Spotlight: Allison Ruhl (MS '16)March 13, 2017
Allison Ruhl (MS ’16) says her favorite thing about her first-grade students is their honesty. “If they love you, they will tell you,” she says. “And if your hair looks weird one morning, they’ll tell you that, too.” Ruhl received Mississippi’s 2016-17 Milken Educator Award at Madison Station Elementary School on January 11, 2017.
Milken Educator Awards: How did you end up in education?
Allison Ruhl: I was always drawn to teachers and believed we needed smart people doing those jobs, but I never intended to be an educator. After college, I worked in a high-end design showroom, planning kitchens and baths. I was taking classes to be an interior designer when my family moved to Birmingham. I looked for jobs in the industry and took a job as a kindergarten assistant to tide me over. After my first day in the classroom, I was hooked. I absolutely loved being with the children, watching them learn, and getting to play a small part in their growth. I got an emergency license and took over my own class the next year. Eventually I earned my master's in Elementary Education, and the rest is history.
MEA: Why elementary school?
Allison: I have always loved young kids. They have so much energy and passion for life. I also love to read, and I'm passionate about teaching children to love reading as much as I do. Elementary school was a natural fit for me.
My favorite thing about kids at this age is their honesty. If they love you, they will tell you. If your hair looks weird one morning, they'll tell you that, too. There are few filters in an elementary school mind, and it keeps me laughing and young at heart.
The most frustrating thing about this age is their lack of ability to communicate their needs. A student's behavior will be really off one day, and you'll find out later the student was up until midnight the night before. Just the other day, two of my students were tugging on the same pencil instead of just talking about whose it was. A big part of my job is teaching my students how to identify what's actually bothering them and giving them the tools to express it.
MEA: What was your first job?
Allison: I worked at Laura Ashley in the mall when I was in high school. That experience taught me the value of good customer service and the importance of paying attention to detail. While the parents of my students are not customers, communicating honestly and following through just as you do with a customer builds a relationship of trust and respect that is vital for teachers and parents.
One of my favorite roles at Laura Ashley was wrapping presents. I loved to make crisp corners and to arrange the perfect bow. It seems silly in a way, but that finished package made all the difference. In the classroom, it matters if my room is organized. It's critical I know exactly where my students are struggling and how I plan to address it. It's important to handle details such as thank-you notes and returning phone calls. The details do matter.
MEA: Who was your most memorable elementary school teacher?
Allison: My second-grade teacher, Jane Hildebrand, made such an impact on me. I was a huge perfectionist back then, and I cried every time I missed something on a spelling test. Mrs. Hildebrand would put me on her lap until I settled down. Her sweet, gentle spirit showed through, and it was very clear she absolutely loved what she did. She kept up with me throughout the rest of my schooling and even sent me a note when she saw I won the Milken Educator Award. It's such a treat for me when I run into her today.
MEA: Any educators in your family?
Allison: My mom taught fourth grade and worked as a limited-service substitute for many years. She has been a staunch advocate for education my whole life, and she was thrilled when I decided to get certified. She always believed we needed strong educators to create stronger communities.
MEA: Which subjects did you like (or not)?
Allison: I loved biology and history in high school. I had two incredible teachers who brought the subjects to life. My least favorite subject was civics because it was a little dry. The hardest subject was calculus. I found a college student who could teach me in a different way, and that made all the difference.
MEA: Tell us about your first class.
Allison: My first full class was at McLeod Elementary in Jackson. I had 19 fourth-graders in a precious neighborhood school. Kids actually walked home, which was unusual in those days. The most memorable moment was when the bell rang for the last time. Tears sprang to my eyes because I couldn't believe these little people I had poured so much energy into were leaving! I was surprised that it was so hard to let them go.
The most challenging thing my first year was learning how to manage all that has to happen in one day's time, from taking a lunch count to teaching grammar to paying attention to transportation changes. In a normal day, there are tons of proverbial balls in the air. I was also surprised by how much work I needed to put in outside of school hours to make things run smoothly. I was happy to do it, but I never realized how demanding this job really was until my first year in the classroom.
MEA: What impact do you think your Milken Educator Award presentation had on students at your school?
Allison: We are a very close community, but the presentation brought us all even closer. Students I never taught say hello to me and congratulate me now. My eye doctor told me today that a student from my school had been in earlier and was talking about an award one of our teachers won. My doctor didn't realize it was me until I connected the dots for her. I think many of them feel such a sense of pride that our little school had one of this year's winners. I imagine it also planted the idea that teaching really is an important profession.
MEA: What do you hope your students remember about you and their time in your class?
Allison: I teach first grade, so my students will have many more years of reading, language arts and math. I do hope, however, they will always remember the sense of community and kindness I aim to instill in my classroom each year. During our time together, we are family. We support one another. We use kind words. We do for one another. We look out for each other. In years to come, I hope my students know they hold a spot in my heart forever, and I hope I hold one in theirs.
MEA: How do you involve parents and families in your class?
Allison: Parents and families are always welcome in our class. We love when families join us for lunch or share a special talent. This year we have a father who's a musician, and he recently came to sing with us. It was such an amazing experience to watch this dad and daughter play together; we all had smiles the rest of the day.
My favorite way to involve families is by using them as the guest Mystery Reader each Friday. I send home a list of clues for the family member to answer, and our class uses the clues to infer who the reader will be before the person arrives. After we've solved the mystery, I send the student who belongs to the reader to find them in the hallway. The big "reveal" makes everybody laugh.
MEA: What's your favorite time of the school day?
Allison: Each morning my students "check in" with me by bringing me their take-home folders and homework. As I'm reviewing their work with them, we visit about their evenings, their families, their activities, etc. I get a couple of one-on-one minutes with each student before the day even begins, and that's how I really get to know my students. I love that part of the day.
MEA: What's the biggest challenge you face in your classroom?
Allison: In my district, first grade has the widest span of skills in math, reading and language arts of any of the elementary grades. Students have a lot of growth they must make throughout the year to be promoted. It's always challenging at the beginning of the year because the children arrive on such a myriad of skill levels. Meeting every child where they are and getting them where they need to go is intimidating, but it's always one of my favorite things about working with first-graders. The growth they make is unbelievable in one school year's time, and I get to play a small role in it.
MEA: If someone gave you a million dollars for your school, what would you do with it?
Allison: I would hire more teachers to create smaller classes. The relationships teachers build with their students are vital to success, and lower student-to-teacher ratios facilitate growth. Teachers can hone in more quickly on each student's needs when there are fewer kids in a classroom.
I would also organize lots of life experiences like unusual field trips and bringing in people with unique specialties. I believe that life experiences are much better than anything you can read about or show on a computer. I would love for students to experience the places we study in person. Visiting deserts, waterfalls, foreign countries, etc. would build such vast background knowledge while encouraging children to become students of the world. I would [definitely] need a million dollars, though, because I imagine parents would insist on coming as well!
MEA: If you hadn't chosen a career in education, what would you be doing right now?
Allison: I would be a pediatrician. Children are my people.
MEA: What can our nation do better to encourage young, capable people to consider teaching as a career? How can we motivate new teachers to stay in the profession?
Allison: As it stands, there is no career trajectory for teachers outside of the classroom unless they go into administration. Our nation won't be able to attract and retain capable people until there are many avenues to grow in this field, both professionally and financially. In my district, there are few opportunities for growth outside of administration.
Developing lead teacher roles and academic coaching positions might provide some new paths for young people interested in the profession. New teachers need a lot of support beyond their first year. It seems they get a lot of guidance during their first year, which is critical, but it's during years two through five where they really begin to hone their craft. Mentors and guides during this critical phase could really motivate young teachers to stay.
MEA: Finish this sentence: "I know I'm succeeding as an educator when..."
Allison: ...when a struggling student's light bulb goes on, and I see that smile cross their face that tells me they've got it. One of mine looked up at me the other day after figuring out something that was challenging and said, "This is fun!" Yes! It's hard work, but I want learning to be fun.
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