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Meet the teachers: Rebecca Griffith

Ann Arbor educator shares her experience

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In a new feature for ClickOnDetroit’s Education Station section, we want to introduce you to some of the educators who work in the Metro Detroit area. We hope to provide an insider’s perspective of what’s happening in classrooms across the region, and give parents ideas and inspiration as they raise their children. Rebecca Griffith teaches in Ann Arbor, and answered the following questions.

What grade or classes do you teach? Multi-age (K-2). I teach in a small, private school that has been in existence for more than 26 years. It began as a pre-school, and about 23 years ago, a kindergarten class was added. In the fall of 1995, I was hired to teach first grade. The following year, we did our homework and decided to begin a multi-age class of first- and second-graders. Since that time, I have taught different combinations within the K-2 scope, depending on enrollment. I can conceivably have some of the same students for three consecutive years. We limit our class sizes to 18, with two full-time teachers. This year, I will have 14 students, K-2, from 9 a.m. to noon, with another certified co-teacher working with me. In the afternoons, I will have six first- and second-grade students on my own. My students are the oldest in the school, and they love that! Our kindergartners either go home at noon, or stay for Enrichment with another teacher.

My school’s philosophy is centered around early childhood development. The beauty of the environment we create for children, with the low teacher/student ratio, is that we are able to address social and emotional development, and issues that arise. The social/emotional piece is a big one for children this age. Our goal is happy, motivated learners, but also happy, socially well-adjusted children. We have the benefit of being able to be proactive by addressing the causes of behaviors, not just reacting to the results of the behaviors.   

How long have you been an educator? I will begin my 28th year this September.  My early experience was in the public schools in Ohio. I also homeschooled my own children for about six years. I have been a teacher at my school for 22 years. My undergraduate degree is from Otterbein College, a small liberal arts school in Westerville, Ohio.  I also have a recent master’s degree in reading from EMU, and am a certified Reading Specialist in the state of Michigan. I wrote the curriculum for my multi-age program.     

Talk about your life as a young learner. How were your early school years? As a young child, I spent most of my time playing with my younger sister and neighborhood friends in the tiny central Ohio town where I grew up. We spent a significant amount of time outdoors. In those days, parents weren’t as involved with their children as many are now. It was very typical for the era: Dad worked, mom worked at home, and the children entertained themselves.  

I’ve always been a motivated learner. I remember being sorely disappointed with my kindergarten curriculum, as I fully expected to learn to read as soon as I entered school. I remember saying to my parents, “I can ‘rest’ and eat a snack at home.” I loved my kindergarten teacher, though, and have very positive memories of my year with her. My experience in first grade was completely different. I know that one of the motivations for the way I teach is my own first-grade experience. I was so afraid of my teacher that I am fairly sure I learned to read because I was afraid not to! I was painfully shy, but I clearly remember things she said to me that I would never utter to a child.

I have told my own students a little about being afraid of my teacher, and asking very seriously, “Are you afraid of me?” This is invariably met with giggles and guffaws! I have very high expectations for classroom behavior, knowing that children respect that, and are ultimately quite relieved to know that someone, namely me, is in charge. But within that environment there is laughter and noise and lots of decision making by children. I work every September on a unit called “Getting to Know You.”  During those first few critical weeks, we work on lots of team-building activities and develop the classroom rules for our “team.” The end results are invaluable; namely, a caring, supportive classroom community of learners, who celebrate each other’s accomplishments, play and work together cooperatively, and love school!

My fear of my first grade teacher was reflected in my attendance record for that school year. If I remember correctly, I was absent 18 or 19 days. Sadly, my younger sister wound up having this same teacher for first and third grades! I’m fairly sure my mother never intervened or complained. Thankfully, my second-grade teacher was a warm, loving soul who introduced me to the poetry of Robert Frost and the art of Grandma Moses. She would write sweet notes to me and mail them to my house.

As a child, my mother did provide enrichment in terms of community theater performances in a larger town nearby. My sister and I grew up knowing all the lyrics from Oklahoma and The Music Man! When I was in fourth grade, I would sit in my classroom working on endless “dittos,” while overhearing the other fourth-grade section singing along as their teacher accompanied them on the piano. I decided then that someday when I was a teacher, I would play for my children. My parents bought a new piano and my sister and I took lessons for about six years. And my plan succeeded, as I play keyboard along with our music teacher, on guitar, and we teach my students all kinds of cool songs, including Beatles hits, old, old songs from the 1920s, and we’ve even written a number of songs and recorded several CDs.

How were your junior high and high school years? Neither was an especially positive experience. I was an excellent student in an environment that encouraged athletics and popularity. In fact, I often hid my grades or lied about them to other kids. I hung out with the popular kids, but I wasn’t popular, just funny! I was president of my junior class; I arranged all the fundraising activities for prom, but didn’t attend -- only to give my speech at the dinner. I was Valedictorian but would rather have been homecoming queen. (Actually, our homecoming queen was my best friend and I was thrilled for her).

And how did you get to where you are now? I basically ended up in college because I was ill-prepared to do anything other than study and learn! No one in my family had ever been to college, so they were little help. I attended a wonderful, small private school about an hour away from home, primarily because it was close. It was the only school I visited or applied to. I had always wanted to be a teacher, but my first year, I was actually a psychology major. I was married before my sophomore year, and changed my major at that time to education, as it seemed to fit with where my life was headed. I spent my senior year taking classes and teaching full-time as an intern in a public school in a suburb of Columbus. My first job was in a small rural school in central Ohio as a second-grade teacher.

Considering you’re now a seasoned educator, what do you observe? When you think of the families you partner with, what stands out? Though we do have scholarships available, I teach in a private school with fairly high tuition costs for families. The majority of moms do not work, so they have time to be involved in their kids’ lives; reading to and with their children, setting up play dates, and transporting them to and from extracurricular activities. At times over the years, I have seen parents who seem to have created a bubble around their child, and within this bubble, everything is perfect. For these children, I wonder how they begin to learn coping skills, because life isn’t like that.

For other children, I see moms who can’t seem to let them be independent. Being a successful learner requires independent thought, risk-taking, and a strong sense of self. All of that starts at home with responsibilities and accountability.  

The other extreme is the parent of the pre-schooler in the hallway in February asking her child if he wants to put on his coat. No, mom! It’s 15 degrees outside -- putting on a coat is not an option! Allowing children to make decisions is important to encourage that independence I spoke of, but within reason. Some decisions are ones that need to be made by adults, with their child’s best interests at heart.

The thing that concerns me most is parents who are hesitant to actually parent.  They want their child to like them, so instead of saying, “no,” they enter into this realm of constant negotiation. I worry for that parent and child. If you are unable to tell your child “no” at the age of 6, what happens when (s)he is 15? It’s never easy, but it’s only going to get more difficult as they get older.

*Would you, or someone you know, like to be a featured educator for this feature? E-mail us at michelleortlieb@gmail.com and we can start the conversation.


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