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This teacher gave his students confidence to fail at math and that makes all the difference

When it comes to a child’s education, teachers matter more than textbooks, tests, schools, grades, classes — everything. And while passionate high school teachers are wonderful, the truly great educators are those who build a love of learning in kids while they’re still young.

The truly great teachers are those like Joe Denoncourt.

Joe teaches second grade at Cowell Elementary in Denver, a school struggling with poverty and all the academic problems that go with it.

More than 95 percent of the students at Cowell receive free or reduced price lunches. English is not the first language for many Cowell students, and some of them are completely new to this country.

The numbers might make you think there’s no hope for these students. But Joe doesn’t give a fig about the numbers. He teaches and his students learn.

I own and operate a company called Teacher’s Professional Resource in Lakewood. We provide science, technology, engineering, and math workshops and summer camps for kids in the Denver Metro Area. My company also designs original educational math games. I had spent most of my career in business, but started out as a teacher, so every spring I go into classrooms to provide free workshops in an effort to give back to the community.

This spring, I went to Joe’s.

I arrived at Cowell a few minutes early to say hello. I noticed his classroom is like many in that there are small round tables and second grade-sized chairs around them. But there is a comfy couch and two stuffed chairs. The room is cozy.

His students waited outside the room to be invited in. Before class started, Joe said, “My friend Dr. Fun will be working on math with us this afternoon. Please make her feel welcome.”

The students listened intently while I told them I wanted to try a new math game. It was simply amazing how polite these kids were. No one talked out of turn, no one fidgeted in their chair, and no one made me feel anything but happy to be there.

When the games began, I was struck by how confident each and every student was in their math skills. I’ve taught in many math classrooms across the Denver metro area, and Joe’s students vastly outperformed many suburban kids.

Too often kids in well-to-do suburbs seem to have the edge academically. Their parents are almost always fluent English speakers, for example, and they can make a living with only one job instead of two or three, allowing them more time to practice academics with their kids.

But I’d put the students in Joe’s class ahead of any suburban kid. That’s because of Joe.

Joe’s students speak both English and Spanish. So he switches between the two languages frequently during his lessons. Students learn what they need to learn in English, but they still have a way to communicate with Joe in Spanish.

Joe knows that kids who live in difficult circumstances need their classrooms to be a respite from chaos. So, Joe’s is a peaceful classroom. You won’t find the walls of his classroom papered with cartoonish characters screaming out the most important educational content of the day.

The naughtier a child is, the quieter Joe speaks. He is incredibly polite to his students.

But maybe most important is that Joe makes it safe for his students to make mistakes, even a lot of mistakes. That’s because if there is a secret sauce to learning, it’s mistake-making.

In light of all that we invest trying to educate children, the idea that teachers matter can slip our minds. Far too often, teachers are blamed rather than praised. It’s time for that trend to be stopped. To anyone who has or has ever had a teacher like Joe Denoncourt, consider yourself lucky. You have first-hand knowledge of the value of a great teacher.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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