Where every student has a voice

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By Rebecca Haslam

As I prepare to enter my 12th year as a classroom teacher, I am still struck by feelings of newness, excitement and anticipation. Every August I am reminded that I have the best job in the world. I get to spend my days with young people all eager to learn, grow, create, explore together and have fun.

I feel re-energized by the challenge of teaching my first grade students to have a growth mindset: to celebrate mistakes as opportunities to learn, to engage in productive struggle, to persevere and take academic risks, to explain their reasoning to peers, to learn from each others’ strategies, and to recognize that “stretching our brains” is an accomplishment in itself.

I look around my classroom and I see the faces of children from different countries, cultures, socio-economic strata and of differing abilities, and I know I have the power to impact not only their academic development, but their sense of self. I know firsthand the impact of not having an inclusive education, not ever seeing myself or people who looked like me reflected in textbooks, or even portrayed in fiction. I recognize that all teachers have an opportunity and a responsibility to present a different reality to our students today.

There’s nothing more rewarding for me as a teacher than seeing my students truly collaborate — learning from and with each other. The most powerful classroom discussions happen when I step back and let them do the vast majority of the talking, theorizing, questioning, clarifying, connecting and evaluating. Part of my job as a culturally proficient educator is to validate the many voices and perspectives in my classroom. We all have something to offer, and we all have much to learn from each other. My students know that as members of our learning community, we all have rights and responsibilities. Their relationships to each other and the roles they play in each others’ lives are significant, and I teach them to treat other people with reverence and respect.

School is a place where every student has a voice. We provide a sense of acceptance, belonging, safety and responsibility. We empower students to be actively engaged, invested members of our classroom community and recognize our many differences as assets that benefit all of our learning. Yes, I teach content, but I also teach my first-graders how to be productive, contributing members of society. In my classroom there’s an entry point for every individual learner, and an infinite amount of room to grow.

Teachers have the power to instill in children a sense of inquiry, critical thinking and a love of learning. We inspire confidence, encourage a growth mindset, and teach students to be collaborative, creative problem-solvers. I build trusting relationships with students and constantly communicate to them that that their contributions to our classroom, and to their greater community, matter.

I am responsible to the most important people in the world. Their parents entrust them into my care. This is an honor and a responsibility I do not take lightly.

To the students, families, and educators in Vermont, welcome back!

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Rebecca Haslam is the 2015 Vermont State Teacher of the Year. She teaches first grade in the Burlington School District and is the founder of Seed the Way, an educational consultancy focused on professional development, curricula and resources for cultural proficiency.