In Pursuit of a Superior Education

by Rebecca Estock, 2020 ESD 123 Regional Teacher of the Year

Editor’s Note: We’re sharing the From Seed to Apple stories written by 2020 Washington Regional Teachers of the Year. Read more about From Seed to Apple, now in it’s 10th year, on our website.

The growth that happens in the process of learning is the greatest reward

The gift of education is really unlike anything else that we can receive. It is not perishable like a birthday cake, and it will not require winterizing to prevent rusting and wear like a bike. A truly superior education does require careful building and consistent attention, and ultimately, it can be a catalyst whereby the student can build immense power to solve problems and overcome personal obstacles. It is with this view of student achievement and possibility that teachers often feel cognitively laser-focused. However, teachers will inevitably come to a place where a student is not demonstrating the skills which signify they are learning. It is in that space of time, we face a choice as educators. Perhaps the easiest step is to continue doing what has always been done, even if it is not working. A more unconventional approach requires that teachers take a step away from the traditions of the classroom and look at the needs of an individual student. One of my journeys in teaching took me away from what I knew. It allowed me to take the courageous step down the road into the unknown to learn how to serve and teach a student who seemed unreachable.

When I first began working directly with Jon he was a young 1st-grader; physically he was shorter than the other students and still had the walking gait of a small child. His little feet pointed towards each other, and he would shuffle his feet as he walked, barely lifting them off the floor with each step. While in class, Jon maintained a strong inward focus. His head remained bowed during all activities, looking up only long enough to be sure he knew where everybody in the room was located. When a teacher asked him questions or gave directions, he would give a shoulder shrug, resolutely hold his posture, and mumble, “I don’t know.” Jon did not demonstrate his knowledge in any way. He did not write or speak; he was content to sit in his chair and avoided interaction at all cost.

It was at this point in this young learner’s life that I was introduced to Jon. We began working together on literacy development daily for 60 minutes. The objective for the first month was for Jon to know the letters c, o, a, d, and m. I also needed to teach Jon to respond to directions and interact when spoken to. In a very real way, he felt hopeless regarding reading and writing. He did not know his letters, he did not know how to write, and processing language was difficult. The very thing that often defines budding 1st-graders was a mountainous task for him.

His common responses to me were, “I can’t,” “I don’t know,” or on occasion, “Mrs. Estock, why do you make me do hard things?”

As much as Jon tried, he could not remember letters, even those in his own name. He was not successful at school and had developed such a feeling of hopelessness that even answering a question was risking failure and terribly frightening for him. It was my responsibility to remove barriers for him and create an environment where he would want to learn and could feel enough trust to put forth the fragile effort he had.

I began instruction by incorporating all of his senses. We used sand to write letters, found common objects that represented sounds, and formed letters with wood blocks. I created giant letters on the floor (like the small letter d) with tape, which he was able to trace or walk along while he spoke, “make a c, helicopter up, up, up….helicopter down”. He would repeat the pattern over and over again. I started by showing him how to communicate with me without talking if necessary before I eventually required that his voice be heard. All activities that were completed involved not only academic skill building, but personal confidence building. Although reluctant at first, Jon began to feel success. Jon began to smile. The words, “I can’t” were used on a limited basis, and he began to interact with other children.

When summer came Jon wanted to keep learning. He and I created our own summer school class. The class occurred at the same time as the general school program but was not a part of it. In this way Jon could see and interact with other students at the school while continuing the academic program we were pursuing. We worked hard, but I showed him how learning can be play also. We wrote on sidewalks with chalk, sorted toys into piles with matching sounds, and formed sand to create letters.

When 2nd grade started, Jon knew all of his letters and could read at a 1st grade level. Jon continued to put forth extraordinary effort. He requested after school tutoring and came prepared and ready to learn. When 2nd grade was coming close to an end, he asked me, “Mrs. Estock, when are you going to stop giving me things that are so easy?” I was delighted by his question and showed him the remaining books that he needed to read before he was ready for 3rd grade. “I can read those!” With that, he zoomed through each text before school was out.

Jon is an ever-present reminder to me that children are the reason I love to teach. His ability to work hard amidst his fears in himself, inspired me. He reminds me that children feel immense joy when they overcome the mountains they face, and they are worth every effort I have. Jon motivates me to continue my pursuit of excellence as a teacher and reminds me that in doing so, I must continue to support students as they build their own internal power. Jon and I know that internal power comes from working towards a superior education.

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