GCU alum is Instagram hit with students, teachers
Story by Mike Kilen
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau
Shay Quitno dropped to the floor of her sixth grade classroom at Hermosa Vista Elementary School in Mesa, her arms forming a tripod for her iPhone to capture the perfect angle.
“OK, let me see it,” she said while filming her student’s creation, a chariot made of popsicle sticks, dowel rods, paper cups, rubber bands and glue.
The project’s goal was to use inventiveness and engineering to construct a chariot that could mobilize with moving wheels, all while learning about the ancient Olympics.
Um, it didn’t quite …
Let’s just say, as Quitno did in her takeaway to this classroom exercise, that we learn through failures.
Filming it with her iPhone is a way to share what it’s like to be a first-year teacher: a lot of trial and error, ups and downs and learning, even when the wheels aren’t turning.
The Grand Canyon University College of Education graduate’s Instagram stories, called “Life with Shay,” have become popular among GCU students and others interested in the reality of the classroom through the eyes of a recent graduate.
“I think it’s important just to have someone to relate to,” said Quitno, who started her first teaching job this fall after graduating last spring with a degree in elementary education. “Social media is often a highlight reel. ‘Look at how cute my classroom is? Look at how perfect this project was?’
“It’s not all like that. Sometimes they sit and do nothing for 40 minutes. It’s not all Pinterest and beautiful. It’s important to give that raw side, too.”
In Quitno’s Instagram story on her first day of teaching, viewers saw a nervous young woman heading into her classroom for the first time. I was so terrified. I didn’t sleep well at all last night.
“I just wanted to be super candid and vulnerable,” she said in an interview. “These are my emotions; this is how I am feeling. I am excited and I am terrified at the same time. ‘I am battling imposter syndrome. I’m not sure I am ready for this.’”
After the initial post, Quitno’s next story grew in viewership four-fold to nearly 2,100 when she detailed scrambling the night before a project for class with an evening trip to Michael’s to buy materials.
“It was important to share that I don’t feel like I have it all together, because I don’t. And it’s OK because it’s my first year,” she said.
The idea for “Life with Shay” was hatched by COE Associate Dean Dr. Emily Pottinger and Hermosa Vista Principal Mia Damiani, a former GCU faculty member.
It’s a good way to show pre-service teachers, or even those not in education, what the first-year classroom experience is like, Pottinger said of the stories, part of COE’s social media reboot this year.
“It’s scary. I remember my first year of teaching. I have this huge responsibility of caring for 30 first-graders, but I also have to educate them and teach them to read,” Pottinger said. “It hits you when you leave the safety net of the college classroom and you have your own classroom. It’s not all rainbows and butterflies, but we do it because we love it. For many, teaching is a calling as much as a vocation.”
Quitno is a prime example. The Indiana native’s first love was dancing in high school, and she wanted to major in that as well as physical therapy. Then she tore her shoulder tendons, and a career in dance was over.
She was still struggling with a loss of identity when she went to a Christian girls’ camp and shared her story.
“I can’t dance. What am I going to do?” she recalls asking. “I was really emotional during that altar call. The speaker, who I had never talked to before, knelt and prayed with me. She said, ‘I am getting this image of you working with kids someday.’ It was the first time I heard the voice of the Lord: ‘Teacher.’”
Quitno said she isn’t the “bubbly” type, so she decided after three years at GCU to teach older children and try to “push them to deeper thinking.”
Her video stories show her doing it. Quitno, who claims no videography expertise, films her subject and sends in the raw footage to COE administrative assistant Lauren Balsley and others to edit and post.
In one story, she improvised a project that merged a social studies discussion on how ancient Egyptians preserved organs of the deceased with a STEM lesson on scientific method by creating an exercise: Come up with a substance that will preserve a sliced apple.
“The students got a big kick out of it, saying, ‘Eww, yours is gross!’” she said.
What her video showed is that the classroom also can be fun.
That was evident on a recent day in class when students paired up on the chariot project. Some were focused and scientific, others were shooting rubber bands across the room. It was difficult.
“A big takeaway from this was how more critical thinking skills are used and how much more meaningful learning is when the students fail and then have to learn from their mistakes rather than getting it perfect on the first try,” she said afterward. “I want to implement learning from failure and not being afraid to fail more often in the classroom.
“Also, to never give sixth grade boys rubber bands ever again.”
Damiani said Quitno is brilliantly sharing those moments of vulnerability, “shedding light on those learning moments but also the moments we have doubts.”
It also works, Pottinger said, because Quitno shows how to create positive solutions from challenges.
“What drives social media is real life. They don’t want to see posed, pre-planned photos,” she said. “Authenticity is the key. We know it comes with a filter, but how do we get this glimpse that is raw and authentic while wanting to uplift the profession? Being solution-based is key.”
A viewer also learns what it’s like to be a teacher. A day can be like running a mental marathon, she said, while balancing after-school work and an evening waitress job in Scottsdale. Teaching isn’t the highest-paying profession, and she and husband Kolton, also a GCU alumnus, want to save for a house.
She had weeks in her first couple of months when she wondered if it was really for her: “Do I know how to listen to the Lord? Did He tell me right?”
Quitno sought another first-year teacher to commiserate. She sought the district’s coach for new teachers and got ideas on how to reach students and manage a classroom. Sharing the doubts led her to think of the rewards.
“I love seeing students grow, not just in academics but as little people,” she said. “I love seeing them really want to be individuals and find themselves.”
As the day’s controlled chaos waned, she addressed her students with a vital challenge that also could be addressed to future teachers watching her life unfold on Instagram:
“Tell me what you’d do differently the next time.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.