If there’s one area Rachel Yzenbaard, teacher at Windemere Park Charter Academy, loves most about teaching kindergarten, it’s relationship building.
Miss Y believes in the many benefits of helping students build relationships with each other, which begins with learning how to successfully interact with others.
“We need to learn how to work with everyone and be kind even when they may not be our best friend,” said Miss Y. “It teaches them to be compassionate to one another and that treating everyone kindly is important. Even if they do not always make good choices, we celebrate when they do and work together when they do not. It also shows the kids that not everyone is exactly like them and that's perfectly okay. Building the relationships with one another shows them that everyone has different interests, strengths, and weaknesses and that even though we have those differences, we can all work, play, learn, and grow together in a happy and safe environment.”
She believes cultivating these relationships between students starts on day one. She works with her class to learn about each other, their families, and what they like to do; a model that sticks throughout the year by sharing good news. Each child has the opportunity to share with a friend or with the class. Games are also used to build momentum with their interactions, and she purposefully mixes up groups and seating arrangements, so each student has time to meet new friends.
Togetherness is a theme in her class, something demonstrated by making decisions as a class, allowing everyone to have a chance to speak, and frequent turn and talks that foster interaction. They often vote on decisions, like which brain break they want to do. They even work through issues together by circling up to figure things out, allowing students to take ownership of what happens in the class.
The belief in Miss Y’s classroom is that if someone messes up, needs help, or makes a mistake, they’re all in it together, which creates a sense of community.
“The first thing that we try to focus on is that the choices that we make are ours,” she said. “At the beginning of the year, it’s a lot of tattling with ‘he said this’ or ‘she did this’. We work on stopping and thinking about the choices that we make. We think about how it would make us feel if someone did that to them. They begin to then focus on what they are doing and thinking about their choices and how we can react to different things.”
Miss Y believes community building and working together doesn’t happen overnight and it’s something they work on all year. She explained that it is fun at the end to really look at the class and see how much they have grown and come to work together to be responsible.
They strive to be supportive of each other, and Miss Y emphasizes that everyone makes mistakes and that is why we practice and keep trying. If she makes a mistake, she makes it a point to show them, so they see she isn’t perfect all the time either.
“Mistakes are how we learn, and we practice to get better,” she said. “I am also very open with my students and tell them when I am feeling upset, or frustrated. I am also very open about apologizing to my students. I mess up and need to apologize at times, too. The kids feel like we are equals. Yes, they have to listen and follow my directions, but I work to build trust with them, and they know that even Miss. Y isn't perfect. I try to lead a lot by example and point out when someone is being kind and helpful.”
They discuss being a good example to other friends and being responsible, even when their teacher isn’t watching. They focus on if what they do is the right thing rather than if they get in trouble or not.
While it has been a challenging year for many teachers and students, Miss Y continued to make a difference in the lives of her students, even across different learning models.
“Miss Y has done an amazing job creating a warm and structured classroom this year,” said Jeffrey Vacha, dean of lower elementary at Windemere Park. “The changes between different learning models this year – hybrid to remote, remote to hybrid, and then hybrid to in-person – have created unprecedented challenges for schools and teachers, but through those challenges Miss Y successfully maintained a consistent and much-needed learning environment for her scholars.”
Keep up the great work, Miss Y!
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National Heritage Academies (NHA) is a network of 99 tuition-free, public charter schools across nine states, serving more than 65,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. For more information, visit nhaschools.com.
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