Early on in my career, I was more afraid of talking to parents. But I had a principal who said, ‘If you’re not calling them first with a positive, then when you call them with a negative, it’s going to be harder.’ So I tried to do that. And I have had great success with parents trusting me and knowing that I have their kids’ best interests at heart. Even parents who would come in not being happy about something would leave knowing that, although the outcome maybe wasn’t what they wanted, I was looking out for their child.
Sure, sometimes the negatives were louder than the positives. But you can’t let that get to you as an educator. Because you’re not going to please everybody, but if you’re doing what’s best for kids, it’s going to come out okay in the end.
One year, I taught on a team with a math teacher, science teacher, an English teacher, and a social studies teacher, and we made a deal that between all of us, we were going to call the parents of every student. We would introduce ourselves and talk about how we were excited to get to know their child this year. When a kid had a good day, we’d commend them. Some parents we called would say, ‘I’ve never had a positive phone call from my kid’s teacher before.’
And it didn’t even have to be much — just, ‘He smiled at me.’ Or, ‘I liked that he answered a question.’ ‘He volunteered without me asking.’
All that mattered to the parents was that we saw their kid.
A parent once expressed how her daughter appreciated me staying calm in the classroom, even when it can be somewhat chaotic. I always think about what that looks like, if I lose my cool: what am I modeling for the students?
So if I don’t want them drinking pop in the classroom, I’m not going to drink pop in the classroom. If I don’t want them on their cell phones, I’m not going to take out my cell phone. There are times when I’ll need to step out for a minute, walk out the door, take a deep breath, and go back in. Because I’ve seen teachers and I had teachers who lost their cool, and it didn’t do anything.
In my view, when I was a student, it made it worse. I kind of lost respect for them, in a way, because I was thinking, ‘You’re supposed to be the adult.’ So even when you have kids swearing at you, it’s important to think, ‘Okay, they’re going through something too.’
My philosophy has been, ‘What’s going on with this student? Why are they doing that?’ They’re not doing it because they necessarily want to, but because something else is going on.
I was working with a group on different projects to get some innovative learning into the Chippewa Valley region. We started doing public presentations on what innovative schools look like, and we focused on project-based learning because we thought that was one way kids could really flourish in a classroom. We often talked about how it’s not necessarily better, but it’s different — and it’s better for some kids.
Well, the School District of Mondovi had this empty building. It was an elementary school that closed down, and this building was sitting empty. And so our group approached the school district and asked them if they would want to reopen it as a charter school focused on project-based learning. We proposed the school, and the board voted to go ahead and move forward with a grant application. I was still working in my former job, but I had this need — I don’t know — a need to provide something different for students. We weren’t serving the needs of all students. And there wasn’t another option for them.
So we wrote the grant on the evenings and weekends, and the school district got the grant. They wrote that they were looking for a lead teacher. And at that point, I was excited for a change and to re-envision education in the way that I thought it could be different for some kids. So I became the lead of the planning team and the lead teacher.
I had a team around me, and we talked about what we wanted to see: students integrating multiple subjects within projects. A small classroom environment. Students each having an advisor who works with them to help them envision what they want for their education. We help kids explore who they are as learners, and we give them a lot of voice and choice in what they get to do. So while the teacher might pick the standards and set the driving question, kids can explore lots of different topics within that driving question. We put the ownership of learning back on the student.
One of the things that we talk about here is not only student ownership of learning, but student ownership of their school and the environment that they’re in. That’s one of the reasons why we have chores: to help them take pride and take ownership in their school. The chores help them realize that this is their space, and they need to take care of it. It’s the same way with all the learning: this is your education and you need to figure out what that looks like for you.
Another thing we say is ‘with flexibility comes responsibility.’ We have a lot of flexible spaces, but if a student can’t be responsible, those flexible spaces aren’t going to be available to them for a little while until they can figure that out. There’s a lot of walking alongside kids to help them figure out who they are as a human as a learner.
We get the kids active in their learning. We’re not an outdoor education school, but as we were planning the school, we talked about wanting kids outside. Even if it’s just reading outside, there’s a lot of research about how being outdoors is good for the soul. It’s good for the mind and the body. So we have benches out in a prairie area where students can go read a book, and we have wifi outside with picnic tables. If they’re working on their math online, they can take their device out to the picnic table and work from there. It’s about learning who they are and understanding the best environment for them to learn in.
We take a place-based learning approach, getting them out into the community and empowering them to make a change. We have a group of students right now who are working on a watershed project. They’re looking at where our water comes from, what impacts our watershed, and water treatment facilities in the area. Mondovi is changing the way that they treat their wastewater, and it’s cool for our kids to learn about how the facility is using the natural environment — things like reedbeds — to clean our water.
(A man walks by at school and asks Amy, ‘Aren’t you a little young to be having someone do a documentary of your life?’ She laughs.)
So anyway, it’s a cool project for our high schoolers to engage in and learn what’s actually happening in their backyard.
The chicken coop was a student’s idea. For one of our first projects last year, our driving question was, ‘How do we use the resources here to make make the school a better place?’ One of the students said, ‘Well, we should get chickens, because then we can raise them for their eggs. Then we can sell the eggs and we can make money to pay for the feed.’
So the student researched: ‘What kind of chickens do we want? What do they need to survive? How much can we sell the eggs for? And then how does that pay for the feed?’ And for our projects, we always ask students to present to their peers, so when the other students heard about the project, it started morphing into something bigger. For example, a different student said, ‘Oh, I have a family member who wants to get rid of this old shed. We could use that.’ And then we added a chicken run, so that became a construction project. And now collecting the eggs is an official chore at school.
That’s pretty much how everything works here. Even the greenhouse that we’ll be getting soon was a student project. They wanted to be able to grow food in the winter, so they asked, ‘What does that look like?’ We went to a local hydroponics greenhouse, and the students saw salmon in their lettuce tanks and said, ‘We want to do something like that.’ We got a grant and now the greenhouse is getting installed.
We do still have to hit all of the same academic standards that any other public school does. We are a part of the School District of Mondovi. So our students use a program that organizes the standards and helps align them to student projects. When we assign a driving question, we as the teachers have an idea of some of the standards that we want students to hit through their projects. And then students will also hit additional standards based on what kind of road they walk down with the project that they choose.
So for example, the chicken coop project: there were agricultural components. Then there were English credits, because they’re researching and writing. All of our students have to have sources — and they have to write an outline and a presentation. So within one project, a student earned their English credit, but they also earned some agricultural credit. Then for creating the coop, there were engineering and design credits. There was some construction, which falls in our college and technical ed credits. And then there was another spin-off because students looked at how we could use leftover food scraps to feed the chickens — that became a sustainability project, where they researched what composting is and how things break down and turn into methane gas. There are a lot of different components to each project.
So as an advisor, I will tell you for sure, I know the standards way better than I used to — because I’m constantly engaging with them as I’m talking to students. I was working with a student three weeks ago who said, ‘I want to build a bunker in the woods.’ And I said, ‘Okay, well talk to me about what standards this is going to hit for you. What standards are you going to be working toward if you want to build a bunker in the woods?’ So even the students are understanding what they need to learn and thinking about how can they learn it.
The students do have an ELA block, where they learn grade-appropriate English skills to apply to their projects. And they do have a math block. But as advisors, we plan out the year so that they’re getting their social studies, science, and English credits through their projects. And then elective credits are typically earned based on a student’s interests.
We have an art club right now that meets every other week for art credit. We have a student who’s teaching themselves piano for music credit, assuming they can show a level of proficiency to their advisor. Presenting is a key part of showing proficiency. But also through the learning management system that the students use, we have all of the standards pre-programmed into the platform. So from the very beginning when students are planning projects, they can look through the academic standards and find ones to align to their hands-on work. It’s all transparent to them. Then as they move through the year, they upload all evidence of their learning, and they upload their final products as a way to demonstrate proficiency.
For the most part, at the high school level, they are selecting their own standards. In middle school, it’s a bit more teacher-led. And math is done through an online program, because it’s hard for students to incorporate higher-level mathematics into their projects.
We’re a teacher-led school. There’s no principal.
I’m the lead teacher, and I work with students on a regular basis, but I also handle the administrative jobs. Most of the teachers handle discipline within their classroom. I am used as a last resort or an extra hand if a teacher needs one. But I’m working with students for a lot of my day.
We make almost all decisions together. We’re lucky because we have one day a month where our students are learning virtually. So as a staff, we’re planning and learning together and creating on that day. We bounce ideas off of each other. But yeah, we don’t have a principal out here. We do have the support of our superintendent at the district complex, but we are teacher-led.
We do have a services coordinator. And he’s our custodian. He’s our bus driver. He works with students. He supervises lunch. So yeah, he does a lot.
We don’t have a school counselor on site. We do have two school counselors at the district and one of them comes out frequently. But you know, oftentimes we find ourselves in the counselor role. And sometimes we find ourselves in the nurse role.
I know it seems like a lot. But if you think about the structure that we have here, we also know our kids really well. Yes, there are days when it’s completely overwhelming. But there are other days when you just wouldn’t have it any other way. Because your kids really learn to know you — they really learn to trust you. At the beginning of each school year, we’re training them to be more independent and more responsible, so that if we do have to step away for a minute to work with a student, it’s not chaos in the classroom.
We also step in for each other. And for me, it’s been about finding the right people who really want to do school differently. That’s what makes it not so overwhelming. It’s similar to how we say to students, ‘with flexibility comes responsibility.’ It’s the same thing with teachers, right? We feel more ownership in what we’re able to do. And because we feel that ownership, we’re willing to take more of it on, because it’s ours.
There was a speaker going around schools a while back talking about blueberries. The idea is that to make the best blueberry ice cream, a business can choose to use only the best blueberries. But at school, we don’t pick our blueberries. Each student is different. And we don’t get to choose which students we have in front of us. But we do choose to educate every student we have in front of us.
We’re lucky here because we have 15 to 20 students in front of us. But at other schools, teachers have 30 students in front of them, and they have to know how to engage each one of those 30 students. Just think about how taxing that is, every day. Plus, the complexity of teaching is so much more than what it used to be.
A lot of people base their understanding of teaching on what they went through as a student, but think about how much the world has changed. Even just technology — the internet didn’t exist when I was in school. Students have changed, parents have changed, and the way in which we need to educate them has changed.
Teachers are doing more with less. I think teachers are really good at making sure that kids are taken care of, no matter what resources they have. And I think we’ve done a really good job of still keeping the ship afloat, while the support for public education isn’t what it used to be. It doesn’t always feel like the public perception is positive. If we want to keep great teachers in this profession, that’s one thing that needs to change, isn’t it? Public perception.
I talked about providing voice and choice for students. And just like we need to do that for students, we need to do that for our teachers. Autonomy is a huge part of teacher retention.
Teachers need to feel like our voice is not only heard, but welcomed, in our own profession. I think so many things have become mandated for teachers that we don’t necessarily feel like we have a say in what our profession looks like. Sometimes it’s unclear how teachers can even educate students within the mandates.
I worked with Governor Evers while he was state superintendent in 2016. We went to Washington, DC, and we talked about how the lack of teacher voice in decision-making at every level — school, district, state — has had a negative impact on our students and on our teachers. And so now, six years later, it’s having a dramatic impact on teachers not going into the profession and teachers leaving the profession.
If we stop advocating, and we are telling a negative story, then it’s not going to get better. But if we continue to advocate and continue to tell the stories about great things happening in our schools, I think it will change the negative perceptions. There are a lot of school districts who still look to their professional teachers’ associations to be their sounding boards. Eau Claire has a great relationship with their teachers’ union, and teachers have a seat at the table here. There are many districts who are still involving their teachers in conversations. There are still fabulous students and teachers who are doing amazing things in our public schools. But unfortunately, we’re not always good at tooting our own horn. People like to focus on the things that are not going so well. We need to focus on the great work that teachers are doing, invite them into the decision-making process, and tell the stories of our great public schools!
Lead Teacher at Anthony Acres School