Monday, January 16, 2012

8 Life Lessons I Learned by Teaching 8 Years in Jasztalville...

Me (left) and my best friend Heather in 2009 right by the Castillo de San Marcos on the St. Augustine field trip.
I know, I know. I said I would discuss organic greenhouses and food preparation next, but I began thinking about what exactly has fueled my vision for starting my own school. Even greater, what has fueled my vision for starting a blog about my hopes and dreams for constructing an excellent place for kids to learn.

I have never known of a blog that shared architectural sketches, plans for curriculum, and thoughts about how to making a hypothetical school an engaging, personal experience, but I have never been exactly... conventional. Perhaps it will strike a chord somewhere. Or maybe even a few chords, making a symphony.

Yet despite any visions I have, everything starts with all the lessons I had to learn first by teaching eight years. Eight life lessons in eight years.

Some of those lessons are not conventional, either. Then a few are common sense, of course, and then the others were (pretty much) life-altering.

#1: "Ba-da-da-da-da, I'm lovin' it" moments need to be created more often. 

It was April 2005, and my very first fourth grade class was leaving St. Augustine, Florida. I was a first-year teacher who had taken my eighteen students clear across Florida to see the historical sites that symbolize our great state and nation. As the bus left St. Augustine, a gregarious, hilarious boy named David randomly sang out, "Ba-da-da-da-da!" as we passed McDonald's.

Afterward, my entire class responded, "I'm... loving it!" Looking back at the class that was housed at the back of the school library in a storage space that had been converted into a decent classroom for 9 1/2 months, they were certainly a cohesive "family" of sorts.

The same goes for the class I have now. I teach advanced fourth grade, and most of them have been together since first grade. They understand and appreciate one another's quirks. Cohesiveness is needed in education today because students should always feel accepted and appreciated. Students should feel like they are a part of a learning community where they can laugh and share thoughts freely without being ridiculed. Someone could have told David to be quiet on the bus seven years ago, but they rather chided in because they appreciated his personality. Everyone then continued chanting "I'm... loving it!" as they passed every other McDonald's on the way back to our small city of Brooksville.

#2: Students need to know that their teachers are their creative role models. 

The following year, around February 2006, I sat down and typed an entire play about St. Augustine and a few other events that affected the founding of St. Augustine. Ponce de Leon would be "pierced in the thigh" with a "reed arrow" by the Calusa Indians on the west side of the state. The Timucuan and Calusa natives would respond to the arrival of the Spanish explorers. Pedro Menendez would also be a major part of the play because he founded the city in 1565. As the years progressed, Sir Francis Drake's, Thomas Alva Edison's, Henry Morrison Flagler's, and Jean Ribault's roles were added for a more comprehensive performance.

I remember the second class' reaction to that play. That class was able to perform at their pen pal's school in front of the students I had interned with two years earlier. I remember how challenging it was to coach my students in bringing the words to life, yet it was rewarding when I actually saw them perform. I made it humorous as well. Never will I forget Tori as the raging Indian and Ben as Ponce de Leon. As the years progressed, the play was brought to our school's stage, sometimes in front of larger audiences, sometimes in front of just the parents.

I have continued to share from the children's novels I have worked on as well as short stories (one about an unforgettable jungle adventure that has made the kids laugh). Sometimes, I see my students work just a little bit harder because I have let them know I eventually want to be a published children's author (and yes, school director as well).

#3: Go at it always, full-force. 

I remember when I worked with a math class one year who exerted their all on the state test. And when I mean their ALL, I genuinely mean it. A few students who had not passed the math section the year before earned a 3.0 in fourth grade that year, which was considered to be passing. I remember the 2006-2007 school year was the first time I considered teaching students in small groups on the floor. I also remember making mistakes on purpose so the students could point them out.

That was also the year I had a student win the district science fair for all of fourth grade. I had to help him develop a vision, but we worked diligently. He understood mathematical formulas and numerous science concepts. I remember when he recalled our discussion about anthocyanins earlier in the school year to put in his report. Seeing I worked with numerous students that year who really needed the assistance, I remember being so proud of all who made it to the district level. I also recall the shock on his face when they announced his name to receive the trophy, but it was well worth it. A lot of thought and effort went into that project. He (and I, inspiring him) went FULL-FORCE.

That was also the year I went full-force by reading Fountas and Pinnell for the first time, incorporating my very beginnings of reader's workshop principles.

#4: Be strong, always. The kids really care about what you are feeling. In your classroom, you are never truly alone. 

I remember two years prior to my fourth year of teaching how difficult it was to lose my grandmother. The smile had completely faded from my face, yet my students brought joy back into my life. My fourth year, too, was where I learned to be very, very strong. Perhaps I had to see that there was a reason for everything before I encountered one of the most difficult moments of my entire career.

It was September 2008, and now my fifth year of teaching. I had driven to school a little earlier that morning, and it was incredibly foggy outside. I recall driving past a street barricaded by police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks with lights piercing the dim sky and sirens wailing. It is a haunting sight and sound for me now. That morning, a co-worker came by and asked if I knew about the eighth grader who had passed away immediately after being struck by a pick-up truck on the way to the bus stop. Obviously, I had not; I was in the middle of a writing lesson describing spaghetti and meatballs with vivid vocabulary words. Soon after, I called the front office and discovered it was a former student from my very first class, the "Ba-da-da-da-da, I'm lovin' it" group that defined the beginnings of Jasztalville.

I had to be strong for my students the rest of the day as well as for Dillon, Chelsea, Jalisa, and Brandon who joined my class the following day.

I think the most emotional part of all was seeing Kaitlyn's writing and artwork on display in one of the rooms at the funeral home. It made me realize the potential of a student and how they can change the world with just a single word or sketch. She was so strong, and I have been a stronger teacher ever since.

#5: Capture photographs. 

For my fifth St. Augustine field trip in May 2009, I let my friend Megan professionally photograph my class at the Castillo de San Marcos. The kids looked phenomenal. As I have acquired my own professional equipment since, I have snapped some unforgettable shots. If I have the chance to start my own school, I hope to display some of them because they vividly bring special memories to life. Memories that shaped who I am as a teacher.

#5, part B. 1-2-3... JUMP! 

2009 was also the year I started the "jumping photo" in front of the Castillo de San Marcos where kids jump in the air after the photographer counts out, "1-2-3! JUMP!"

Photos like that one reinforce cohesiveness and the close-knit, "family" environment I do my best to establish every year.

#6: It is never too early to visit a college. 

It is NEVER too early to visit a college. I learned that from Heather Renz in Oregon, who takes an early college awareness field trip annually. Inspired, I decided to incorporate my very own field trip to the University of Florida in Gainesville with the fifth-grade teacher across the hall. Writing about planning the awesome trip in the spring of 2010, those who visited my "Classroom Solutions" weblog at Scholastic were hopefully inspired as well.

I have taken one other college field trip since then- to the University of South Florida- and the adventures were truly unforgettable.

#7: Push, but don't prod. 

As an aspiring school director, I know how important it is to assess students. Never will I operate a school that does not assess, yet assessments do not always have to be formal to be effective. Obviously, my own students will test at the beginning, middle, and end of the school year, yet test results are not always a true indicator of how much a student knows. Perhaps a child fell ill. It is critical to have a purpose when you teach, encouraging your students to develop strong understandings, yet it is even more critical that you do not place your students in a pressure cooker.

Students should be encouraged, starting at where they are currently performing. A realistic timeline needs to be developed for each student to grasp a topic.

I have figured out that sometimes you need to cover a topic in multiple ways, and with your very own teaching style, hopefully your students will develop more and more confidence. Obviously standards need to be covered, and students need to meet them in order to progress in his or her education. Always encourage your students to do better and better, but do not sacrifice their feelings in the process.


That is what I am hoping for in developing a school: a group of colleagues who are not afraid of being quirky, humorous, or ermm... nerdy. Don't worry, I call myself a "nerd" all the time because I am. (Perhaps that should become a post.) I have a "Nerds Rule" tote bag from Disney and rainbow shoes from New Balance, talk in numerous accents when I teach, and interject dramatizations whenever the opportune time arises. I am also a master of facial expressions.

Despite (or due to?) all those idiosyncrasies, I function quite well in the world of education. I try my hardest to realize all the time how important it is to be yourself (because of course that encourages your students to be themselves as well).

More coming soon.


  1. I'm your newest follower, and I'm excited to see your personal educational goals and thoughts!

  2. Thank you! I wanted to do something online that has not been done so much before. Discussing my visions for a hypothetical school, telling how it would operate, and sharing even my fears about it. I keep thinking that I cannot do it, but I need to have the mindset that I can eventually do it! Thanks. - Victoria