By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau
During the pandemic, Nancy Parra-Quinlan said she felt a little like Dora the Explorer. The 2022 Arizona Teacher of the Year was hunting for any response from reluctant children during online instruction.
She saw others come out of their shells.
“They would private message me with answers when they would sit quietly in class so that they weren’t embarrassed that their answer was wrong. They were willing to take a chance if I was the only one that saw their answer was wrong,” the STEM teacher at Kino Junior High in Mesa told a virtual gathering of 130 teacher candidates and educators from across the country during Grand Canyon University’s College of Education Dean’s Speaker Series on Tuesday.
A goal during the once-a-semester speaker series is to highlight accomplished educators who tell their stories of innovation and resilience and explore the question, “How do you educate the whole human to be the best version of themselves they can possibly be?” said COE Dean Dr. Meredith Critchfield.
One way is getting to know the students better, the four panelists shared, even when they were only on a computer screen.
“When looking through eyes of a new teacher, it changed their perception of a student because it gave them a look into their homes,” said Lynette Faulkner, Principal of Valencia Newcomer School in Phoenix. “This was an opportunity to do a home visit every day. … It changed the way when we came back that they looked at their children.”
The teachers have returned to in-person learning, yet the social challenges today have required a focus on developing character education and culturally responsive teachers.
Parra-Quinlan said modeling good behavior and showing empathy goes a long way in addition to programs in her school such as kindness day, when students write positive to notes to each other, or making toys for shelter pets.
Also, giving students an opportunity and a space to work out their differences can help them learn from each other, said Kristi Jones, Valencia Newcomer School’s literacy academic coach.
“We are setting them up for success when we teach them how to use their words and how to be a good citizen throughout the day,” she said. “They don’t always have the best models at home, so we are their models. How do we respond to someone who is not nice to us? And we work that into every part of the day.”
Part of character education is being aware of differences in students.
“We need to really build relationships with students and really understand their community and family life,” Parra-Quinlan. “Then make sure we are familiar with the difference cultures in the areas we teach and make sure we are honoring those cultures. To make learning meaningful, we have to make those connections.
“Know your students, know their situations, their culture and family backgrounds and ... use books to understand poverty or understand color. I’ve had to do a lot of research on my own to know where my students were coming from instead of assuming I knew it all.”
Getting to know students also involves getting to know their social influences, said Cecelia Bosma, GCU’s K-12 Professional Development Manager.
“That social emotional knowledge is key to that academic knowledge we want our students to walk away with,” she said. “Especially young students are influenced by what they’ve seen, so being really explicit about character education can be super helpful in building them up.”
Character education builds confidence, added Parra-Quinlan.
“It is so necessary when you are going out into the business world. And you find that confidence knowing what your character is,” she said. “So helping students develop a character that has empathy understanding and kindness – those characteristics are necessary for confidence.”
Panelists also provided tips to teacher candidates on what makes educators successful, especially in their first year.
It isn’t about having the perfect “Pinterest classroom.”
“I learned I had to go with the flow, be flexible, but my kids always went home safe, happy and feeling loved,” Jones said. “I had to give myself a lot of grace because I wanted that perfect room, but it wasn’t what my kids really needed out of me. Over the years I learned the impact was greater than my room. And that reflected peace.
“A first-year teacher, knowing you are learning, each of your students is going to give you a little more insight if you are headed in the right direction. Not really knowing it all is the beauty of being a first-year teacher. You have only up to go from here.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.
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