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Special Article 2

Teacher of the Year

Brittany Andrews

To cite this article: Andrews, B. Teacher of the Year. Kagan Online Magazine, Issue #64. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. www.KaganOnline.com

My belief that all kids can learn and grow behaviorally, emotionally, socially, and academically is shown in every cooperative learning lesson and unit that I teach. I have an environment that is conducive to all learners of all abilities by providing a cooperative learning classroom. My favorite quote about teaching is by Benjamin Franklin, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I learn.” My job as an educator is to involve every student that walks into my classroom, no matter their ability, background, or ethnicity. I strive every day for every kid to feel success in my classroom. I want them to look forward to coming to school the next day to continue to grow in all areas. Being able to support my philosophy with Kagan Cooperative Learning helps make this all possible.

When my principal approached me last year about representing Pilot Butte Elementary for District Teacher of the Year, I never imagined that I would actually have the honor of being the 2022-2023 Sweetwater County School District #1 Teacher of the Year. My first reaction when I was nominated was uncertainty. I was not sure why I was the candidate amongst all of the other inspirational teachers at my school. After the uncertainty and disbelief diminished, I had to start the hard work of figuring out why I was the best candidate to represent not only Pilot Butte, but my district. As I reflected on this honor, I came to the conclusion that my use of Kagan Cooperative Learning and my co-taught classroom were two educational approaches that helped me to get noticed amongst all of the other worthy teachers.

I have been a Kagan Cooperative Learning Trainer for the last thirteen years. I have spent all thirteen of those years training in our one district in Rock Springs, Wyoming. Eleven of those years were in kindergarten through 4th grade buildings. At the end of the 2021 school year, our district did some reconfigurations and 4th grade moved into the 5th/6th grade building. Being a 4th grade teacher, I moved buildings and had the opportunity to spend the last two years being a school trainer at Pilot Butte which is now in 4th-6th grades. Being a building trainer, I have had the opportunity to attend many Kagan Winter Academies as well as the Summer Academies. I never get tired of attending Kagan training. I always walk away having learned more structures and with a desire to continue improving my classroom. I have provided Northpark Elementary, Westridge Elementary, and now Pilot Butte Elementary with Structure of the Month Clubs, Kagan Coaching, and the first couple of days of Kagan Cooperative Learning. Passionate about helping other teachers with Kagan, I love to see the excitement of teachers trying and succeeding with new skills they have learned.

There is not one content, lesson, or unit that defines me as a teacher, but instead I am defined by all of my lessons implementing cooperative learning and engagement strategies. These tools make my classroom into the effective learning environment that it is. I engage all students in their learning by deliberately planning out my lessons in order to provide opportunities for all students of all abilities and backgrounds to equally participate in my classroom. In my class, it is not one student or even an ability group of students that are doing the learning and work for the class, but every single student has an expectation that they complete work to the best of their ability and actively participate in their learning. This might mean that I differentiate what is expected of the lesson or unit, but they all must show learning and growth in everything they do. I make sure that, as they are learning and practicing skills, all students are challenged. I want each student to continue to grow and feel supported so they can gain confidence and feel successful. I give students opportunities to practice leadership skills if they are showing mastery early on and challenge them to show proficiency in different ways. I also provide multiple reteaches and exposures to the content for students to practice and gain understanding. In my classroom, I see every student as an individual who will show learning and growth, but know that it might not be in the same way.

Some of my biggest successes with cooperative learning are not just academics. Over time, I have had students that were afraid to share anything in class because they were worried they would provide a wrong answer. With cooperative learning strategies, they have become some of my most engaged students. Kagan cooperative learning tools made it comfortable for students to start taking risks and learning from mistakes instead of shutting down and giving up. The pride they start to have in themselves and the smiles on their faces when they get a correct answer is something to celebrate. The confidence they gained in my classroom can now be carried forward with them. I have also had students who were extremely smart but lacked the social skills to be a good partner or leader. With Kagan strategies many of these students stepped up to teach classmates their techniques. They developed into students who led class discussions, sought out classmates who needed the support, and found a way to help others learn because of cooperative learning. Academic growth was never a question for these individuals, but the social growth they gained in my classroom with cooperative learning is going to be something that will continue to benefit them in school, as well as in their lives. I have also had students who didn’t previously feel accepted by peers because of behaviors come to feel like they were part of the classroom and accepted for who they are. Cooperative learning allowed them to feel like they were part of a group. As a result students were able to show their peers that even though they might not make the best behavior choices, they could put forth effort and add to the lessons. These students finally felt valued and needed and were able to form relationships with classmates for the first time in their elementary years.

I also have had many successes with academics in my experiences with Kagan and celebrate all abilities and all growth that students show. I know the academic success for all learners comes from using cooperative learning and ensuring PIES is in place. Some kids will work their entire lives to move to a proficient level on state assessment. In my classroom, kids are not just scores. A kid might still be at below basic level on our state assessment, WY-TOPP, but they might have grown more than 150 points during the year. This kind of growth is because they are being held accountable for their engagement and learning. Student growth is shown in a variety of ways and it is not always how you expect it to be shown.

Cooperative learning is an approach that allows teachers to really focus on how students feel in their classrooms. If teachers use cooperative learning strategies in their classrooms, they can engage every student and hold them all accountable to participate, and all students are given the opportunity to enhance their academic, social, emotional, and behavioral skills. Not all students need to work on every skill, but they can be exposed to a variety of tools that will impact all components of their education. With cooperative learning every student contributes and they will leave their classrooms feeling valued and respected. By allowing all students to equally participate in the classroom, teachers create an environment where students feel like part of a team. Students gain confidence in themselves by simply being allowed to contribute to partner work, helping with illustrations or writing information on group posters, or adding to the class discussion. I know that feeling included and positive about themselves is often harder for special education students because they are often overlooked when it comes to participating. With cooperative learning techniques, all students become active participants in the learning.

With all of the positive results I have seen over the years, I encourage every teacher to try to implement Kagan Cooperative Learning into their classrooms. I know that once teachers start to use Kagan Structures and philosophy, they will continue to look for additional engagement structures to bring into their classroom. For those who are new to Kagan, here are some of my favorite structures that I use in my classroom that would serve as a great starting point: CenterPiece, Find Someone Who, Showdown, and Talking Chips. I like to use CenterPiece for math curriculum. I find that it differentiates learning for every student, and they are able to work at their own pace and feel successful because they are engaging in the work. Students in my class always know that if they see a stack of math papers in the middle of the desk, we are going to use CenterPiece. They think this structure is so much fun and they don’t even realize they are solving a bunch of problems. I use Find Someone Who for classbuilding as well as for academics. In a co-taught classroom, this structure allows all students to feel successful, and it is differentiated because they can answer the questions that they are comfortable answering. I have observed some of my special education students sharing with a partner after gaining confidence to answer because they previously worked with another student. The class loves to be moving around and this structure injects energy into the class. Showdown is a great structure for review and I use this one often. I can use it with my Showdown cards or with any worksheets that may need to be completed. I like how students are held accountable to have their own answers and all students are engaged to work on the skills. I also like this structure because it helps my class build social and leadership skills. It is so exciting to see some of those students that lack confidence at the beginning of the year become great Showdown Captains by the end of the year. Talking Chips is another structure that is helpful to use in my co-taught classroom. It holds all learners accountable to share their thinking and they are able to hear everyone’s ideas. Students who are not brave enough to share their ideas with the whole class are able to practice talking in front of peers and gain confidence about sharing their ideas in a smaller group. I love how this structure allows everyone to feel like their ideas matter. I keep different colored Unifex Cubes in their table tubs so it makes it really easy to put this structure in during any content.

Besides taking on the challenges of using cooperative learning strategies, my message to people is to never forget how Kagan Structures help students feel. I want all students to positively remember how I made them feel (higher self-esteem, more confidence, and smart) while they were in my classroom, and my mission is to strive for all educators to use cooperative learning as much as possible to reach the whole child.

Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” My classroom, and all classrooms, should strive to impact how students feel about themselves and learning. Educators, as well as the public, need to know that classrooms are not just about improving test scores and academics, but it is important that we are educating the whole child. Classrooms should be an environment where social, emotional, and behavioral growth and achievement are all celebrated for every student just like we do for academic growth and achievement. All students have different strengths and weaknesses, and all students need to have the opportunity to grow in areas that are unique to their individual needs—Kagan makes this possible. Students are not going to remember what I said when I taught them a lesson, or the specific strategy I used when I taught them, but I can guarantee that my students will remember how they felt about themselves and the abilities they gained while in my class.