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This gifted and talented teacher made an 11th-hour decision that changed a student’s life

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Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

The boy wouldn’t focus on his work, refused challenges, and wouldn’t collaborate with other students. Stephanie Kawamura, who leads a self-contained gifted and talented classroom for fifth and sixth-graders at Pine Lane Elementary in Parker, was exasperated. She met with the boy countless times one-on-one. Finally, she held a meeting with the fifth-grader and his parents to decide if he should be removed from the program.

That’s when his mother mentioned that in previous years her son had often been relegated to a desk in the hallway, sent there to work alone. That was the moment Kawamura decided to give the struggling boy another shot.

Kawamura talked to Chalkbeat about why it was one of the best decisions she ever made, how she works to combat student anxiety, and why some gifted students should be clustered together.

Kawamura is one of two Colorado educators selected for the national Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching this year.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I knew early on that I wanted to be a teacher. My elementary school teachers were all so kind, caring, and offered me ongoing challenges. I wanted to be just like them.

In high school, I was hired to be a counselor for our district’s outdoor education program. I also participated in a class called Mutually Assisted Learning, during which my science teacher taught us how to facilitate small groups of third- and fourth-graders learning science concepts. We packed up shoeboxes and headed to nearby elementary schools. Both of those experiences solidified my desire to be a teacher. I absolutely loved hearing the creative ideas and seeing the enthusiasm from the young students.

How do you get to know your students?

To begin, I ask students and parents to complete surveys for me. This allows me to be a better informed facilitator. I can also use the information to help the students develop their Advanced Learning Plan, a special plan for gifted students. The students complete other types of surveys, such as Myers-Briggs Personality Test and a test based on Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences.

Each student in my classroom has a secret handshake with me. Every morning, we greet each other at the door with the individualized greeting. On a daily basis, our class meets as a crew to discuss problems, solutions, personal feelings, accomplishments, character traits, and so much more.

Special lunches with students every once in a while are always enjoyable. Sometimes we just sit and chat, and other times we play backgammon or card games.

Tell us about a favorite lesson you teach.

Each year I take my students to the Challenger Learning Center in Colorado Springs. We have participated in three different missions; Mars, moon, and comet. Each mission is unique, but many of the training components are the same. For example, the class must create a patch that symbolizes our group and our mission.

To begin, I share multiple mission patches from past NASA missions. We discuss the symbols, colors, people on the mission, and the goal of the mission. Students are then split up into small groups to brainstorm ideas. We then bring the class back together and discuss similarities and differences between the small group ideas. This discussion usually takes awhile, as we sift through what we must have and what we really enjoy creatively. Once we have come to a consensus, a team of artists gets to work. Using butcher paper, cloth, recyclable materials, etc., the art team always produces an impressive product.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

I don’t think I would function well without my document camera and projector. We use it all day long.

My favorite thing to use in the classroom that is not an object is music. I play music in the morning as students walk in. The energy is amazing as we dance around and sing while organizing supplies and getting ready to start the day.
We also break multiple times during the school day for dance parties, ball games, simple brain breaks, etc. The music played during these breaks improves the mood every time. I also love to use songs to teach lessons in reading and writing, perspective, mood, figurative language, etc.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

In our nation, I have noticed an increase in anxiety and the lack of understanding of resources to deal with these overwhelming feelings. Over the past 20 years In the classroom, I have observed an increase in my students’ anxieties and fears. In order to strive academically, students must feel socially and emotionally secure. My class spends a great deal of time on character-building activities, social role-playing, executive function skills, mindfulness, and stress-relieving strategies.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

I had a fifth-grade student many years ago who had a difficult time working with others, focusing on work, accepting challenges, and the list goes on. I teach students in a multi-grade, self-contained gifted and talented classroom. Students must apply to get in and they must show they can do the work to stay.

After countless meetings with the child one-on-one, with the parents, then with support staff, we were ready to remove the student from the program. His mother said, “Up until third grade, he has been put in the hallway with different work. Not challenging work, just different. Being in the hall, he never had a chance to learn how to work with other students.”

It dawned on my then that if I let this child leave my classroom, he may never learn to accept challenges and would have a difficult time learning to collaborate and communicate with other students. During this conference, the student asked if I was going to kick him out. I asked what he thought I should do. He did agree that he would kick himself out if he were me, but then begged me to let him stay. Of course, I looked at the administrative and support staff in the room and said, “Let’s give him one more shot.”

This is by far one of the best decisions I have made in my teaching career. It was challenging for us both at first, but got easier over time. We met during lunch a few times to set appropriate goals. Once the goals were in place, he put forth superhuman effort to stay focused and in control. He began to use his planner and found a friend to help him organize materials. I don’t know if I have ever seen a kid work so hard to turn things around.

The student started to turn in all his work, with great effort, he used his gifts with humor to spice up the classroom, and he actively participated during class discussions. When he graduated from my room after two years together (fifth and sixth grade), he was and still remains in my heart and mind as one of my favorite students.

Several students have entered my classroom with similar challenges since this student left. With the tools I gathered during my time with him, I have coached the later kids onto successful paths, and will continue to do so.

What part of your job is most difficult?

Balancing the demands of the job with my personal life can be challenging. There never seems to be enough time during the workday to plan, organize, and grade, so often times these tasks are done at home. On another note, this job can be taxing emotionally if you do not set appropriate boundaries for yourself.

There are days when a student tells you something that tugs at your heart. There are days that just don’t run smoothly. It can be difficult to check your feelings from the school day at the school door. Despite working on mindfulness techniques and stress-relieving strategies, feeling exhausted after a school day can really take a toll on the personal and family life.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

When I first entered teaching, I believed the needs of higher-ability students were being met. My experience as an elementary student were amazing as my teachers constantly threw challenges my way to keep me involved and engaged. I thought this happened everywhere.

My first year teaching in a traditional classroom, I learned that the gifted students had been split among multiple classrooms. Research shows that clustering gifted and talented students is the best approach, so I was shocked. I quickly jumped onto the gifted and talented team and learned as much as I could about meeting the needs of high-ability learners.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I love mysteries and historical fiction, and books that make you think. My favorite books include “The Help,” “The Life of Pi,” and “The Girl on the Train.” I am currently reading “1984” by George Orwell.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

When I was finishing up college, I had a professor who assigned us to seek out advice from practicing teachers. My aunt, a former special education teacher, was the first person I called. She gave me the best advice that I hold in my heart every day. She told me to love every kid! Every kid!

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