Spotlight: Amanda Robertson (NC '16)February 10, 2017
Fourth-grade teacher Amanda Robertson (NC '16) reminds herself daily that kids are a work in progress: "Every day is a new day to start fresh," she tells her students. She received North Carolina's 2016-17 Milken Educator Award at Mount Airy's Jones Intermediate School on December 8, 2016.
Milken Educator Awards: How did you end up in education?
Amanda Robertson: I started thinking about becoming a teacher in the fifth grade. I was ambitious: I wanted to be a writer, artist, teacher or doctor. My high school was divided into career paths based on what you wanted to study in college. I wanted to be a pediatrician, so I went down the path for health and human services.
My first major in college was Biomedical Science. I had made up my mind to have my own pediatric practice and work with children. In the back of my mind, I still thought I might become a teacher if I changed my mind about medicine. After about two years I switched my major. I knew I was moving right after graduation, so I figured if I didn't like teaching I could always finish medical studies in my new state. But once I made the switch, I was hooked.
MEA: Why did you decide to teach elementary school?
Amanda: My grandmother was a second-grade teacher. My sister and I would play school with her overhead, help her check papers, run her copies and clean her erasers. It was the best time ever! I never considered another age group other than elementary. I love fourth-graders: They're independent, but they still need you. I love that they have their own thoughts and opinions about things, and that you can have conversations throughout the day. The most frustrating thing is that because of their age it's hard to make them see their potential and look beyond what is happening here and now.
MEA: What was your very first job?
Amanda: I was a lifeguard at a community pool. I learned a lot of patience during those years! Most of our patrons were between the ages of nine and 17 and would get dropped off every day over the summer. It wasn't in the best part of town, so a lot of the kids had very rough home lives and were in trouble with the police on a regular basis. But they were great kids when they were hanging out at the pool: fun to talk to, listen to and learn from. It was really interesting to hear their stories about how they ended up in certain situations and where they saw themselves going. That's definitely with me every day in my room. Kids are a work in progress, as we all are. It's so unfair for us to judge them based on what they have done or how they have acted in years past. I tell my students that every day is a new day to start fresh and be reflective on ourselves so we can constantly improve and be better than we were yesterday.
MEA: Who was your most memorable elementary school teacher?
Amanda: I had such an amazing experience all through elementary school. Mrs. Boatwright let us make green eggs and ham in first grade on a hot plate in her room and was infatuated with pigs. Mrs. White, my second-grade teacher, always made me think of the character in the game Clue. Mrs. East taught us the cardinal directions by telling us that "Mrs. East is always right!" Mrs. Harper was my fourth-grade homeroom and math teacher. She had a saddle in her room that we could sit on when it was silent reading time. Mr. Gilmore, my fourth-grade science teacher, brought in dead bees and showed us how to pollinate flowers. Mrs. Keens was my homeroom fifth-grade teacher; she was an amazing artist and loved to scuba dive and tell us wonderful stories of her adventures. I can't narrow it down to just one!
MEA: What subjects did you like (or not)?
Amanda: My favorite subject was science, always science! My least favorite was math, believe it or not. My hardest, social studies and geography. To this day I have a hard time filling in maps and memorizing dates.
MEA: Tell us about your first class.
Amanda: My first class had 26 students. I took over a class where the teacher had left mid-year. I thought I would be walking into a classroom like the ones I remembered from my childhood. Instead I had students who were using drugs, homeless, had defiance disorders and more. Overcoming those obstacles was the hardest thing about that first year. I learned a lot about how to handle those situations to the best of my ability and ask for help and advice when I needed it. It's hard to teach a student who is dealing with life-altering issues like that. Breaking down those barriers was key.
MEA: What impact do you think your Milken Educator Award presentation had on students at your school?
Amanda: My students still talk about it. Students from the whole school ask me in the hallway what I'm going to do with the money just about every day. I think that seeing a teacher get rewarded in that way made them see that what teachers do is important and worthy of positive recognition.
MEA: What do you hope your students remember about you and their time in your class?
Amanda: Above all, I want my students to remember that I valued them as people. I want them to know how much I loved getting to know them and how high my hopes were for them. I want them to grow as a person in their ability to work with others and embrace differences in everyone. To be able to reflect on their choices and constantly be working towards their better selves despite roadblocks.
MEA: How do you involve parents and families in your class?
Amanda: I have an open-door policy throughout the entire year. I've had parents sit in our class to see what it's like, which is fine—what we're doing isn't a secret! I communicate weekly through folders about student work and behavior, and I allow parents a glimpse into our classroom using my flipped classroom model. I also keep open communication through email and phone calls with parents and families.
MEA: What's your favorite time of the school day?
Amanda: From about eight to eleven in the morning. These are my core subject times for math and reading. The kids are ready to go first thing in the morning.
MEA: What's the biggest challenge you face in your classroom?
Amanda: Reaching students who struggle with reading. I have so many methods I use for math to check for mastery, and I use problem- and project-based learning to ensure their levels on a daily basis, but reading is different. It is something I work on all the time as an educator.
If someone gave you a million dollars for your classroom or school, what would you do with it?
Amanda: A million dollars goes a long way. I would increase the availability of technology in every classroom since textbooks are no longer being purchased as resources. I would update each classroom with whiteboards—most of our rooms have chalkboards that were later covered with shower board to save money, but it's very hard to erase and get clean. I would spend the rest of the money on our school library. The library should be the hub of a school, and ours is outdated like so many others. Students should flock to the library in the mornings or after school, but so often ours sits empty.
MEA: If you hadn't chosen a career in education, what would you be doing right now?
Amanda: I'd like to think I would have continued towards a medical degree. I've always wanted to work with children in a service-oriented capacity, so that would probably have satisfied that goal.
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: First and foremost, we need to go back to the days where schools and teachers were supported properly. Too often we hear about what our education is not doing for our students and how far behind every other country we are. I'm not sure people actually understand what teachers put into their jobs every day, with little support from the government. Funding is cut yearly, but there are more and more students with needs. Young people consider pay and working conditions when choosing career paths, and teaching doesn't rank well in either category. As far as staying in the profession, it all goes back to support. In any career, people who are bombarded with more and more challenges yet receive little support will look for something easier. Teaching is one of the most challenging professions, but it's also one of the most rewarding—if you keep in mind that it is all about the kids.
MEA: Finish this sentence: "I know I'm succeeding as an educator when..."
Amanda: When my students see their potential and are able to begin thinking for themselves, no matter the situation or outside influences. We need to build a generation of independent people with a growth mindset. Fostering that is my ultimate goal.
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