Spotlight: Katherine Shaw (CA '16)March 17, 2017
Educators put in long hours both inside and away from the classroom, but kindergarten teacher Katherine Shaw (CA '16) knows the ends justify the means: "All the efforts are for someone's child, and that child will be a contributor to our country." Katherine received a 2016-17 California Milken Educator Award at Washington Elementary School in Bellflower on March 3, 2017.
Milken Educator Awards: How did you end up in education?
Katherine Shaw: I was inspired by many teachers throughout the years. I had an English teacher named Mrs. Giotta in 12th grade. After many years of struggling with comprehension and language, I was inspired with the way she facilitated our thinking through the novels we were reading. She taught us that understanding a book is not only about filling in answers on a test: It is about understanding the author's language and purpose, and how it connects to us. I fell in love with reading that year. I knew I wanted to take a child through the same reading journey as Mrs. Giotta did. When I taught sixth grade and we read novels, many students would say, "I wish the book was longer" and "What book are we reading next?" I know I would have made Mrs. Giotta proud.
MEA: Why elementary school?
Katherine: I decided to teach elementary because these are the foundational years for learning how to read, write and understand how numbers work. Their curiosity of how the world works is just being painted. I have taught most of the elementary grades and it's beautiful to see the growth of their minds, reasoning and thinking.
I love teaching kindergartners. Both parents and children enter the first day of school with a mixed bag of emotions, but both have the goal of learning. It has impressed me so much how five-year-olds are like sponges. They are able to soak up so much knowledge and grow abundantly as students in their first year. It excites me to see the sparkle in their eyes when they have learned to sound out a word for the first time. Every time they say, "I know how to read now," I get goose bumps. Kindergarten is a year of many firsts. On my drive to the first day of school, I always think, "Wow, parents trust me with their child for one year." My number one goal is providing the best instruction and making my classroom a safe place.
It saddens me when I hear teachers say we have so many standards that teaching and learning can't be fun anymore. I feel it's the opposite: We hold our students to high standards, so we need to make it fun and engaging by integrating the arts and music within our lessons. Whether I am teaching five-year-olds or 12-year-olds, I always include creativity and flexibility in my lessons.
MEA: What was your first job?
Katherine: At 13, I worked at the La Palma Community Center. I worked 100 hours throughout the summer and they paid me a dollar an hour. Even though it was only $100 for the whole summer, that experience solidified my desire to become a teacher.
The summer camp was for community children to come and play, learn, and create crafts. I worked with children three to nine years old, and it was a great experience. I remember thinking that every day was a new opportunity to help a child. I remember helping a nine-year-old read a book. He struggled and was embarrassed that he could not add many books to his reading log. I sat with him every day to read to him, and then he would read to me. The smile he had every time he wrote a finished book on his log has stayed with me until this day. At the end of the summer, he shared his log with his parents and they were impressed with how many he had read. That summer going into eighth grade was one of my most fulfilling.
MEA: Who was your most memorable elementary school teacher?
Katherine: I was inspired by Sister Eva, a teacher in my elementary school. I remembering paying attention to the lesson, but also thinking, "I want to be like her." She made connections with her students, created engaging lessons with her guitar, and would pull one student up at a time to conference about our learning. I was blessed to have her in fourth, sixth and eighth grades. She brought theatre, arts, music, and hands-on investigation to our classroom. I did struggle in language and math, but she always told me to "be patient with your learning."
When I left eighth grade, I knew I wanted to be a teacher. Sister Eva's energy as an educator inspired me to include all these components in my classroom. When I was nine, I came to her class wondering what she would do next. I hope that my students come every day wondering what exciting topic we'll cover or discussion we will have.
MEA: What subjects did you like (or not)?
Katherine: I loved reading and listening to my teachers read to me. I loved learning about characters and about the lives of important leaders in stories. Although reading did not come easily for me, I loved holding a book and imagining myself in the story or event.
My least favorite was math. I had a fear of word problems. I struggled to figure out what to do first. My dad would spend the weekends helping me by counting beans, putting beans in groups so that I could memorize the facts. I will never forget fourth grade, where we were regrouping to the thousands. My teacher encouraged me so much. I wondered if I would ever get it—and then, two weeks later, I did. The teacher let me go to the front of the room and teach the class. I will never forget that moment when she allowed me to share my success. I grew a little bit more confident that day.
MEA: Tell us about your first class.
Katherine: My first class was third grade. I am still in contact with many of the students and their families. I treasure that class because it opened my eyes to what being an educator really entails.
That year I learned to make connections with students and parents. Having a partnership with families and the classroom creates success. I also learned that children learn in different modalities. I remember seeing my students struggle with memorizing their multiplication facts. I brought students and parents in and showed them a variety of strategies, games and computer programs that they could do at home. I will never forget the huge jump they made by the end of the trimester.
The hardest thing my first year was differentiating my instruction. I was lucky to have been blessed with wonderful mentors who helped me understand how to put reading groups together and differentiate instruction based on data.
That year I had a few students in foster care and others who were going through family hardships. It was difficult to see a young child endure so much. Along with academics, I never realized how much teachers motivate, nurture, and provide a safe, comfortable learning environment for all students.
MEA: What impact do you think your Milken Educator Award presentation had on students at your school?
Katherine: I hope it showed students that teaching is a valued profession. Educators do not get praised as much as other professions. Without educators, where would our children be? Where would our future be? I hope that they were inspired to pick a career that they love and do it with passion and dedication. I also believe our students felt honored and special. They were praised for their efforts and academic growth. The community of Bellflower was impacted, too. Being a part of Bellflower United School District, which believes in putting students first, is amazing. The district has provided professional development to encourage best practices for all teachers, and that should be commended. Parents feel confident that all children are getting the instruction they deserve.
My kindergartners were in tears thinking I would no longer come back because I was "rich." I told them, "No way—being with you in our classroom makes me feel rich." They also said they would love $100 each for Pokémon cards and Shopkins.
MEA: What do you hope your students remember about you and their time in your class?
Katherine: I hope my students felt heard, loved, respected and valued. I want them to remember that we had so much fun with our learning. I hope that they know that I am not the only teacher in the classroom—they have taught me so much about how they learn and how I need to revamp my practices. I hope they know that when they were in my classroom they were my kids and I will always think of them and hope the best for their future.
MEA: How do you involve parents and families in your class?
Katherine: I believe parent communication is critical for student success. Most of my students' parents are Spanish speakers and at times they feel they cannot help their child. I encourage the parents to remember they are their child's first teacher and they can help no matter the language barrier.
I have an open-door policy. I invite parents to come in and learn with their child. I hold meetings to show their parents where they are academically, where they could be, what they can do to help their child move forward, and to set goals together. Also, students and parents need to hear the great things their children are doing in class. I send home "growth mindset" tickets so parents see that they have tried their best, tried when it got hard, or helped each other. Checking in with parents face-to-face is so powerful. Meeting with parents shouldn't always be about the concerns, but about praise and setting new goals.
MEA: What's your favorite time of the school day?
Katherine: I have two. First is when we meet in the morning and we share the question of the day. We have a dialogue that is not typically tied to academics, but instead to the kids. We take turns listening to each other. What makes you giggle? Where would you like to travel? Hearing their honest five-year-old responses makes me happy. I truly feel their answers put in perspective how young and impressionable they are. Most of their answers revolve around Disneyland, pizza and their parents.
My other favorite time of day is RTI Reading groups, when I meet with groups of six students based on their instructional levels. We read, review phonics and write. They are working at their level and their confidence goes through the roof. I get to meet with them on a more personal level and help develop their skills. I find this time of the day fulfilling because as a teacher I have goals for my students, and seeing them master skills and move on to the next goal is exciting for both my kids and me.
MEA: What's the biggest challenge you face in your classroom?
Katherine: There isn't enough time in the day. I would love to be able to conference with my students and set goals. Although they are only in kindergarten, I believe setting goals gives you a vision for short- and long-term motivation. Also, I wish we had a bigger budget for intervention and classroom support. We do have intervention teachers at our site, but we could use more support. If we could intervene when students are struggling then we could close the gaps sooner. When I taught upper grades, the class size and range of levels were challenging. If we had more support within the class we could differentiate better.
MEA: If someone gave you a million dollars for your school, what would you do with it?
Katherine: I would love to have Chromebooks and musical instruments. Technology is our future; our students should have technology at their fingertips daily. In addition, music develops the brain and students are able to express themselves through music.
I would also love to bring in baseball, soccer and volleyball coaches to work with students during recess and after school. Organized sports allow students to be part of a team, learn how to play with rules, and develop a sense of community.
MEA: If you hadn't chosen a career in education, what would you be doing right now?
Katherine: It's hard to imagine myself doing something other than teaching. However, I have always admired nurses. They have hearts of gold when caring for their patients. I have met many pediatric nurses and the connections they make with children, the way they soothe and comfort, are inspiring.
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?
Katherine: We need to highlight the teaching community of a school and share exactly what it takes to educate a child. Children are in classrooms with teachers, counselors, speech teachers, RSP [Resource Specialist Program] teachers, classroom aides, behavior specialists, etc. All these teachers make a difference in the lives of children. Our nation should hear how teachers are part of a team to help build the best lessons for their children.
We can motivate first-year teachers by providing them professional development and time to implement new strategies. Teaching is not a profession where you read a book and do what it says. It is a profession of research and developing your own way to incorporate best practices. Beginning teachers should be motivated and encouraged by their peers, mentors and administrators. I remember my first couple of years I wondered, "Am I doing this right?" I had an assistant principal, Lisa Azevedo, who told me that teaching is about year-to-year growth. That has stuck with me. I believe teachers need to be reminded of that and stay motivated to evolve. Teaching is not easy and comes with its challenges. However, reaching out to your staff and administrator for support is key. It does come with additional work outside the classroom, but all the efforts are for someone's child, and that child will be a contributor to our country.
MEA: Finish this sentence: "I know I'm succeeding as an educator when..."
Katherine: ...when I see my students embracing challenges, confident they can meet them. Students will face many challenges in their learning journey; it's about believing in themselves and not giving up.
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