They say that every ending is also a new beginning. Teachers know this all too well. The school year is the perfect example. As we once again stand at the end of summer, our team is excited to welcome our almost 1,600 scholars back for their latest new beginning on Monday.

To prepare for our scholars’ return, our staff embarks on a rigorous month of professional development every August. The month is full of lesson planning, team building, and deep conversations. We take this time to refocus, evaluate, and strengthen our teams and do all we can to continue to build our school community. It’s a busy month, but also a wonderful one. To close it out, we recently held our convocation where our 2016 Teacher of the Year, Nicole Burke, addressed our staff to share some inspiration with our staff.

As we step away from our newly set-up classrooms for the weekend, we wanted to share her words with you:

When I was told I was going to speak today I was asked to inspire you and leave you feeling motivated. After being asked, my first thought was, “Wow, thats a heavy task!” and then I tried to think of the last time I was motivated and inspired and it became much clearer what I wanted to share with you today. This summer, while at a convention I heard a quote:


“Community isn’t the most important thing, it is the ONLY thing.”


This got me really excited because I wholeheartedly agree with this and have based my teaching career around creating a community within my classroom. To create a community you need to begin with connections.


Connections with kids pave the way to academic success. No academic learning can take place until you have a strong foundation. That foundation is created by establishing genuine connections with all of your scholars. I , like all of you, start out the year focused on systems and procedures, but slowly I let my scholars into my life. From September until June, I see these scholars more than I see my family and friends so I need their advice just as they need mine. I will often ask them questions like, “I have that grad paper to write tonight but my mom asked me to come over for dinner should I go?” Unfortunately, I don’t usually get the answer I want. It’s more like “No way Mrs. Burke! Homework comes first even if she IS making pasta.”, but you can see a light in their eyes because you are counting on them for support and guidance.


I believe that mutual respect is vital in order to have a scholar-centered room. I pride myself on focusing on the social and emotional needs of my class and that allows me to produce rigorous academics. Only when I realized this did I begin to take steps to restructure my room to create a scholar-centered learning space. As someone who was diagnosed with ADHD in elementary school, I learned at an early age that my learning style was different from most – but actually everyone in my class could have benefited from the small changes my teacher made to accommodate my needs. I vividly remember my third grade teacher, Mrs. Parente, giving the class an assignment to research the Oregon Trail, but giving me the task of using tape to recreate a covered wagon on the floor. Or my seventh grade teacher who let me stand behind my chair and record her lectures so that I wouldn’t miss any important notes. No one knew I was recording her because she kept it behind her desk and would put the cassette tape (yes cassette tape!) in my folder at the end of the day.


When I started to restructure my classroom I realized that as teachers sometimes we try to define the “normal”and then strive to make our scholars confide to that, but in reality we should let them define their normal and create a class based upon that. I just want to say this again… we should let them define their normal and create a class based upon that. Things really changed for me when I realized this, but it did not happen right away, it took me years to come to this realization.


Having parents, admin, and visitors walk in and see creativity paired with rigorous academics is important to me. I started introducing alternative seating two years ago and haven’t looked back. When people walk in and see a scholar sitting on the carpet with a clipboard, a group working at my desk using focus balls, another group standing using the wall to write, or another scholar, who (no matter what subject is being taught or what time it may) be can be seen working on the floor lying on his stomach. They may be confused at first because it looks different than some. But when they begin to watch and hear the conversations that are being had and see the high level of academic work that is going on they are excited too. This learning environment has proven to produce high academic success, this class ended the year highly performing on STAR in both math and reading. I am so proud of them.


Isn’t it crazy to think of the transformation of space that your classroom can take in the course of a day? Sometimes working by themselves, working in small collaborative groups, and moments where the whole group comes together to share their work. If you were to walk up to a scholar and ask why they chose that seat they would be able to give you a detailed response about why. “I am using math manipulatives and I move better when I can sit with them on the ground.” Another would tell you that when he needs to take a test he chooses a table and chair unlike many of his friends. He thinks that the floor is more comfortable and distracts him so when he needs to focus he knows that this is the best choice for him.


Let me tell you a quick story about one of my scholars. He came to me in first grade along with many stories, referrals, and opinions. I was told about all of his behavioral issues and how far behind he was academically. Did he test me, but he did it because he wanted to make sure I cared about him – which I did! He could be seen using the focus balls for math and clipboards for writing. This scholar was able to determine his normal and this helped him focus on academics because he was successful in his learning space. He began the year far below grade level but was able to grow 5 STEPS and ended the year on benchmark for second grade.


I want to leave you thinking about the creation of a community where the scholars are invested in defining their own normal and then you as a teacher work with that, to structure the day and classroom layout. Be flexible, know your scholars, and cater to their specific needs. Take a step back and don’t go in with an exact game plan of how the year is going to work.


I’ll leave you with a quote from Rita Pierson “Every child deserves a champion- an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.” Here’s to a great year!