; energetic about the new challenges and opportunities that third grade would hold. My students have not disappointed. Each day, the depth of their thoughts and curiosity to learn more amazes me. After the first week, I remember telling a colleague, “Wow! You can give them five directions at once, and they remember each one.” This is a phenomenon I rarely experienced in first grade.
Through my excitement and their curiosity, I was inspired to learn more. I talked to Mrs. Shaw about this desire. My inquiries were: What is Randolph like outside my classroom? If my students meet my expectations, will they meet the expectations of fourth grade teachers? How can I ensure that my students will be well rounded and prepared to succeed in any academic setting?
Mrs. Shaw had a brilliant idea. Why don’t you spend a day shadowing a fourth grade student?
That day, I awoke with the same childhood fears I once had as a young learner: Should I bring a change of clothes for P.E.? and Where will I sit at lunch? However, upon entering Mrs. Dunnavant’s classroom, these fears faded, as I quickly learned this was going to be a very different experience from my own elementary school.
In my elementary school, I felt as though I were a bit of a nuisance. The classroom clearly belonged to my teacher, and I was constantly reminded of the behaviors that were important to her. More times than not, I was told to “sit up straight” or “pay attention” or the phrase I personally heard most, “stop talking”. Fortunately, this is not the case for Randolph students.
Throughout the day, I was given learning tasks, as well as freedoms. I listened to an audiobook with a small group for 30 minutes. We were then able to discuss our understandings and pose questions about the text. Mrs. Dunnavant helped keep this conversation moving forward, but did not dominate the discussion like I remember teachers doing in my own fourth grade classrooms.
This day left me not only impressed with our teachers, but also with our students. I was nervous to ask Sarah Kate if I could follow her around all day. She was a student, and would surely want the freedom to escape from teachers any opportunity she could. This was far from the truth, as she joyfully accepted my request and pulled over a chair.
We went to Music class and Mrs. Hoppe announced that we would be playing xylophones. Sarah Kate leaned over and whispered in my ear, “When she says go, be sure you run to the bass section.” Mrs. Hoppe said go, and I jumped to my feet, only to be beaten to the xylophones by some rather quick 9- and 10-year-olds. I looked up to see Sarah Kate holding the mallets, and hovering over the bass section, which was now full. My first tip as an insider, and I blew it. I hung my head and glanced her way, sure that I had disappointed her. Much to my surprise, she shrugged her shoulders, passed her mallets on to someone else, grabbed my hand, and led me to the alto section.
This selfless act reminded me of how proud I am to work at Randolph School, and when looking to answer my initial questions, I realized they were too focused on me. In fact, I am realizing now that every single question included the word “my”.
In his new book, Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek challenges the reader to consider the impact of environment, over specific individuals in the organization. While this is not necessarily a new idea, as I reflect on my initial questions, I appreciate the reminder. Sinek states, “The responsibility of leadership is not to come up with all the ideas but to create an environment in which great ideas can thrive.” Through my shadowing experience, this very lesson came to life.
What makes fourth grade, or any grade at Randolph so unique and special? It is not one particular project, or field trip, or teaching style. Through this shadowing experience, I realized it is the culture.
Randolph is a place where I can move from first to third, just as my students can move from third to fourth and onward. It is a place where teachers and students value growth over conformity, and respect over compliance. My shadowing opportunity allowed me to experience Randolph, not as a nuisance, but as a valued learner, and I realized that in this place, all things are possible.
For what it’s worth, my husband ended up liking the green so much, that when we moved to Huntsville, it was the color he chose for the first room he painted.