Spotlight: Amanda Christensen (SD '16)March 16, 2017
Fourth-grade teacher Amanda Christensen (SD '16) tells her students about the farm chores she did when she was their age, from yard work to caring for cattle and breaking horses: "I want to help them understand that they can do anything." Amanda received South Dakota's 2016-17 Milken Educator Award at Longfellow Elementary School in Mitchell on January 4, 2017.
Milken Educator Awards: How did you end up in education?
Amanda Christensen: In high school, I volunteered in the elementary classrooms. I especially loved fourth grade. I also volunteered during my lunch break and delivered meals to senior citizens in our area. I spent a lot of time with my high school science teacher and she asked me if I had ever considered teaching as a career. At that point, I hadn't. That day she planted a seed and by the time I hit my second semester of college I had a full-fledged dream to become a teacher. Sitting in my first education class, I remember thinking, Yep, this is where I belong. I've been "home" ever since.
MEA: Why elementary school?
Amanda: Fourth-graders still have vivid imaginations and a desire to do well. They can tie their own shoes and zip their coats. They love to joke around and are developing into young adults. Ten-year-olds are still innocent, not quite "too cool for school." I love to give kids the tools to work through difficult situations. I love teaching them to take responsibility for their actions and showing them how hard work pays off.
MEA: What was your first job?
Amanda: I grew up on a farm, so I had a variety of jobs: yard work, babysitting my younger brothers, cleaning house, helping with home projects and field work, assisting with cattle. I even tried my hand at breaking my horse! The variety of different jobs I did growing up helped me not to be afraid to try different things. I share stories with my students about the jobs I did when I was their age—I want to help them understand that they can do anything.
My first paying job was working at the A&W restaurant and gas station. I learned that hard work pays off. I was able to buy my first car with the money I earned. I also learned that having a positive attitude can change someone's day. I met people from all over the country as they traveled that long stretch of interstate highway. If I spoke kindly to people, they often returned the favor.
MEA: Who was your most memorable elementary school teacher?
Amanda: Honestly, all of my teachers were amazing and I remember something special about each of them. From Mrs. Noess in kindergarten teaching me to tie my shoes and count to 100, to Mrs. Marchand celebrating the 100th day of school. In fifth grade, Mrs. Morgan loved to put us through simulations. I remember being a lawyer in a mock Supreme Court case where I had to prepare my opening statement, write questions to ask the witness, and prepare a closing statement. All of my teachers made learning fun. I can't remember a time when they were unhappy.
MEA: What subjects did you like (or not)?
Amanda: The hardest subject for me was advanced chemistry. I had such a thirst for learning and greedily took every class my high school offered, but chemistry was hard! I graduated with 22 people in my class, but I was the only one in the advanced chemistry class. My teacher didn't take it easy on me. She pushed me and had very high expectations. By staying after school and with lots of practice, I passed that class with an A.
MEA: Tell us about your first class.
Amanda: On the first day of school in my first year of teaching I felt like a deer in the headlights. I wasn't sure where to begin or what to do. Even though I spent every waking minute of the summer reading books like The First Days of School by Harry Wong and organizing my classroom with precision, I still felt overwhelmed and underprepared for that first day. I kept thinking, Deep breath, talk...say something!
So I told them who I was, where I was from, and why I was happy to be there that day. Slowly we went around the room and got to know one another. We added in procedures and soon became a well-oiled machine. When difficult situations arose, I tried my best to stay positive and push through it. I nearly lived in my classroom that first year.
I had a student who had an incredibly difficult home life, and it spilled over into the classroom. I'm pretty sure the saying "bull in a china shop" was created to describe him. He was quick to react, aggressive, and unsure about trust. Building a relationship was challenging. Eventually, he learned he could trust me, and I learned I could trust him. It's amazing to me that when you treat a child like they are good, good things happen. He still had his rocky moments, but by the second semester, they were fewer and fewer.
MEA: What impact do you think your Milken Educator Award presentation had on students at your school?
Amanda: This award has had a huge impact on my students. I now have a classroom full of future teachers! We celebrated the 100th day of school at the end of January. I took pictures of my students using an "aging" app to show them what they may look like when they are 100. Then I had them write what they will have accomplished in their lifetimes. One little boy in my class wrote: "When I'm 100 I want to be recognized for what I did in the past. When I was a teacher I won the Milken egecator [sic] award." [See the image below]
MEA: What do you hope your students remember about you and their time in your class?
Amanda: I want my students to remember that they are smart, kind, beautiful individuals who can accomplish anything they put their minds to. I hope they remember me as silly and ready to have some fun while thinking critically and analyzing data.
MEA: How do you involve parents and families in your class?
Amanda: It takes a village to raise children. In order for kids to be successful, their home life and school life need to overlap and be on the same page. Before school starts, I send out letters—one for the students and one for the parents—so we can start to build our communication. We have an open house where I encourage parents to sign up to volunteer in our classroom. I also have parents leave little notes to their child on the first day of school. I have parents come in for different reader's theaters and plays throughout the year. I also host "Coffee Houses" when students serve cookies and juice and they read their writing. I use apps like Remind and Dojo to keep parents informed of upcoming events. We also have a family Bingo night and a school carnival where families can come together and have fun.
MEA: What's your favorite time of the school day?
Amanda: First thing in the morning. I love to greet my students in song, with high fives or a silly story. Their smiles are infectious and they are eager to share what happened the night before. I love to set the tone of the day out on a positive note. I feel like I'm saying good morning to my own children.
MEA: What's the biggest challenge you face in your classroom?
Amanda: It seems like there is never enough time in the day to get everything done. So many kids are desperate for one-on-one time, but with the depth of the standards, different behaviors and everyday disruptions, we seem to never have enough time, from math to reading to science and social studies. Not to mention the weekly classroom meetings to deal with bullying. I try so hard to make every minute count. I get seven hours a day with these kids. For some, I'd love to take them home and cook them dinner, clean them up and put them to bed with a bedtime story. It breaks my heart knowing not all of them are getting their needs met.
MEA: If someone gave you a million dollars for your school, what would you do with it?
Amanda: I'd install an area where laundry could be done. I'd also have a place where students could come to school and shower to get ready for the day. Many of our kids aren't getting their basic needs met. And our school furniture is falling apart! I'd love to upgrade all of the desks to standing desks and purchase new chairs.
I'd also love to start a scholarship fund for my fourth-graders' post-secondary education. I think students would take pride in having a scholarship and would want to make the most of their K-12 career.
MEA: If you hadn't chosen a career in education, what would you be doing right now?
Amanda: It's hard for me to think about myself as anything other than an educator, but I would have been a doctor. I've always had a desire to help 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?
Amanda: Our nation needs to treat teachers as professionals. Many times lawmakers use a top-down approach where they force "new and improved" reforms on teachers without seeking input on what works in a typical classroom. Lawmakers seem to put pressure on the states, states turn around and put pressure on the school districts, the district puts pressure on the administrators, and administrators put that pressure on teachers. Teachers need to rise above the pressure, stand strong, and treat students like they are valued and respected. It is difficult to emulate those things when you are under so much pressure! Instead, we need to develop legislation from the bottom up. It would be great if more teachers could help create the legislation and hold ranks in government to keep everyone grounded.
Teachers feel overworked and underappreciated. Many people think teaching is what you do if you have nothing better going on in life or you only "work" nine months out of the year. We need to find a way to offer teachers growth opportunities without putting them down.
MEA: Finish this sentence: "I know I'm succeeding as an educator when..."
Amanda: ...when my students become the change I'm teaching them to be. I've succeeded when the effect I've had on my students spreads and my students affect others in a positive way. I'm succeeding when my students no longer ask what they "have to do" and instead say, "What do we get to do today?" I'm succeeding when my students have a thirst for learning and use their resources without being reminded. I'm succeeding when my students are happy and leave every day with a little more confidence in themselves and with smiles on their faces.
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