On March 8th, I headed to the very small town of Darrington to visit Lynne Clarke, the 2018 Regional Teacher of the Year for the northwest part of our state in education service district 189. Darrington is a logging town of roughly 1400 residents. The 2014 mudslide in Oso, a town just south of Darrington, had and still has a deep impact on the community, who lost friends and family in the slide. They are still recovering from the tragedy. Darrington is tight-knit and Lynne, with her electric personality, is a jewel in their community.
In Darrington all three school levels are together on one campus, with the Middle and High Schools in one building, and the Elementary in a separate building, but still very close by. The staff is more like a family than colleagues, and most wear several hats, and Lynne is no exception. Lynne teaches 9th and 11th grade English, and drama class. She only recently stepped down as the girl’s volleyball coach. She serves on several committees, and works hard to support her students and her colleagues. It’s not the many roles she plays that sets her a part, though. It is her magnetic personality, her love of her students, and her energy and enthusiasm when she teaches. She loves her subject and gets her students to love what they are learning, too.
After being the mystery reader in a second grade class – I read Dr. Seuss’s “Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You?” (It was so much fun!) – I got to visit with Lynne’s classes. The students asked me questions and we talked about being kind and seeking experiences which challenge our perceptions and getting to know those who are different from ourselves. The students were engaged in the discussion and very curious. This is in no small part because of Lynne and the influence she has on her students. In her classroom, Lynne has created an environment which encourages students to explore who they are, to be curious about the world outside of Darrington, and to be brave in finding new adventures near and far.
The absolute best part of being in Lynne’s class, though, was watching her teach. She is a literal ball of energy and she has a way of getting her students excited about what they are studying. I have rarely seen students get upset when another classmate tells too much about the upcoming events of the novel they are reading, because “I’m not there yet!” and they want to find out what happens by reading it on their own. It is not often that students are engaged in assigned reading.
Lynne explains to her students that “we learn in the place between where we screw up and where we screw up worse.” She does not fear making mistakes in front of her students or making a fool of herself. Being vulnerable and showing her students who she is as a teacher and as a human is part of her magic. She models for students what it means to be real and thus creates space for them to be vulnerable, be foolish, and make mistakes. She is exactly what the students in the very small town of Darrington need.
Just before my visit to Lynne, I visited a teacher some of my readers may recognize, Barbara Tibbits. She is a master teacher in Bothell at Cedar Wood Elementary, where she teaches 4th grade. She is also a Jump Start trainer, plans and runs Homestretch, and is a cohort facilitator for National Board Candidates. In other words, she is a leader in our profession through supporting fellow educators in demonstrating accomplished teaching. When I first arrived in Barbara’s classroom, the students were in book club groups, leading their own learning. Each group chose their own book and were discussing what they had read and the themes of their books. Around the room hung posters, created by each group, about their books. All students were immersed in the work and engaged in learning. This was not a traditional classroom.
I spent the remainder of that day, touring the school, and soaking in the work being done in Barbara’s classroom. After the lunch hour, Barbara called on me to workshop Advocacy with the students. They were writing persuasive letters to policy/decision-makers on topics about which they felt quite passionate. Some wrote to the principal and others to state and federal politicians, including the President. We talked about the power of story and then students brainstormed the stories they could tell that would persuade decision-makers to address their issues. I was impressed with the depth of thought these 4th graders had put into their projects, addressing the homeless, climate-change, eating healthy, and college tuition. I also met with the 5th grade student body president about her proposal to start a book club at school to help struggling readers and to also create space for reading lovers, like herself. She was articulate and passionate and after our meeting she had a solid plan for moving forward. Seeing students take control of their learning, develop their voices, and become empowered to take action, was so cool. At the center of it all, is Barbara. She knows her students, she puts them first in her practice, and it shows in how independent and empowered her students have become.
The biggest benefit of being selected as the Washington State Teacher of the Year is visiting schools across our state. It is an experience that is both awe-inspiring and validating, because I am reminded that the work we do in my school is impacting students, and also that work is being done in every school which places students directly in the center. Many will argue that our system struggles to meet the needs of every student and I agree with that statement, but the absolute truth is much more nuanced. Yes, the system often hinders an educator’s ability to truly meet the needs of every student in their classrooms. However, individual teachers in every school, and, yes, I mean every school, know their students, love their students, and strive to build their practice around the needs of the students in their classroom, and it’s working. We often focus on those schools or classrooms that aren’t working, but my travels have shown me that we should instead focus on what’s working, and give those educators an opportunity to lead from their classrooms and support other educators in also putting students at the center of their practice.
See my interview with Lynne Clarke on teaching here.