K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

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It is 9:00 in Christina Ryan’s kindergarten classroom and she isn’t there. She is in a conference with a parent and John H., the science resource teacher, is watching her class — literally watching them, as they conduct their morning meeting. The leader sits in a child-sized chair at the front of the group. The others sit in similar chairs placed in two, semi-circular rows. They pass an object around the room, read an overview of the day, and find out who will take on various special tasks. And then there is a short interruption in this routine for a discussion — not an argument, but a true discussion — about whether the leader is granted special status as a “teacher” just for that time, or whether he remains a student with the role of the leader.

There is serious thinking going on in this class. During this discussion, the students ask for Mr. H’s opinion, but for the most part, they conduct both the meeting and the discussion that follows on their own. No doubt, these are very smart children, but the reason they are able to do so much on their own is that they have been well taught. It is apparent that Christina Ryan has had a successful first year in the classroom — and she is not even in the room.

Support from colleagues

Like her students, Ryan is naturally talented. She might not have been quite so successful, though, had she not known how to build a strong support network. She learned how to do this in her teacher training program at Boston University. “The main reason I’ve done well this year is because I was well-prepared out of B.U.,” she says. She learned to look to colleagues for support while working in the Early Childhood Learning Lab that is part of Boston University’s teacher education program. “Every day when the two-and-a-half-hour preschool was over, we would just sit and talk about the kids. Each kid had a file, and each lead teacher and graduate student was assigned to only…four kids to really watch. So I was very used to discussing in depth children’s development.”

When she got to Forest View, her need to reflect on specific children’s development was one of the main reasons Ryan needed a support network. “When it’s just you and twenty-four kids…It really took its toll, worrying about them day and night. So I think that was the biggest thing, feeling the need to talk…about individual children at the end of the day.”

She found the support she needed in many places. Of course, she says, she found support from her mentor, Geoff C. “But you sort of expect it out of your mentor. John H. has been the biggest surprise to me, as far as support goes.…” H., the science resource teacher who oversaw that morning meeting, used to teach kindergarten in the classroom Ryan now occupies. “He would stick around after school and listen to me rant and rave for an hour after school regularly at the beginning of the year.”

Another vital source of support was Ryan’s teaching assistant, who turned out to be as much of a talker as she was. “She had actually done childcare herself and she is a grandmother. She and I would talk for hours at the beginning of the year after school.” But her assistant provided more than just companionship in discussing children’s development. “The principal had placed her with me on purpose, thinking that an older person would be a good complement…When it came time to do parent conferences, I did most of the talking as the classroom teacher, but it was good, with some parents, to have an older person there, too. It can only help develop the respect that is there.”

Facing an empty classroom

Ryan moved to Durham last summer two weeks after getting married, but she had already begun preparing for her new job at Forest View. She had expected to teach first grade. She was a little nervous about this, having done her student teaching with a kindergarten teacher, but she was working on plans and gathering supplies. But when she stood up to introduce herself at the first faculty meeting of the year — “My name is Christina Ryan and I’m going to teach first grade” — the principal interrupted to say, “No, wait, I found you a kindergarten!” While she was happy to be back in her comfort zone, the sudden change meant that the preparations she had made over the summer were no longer so useful.

The change also meant that she would be assigned a different classroom. She remembers the first time she saw it. “I walk into my classroom…it just looks like a mess. Everything is in the middle of the room and it doesn’t look anything like it will when the kids are there. It just looks empty and gray and dull and it’s just this big room. So at that point, I started to worry about having enough stuff.” Her room didn’t stay empty for long. John H., the room’s previous occupant, had given all the supplies and furniture from his room to another new kindergarten teacher because he thought the teacher who would take Ryan’s position would be an experienced teacher with lots of classroom supplies of her own. When he found out Ryan was a new teacher, he asked if the other teacher would share the supplies. Ryan was also not afraid to go out and ask around. As she asked other teachers for castoffs — “sharing my panic,” as she puts it — slowly things started to come into my room.” Someone on another hall was getting rid of a housekeeping set; someone else was throwing out a bookshelf.

Asking questions

“I asked a lot of questions at the beginning of the year and I really felt like I was hounding people,” Ryan recalls, “but that’s how you get answers. You might as well ask questions when you think of them, because there will still be things that you don’t even think to ask questions about that you won’t find out about.” This policy came from experience.

I had sort of a breakdown the day before kindergarten started…I walk in to say goodbye to my neighbor through our office and I see that she has a table right at the front of her classroom with neat piles of manila folders all stacked up and twenty different handouts and I’m thinking ‘I only have five handouts in my room. Why do I only have five?’ And I go over and I’m looking at this stuff and saying ‘I didn’t get this. I didn’t get this…’ And it’s 6:00 and I’m ready to go home. I was just so mad that something had slipped through the cracks and I didn’t know about this stuff. So that was the night I started to cry. There were a few people left — an assistant from another class, my neighbor teacher. And they went and ran off copies for me and helped my get it together in a half hour, so it turned out to be okay.

After that experience, she decided to ask questions whenever she thought of them. When asked if she ever felt a stigma about asking questions, she says “Yeah, all the time, but I just asked anyway!” She thinks that most of this feeling came from her own feelings of insecurity as a new teacher and not from her more experienced colleagues. As the year went on, Ryan felt more and more comfortable. “I’m trying to think back to the fall and it seems like forever ago. Things just got normal after December.” And of her mentor, she says, “We must have been doing something right, because I needed him less an less.”

At 9:30, when Ryan arrives in the classroom after her parent conference, she thanks Mr. H. for helping her out and stands at the back of the group to take over the role of facilitator. The students use magnetic blocks to calculate how many days they have been in school and how many remain until the end of the year (only five!) Then she announces that it is time to move on to centers, and the kids scatter into the corners of the room. She calmly helps one girl fix a stubborn floor sweeper, explains the instructions in the science center to another, and then sits down at the “travel agency” to find out about a possible trip to Ruby Falls. These children know who they are in this classroom and what their job is here. Christina Ryan does, too.