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Kent teachers get up to speed as classes begin
As summer winds down, teachers are gearing up for the school year by preparing classrooms, materials and lesson plans.
"It's a whole lot more than setting up desks and chairs," said Amy Abrams, who teaches language arts at Northwood Middle School. "It's like preparing for a long distance race."
It's a lot more complex than just laying out a lesson plan, Abrams said. She and her teaching partner, Aaron Ohlsen, have to consider a multitude of questions as they look at their lesson plans for the year.
"How are we going to welcome the kids? What do we need to have planned ahead of time? How will we communicate with parents?" Abrams said. "What is my year going to look like? What is this going to look like for the kids? How are we going to get them to the highest level of thinking?"
Many teachers were making final preparations. Kent School District schools officially opened Thursday.
Teachers like Natalie Johnson at Emerald Park Elementary have spent more than a hundred hours getting their classrooms ready for the year. Johnson, a kindergarten teacher, has had to arrange an entirely new room for her students. She took the room and divided it into areas for crafts and areas for play.
Some help from family
Setting up the room takes so much time that many teachers fall on recruiting family and friends to help if they can. In Johnson's case, she called in her husband, Todd, and daughter Clara to help organize and arrange hundreds of books, more than 40 boxes of craft supplies and toys. Todd was especially helpful in setting up the hefty classroom tables.
"I did these a couple years ago by myself. It was hard," Johnson said, motioning to the kiddy-sized tables, "I'm not very strong, and they had them flipped over. So I'm trying to flip it over before it crushes your toe, and I'm not doing that again."
While Johnson hasn't completely worked her lesson plans out, she says that the important part for her as a kindergarten teacher is to make sure that there's enough activity going around during the day. The key, she said, is to keep her 26 students occupied but also engaged in learning through the activities.
Suzy Newbury, who teaches sixth grade at Emerald Park, said that catchup reading and copying have occupied her August. She has to focus more on easing her students into learning styles instead of just keeping them occupied. But while she has her general lesson plans down to achieve the learning goals for students, she also recognizes that she may have to change the classes up to accommodate student needs.
"You need to be flexible. Teaching is all about flexibility and going where you're needed," Newbury said.
Other teachers like Abrams, who won the Regional Teacher of the Year award last school year, took classes at the University of Washington to update and maintain her credentials.
"Teachers have to continually be learning and updating and honing their craft," she said. "Things are changing in education."
Common core emphasis
One of those things is the adoption of the Common Core Curriculum, a new educational practice that emphasizes broad educational standards instead of teaching specifically out of a single text or requiring a single idea.
While common core has received a mixed reception from the 45 states that adopted it since 2010, Abrams and her colleagues appreciate the overarching guidelines it gives them for structuring lessons without dictating how to teach those lessons.
"If the standard is 'students will use text-based evidence to support a claim,' well, I can do that in a ton of ways," Abrams said.
So when planning lessons for the first week, Abrams and Ohlsen look at how to get students engaged and feeling successful before easing into the serious lesson plans. By planning early lessons and homework aimed at raising their student's self-esteem, they can move on to the more in depth topics with students who embrace learning.
Another important method to keep the students engaged, said Northwood social studies teacher Scott Miller, is to establish a rapport with them. One of his biggest priorities is getting to know the students from their educational needs to whom they are as people.
"You can't BS compassion, and you can't BS a genuine interest in kids," he said. "They can spot that in a heartbeat, so it comes down to genuinely caring about the kids and wanting to learn about them."
While the methods of teaching differ from kindergarten to high school, the undercurrents of trying to maintain an interest in learning – and sustain that interest – are what teachers really prepare for each year.
Adapting to the times
Jay Maebori, an English teacher at Kentwood High School, said that the best teachers are constantly looking for ways to integrate popular culture and their lessons to keep students engaged.
Maebori, a sports reporter before making a career change to teaching, uses the summer as a way to update himself on teenage interests and culture. He keeps a list of things that teenagers generally like and tries to use those things to keep them engaged in class. Instead of simply telling them the importance of being able to read critically, Maebori tries to use real life examples.
While it's easy to simplify the steps teachers take to prepare for classes each term, the reality is that there's much more involved work than just seating plans and handouts. The key for most teachers is to reinforce an attitude and philosophy that demonstrate the importance of learning in everyday life, so they can succeed professionally after high school.
"Every one of these kids is going to college," Abrams said, "and I have to help them get there."