First, Build a Sense of Community: A Lewisburg Teacher's Mission
Jun 11, 2018 06:26PM ● Published by Erica Shames
Miss Erdley's class, complete with moustachiod members!
First, Build a Sense of Community
“I tell them all the time—we’re a team,” she explains. “We’re a big family. And we care for each other. It’s in them to be this way; we just have to lay the groundwork.”
“We’re losing [the ability to] nurture in this fast-paced world,” Erdley adds. “Teaching, in too many cases, has become simply a way to impart knowledge. These are my kids, and I will do anything for them.”
First stepsLisa Erdley, who has been teaching since kindergarten or first grade since 1989, starts from the premise that every child can learn, and she imparts this vital concept to her class.
“It’s not a matter of, you’re given smarts or you’re not,” she says. “It’s more about how hard they try, I tell them. I’ve put in their heads the idea that it’s the things they work the hardest at that they’ll feel most proud about.”
Erdley believes part of her job is to find out the best way to teach, and there’s not just one way to go about it. This means each child’s learning path is unique, yet it’s critical children don’t feel singled out or different. “Even at this age, they do enough of that on their own,” Erdley notes. “They’re very in tune to what book tub someone is in, or how well someone did on a spelling test.”
One challenge to teaching is the varying ability levels of same-age children, a chasm that has grown as children of different means, ethnicities and backgrounds enter school. It’s vital, Erdley explains, to take this into consideration when teaching.
“If you’re reading a book about the circus or the zoo—some kids don’t know what you’re talking about,” she says. “So you have to take the time to lay down that background. You can’t take anything for granted these days.”
In fact, Erdley’s teaching philosophy starts by meeting the child where he or she is. “My job is to give them what they need, and meet them where they are,” she says. “The child who is just so focused on a loose tooth, for example—it makes it difficult for that child to learn. But that’s what’s important to him or her at the moment. So I’ve got to find something that’s meaningful to them, and break learning down into little achievable tasks.”
Outside the classroomPart of the learning experience is helping six- and seven-year-olds understand the bigger world.
“We have children in our school with different disabilities. Why is this child running down the hall screaming, they’ll ask? We’re not allowed to do that. Instead of ignoring it, I answer them—honestly, and on their level of understanding. They hear the true explanation, so they don’t have to fill in the blanks.”
Another aspect of teaching, Erdley believes, is training children how to get along with each other.
“Everybody’s different,” says Erdley. “Fair doesn’t mean everything is the same for everybody. We’re lucky here in Lewisburg, but even in our bubble we have need, too. People you go to school with, I tell them, have trouble getting food, clothes and a place to live. You’re lucky. You go home to a mom and dad who can help you. Not everyone has that luxury. These revelations instill a level of compassion.”
One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching, says Erdley, is seeing the children model her behavior. One morning when the class was getting ready to go out to recess, Miss Erdley was busy tying shoes. One student was struggling with zipping up her sweatshirt. “She had herself worked up because she couldn’t get it zipped,” she recalls. “One little boy came over and said, ‘Can I help her?’ It’s noticing that, instead of being in a hurry to get outside. That’s what I teach.”
Part of building community is knowing when not to help. “I’ve worked really hard to get the children not to be impatient with each other if someone can’t figure something out,” Erdley says. “I explain, you can’t just tell them what it says. You can give them clues to help them figure it out. But you learn best, I explain, when your brain does the work to figure something out. So I hear them talking the way I do. ‘What sounds do you hear? Look at the pictures. What were we just reading about?’ Not only is this kind, but if the children internalize those reading strategies and can guide a classmate in using them, I know that when they’re reading independently, that’s happening automatically. This is where I want them to be.”
Other lessonsIt’s not unusual, says Erdley, for academics to take a backseat to whatever need pops up, including embracing the value in learning that making mistakes is a natural and important part of the learning process.
“I thank them for making a mistake,” says Erdley. “Because now, I say, we’ve all learned that. And I make light of it. There are so many kids these days who are perfectionists, who have no coping skills. Everything’s planned and scheduled for them. After school today we go to ballet, then we go to soccer Tuesday. On Wednesday we go to piano. They don’t know how to think for themselves.”
Erdley seeks to address that deficiency by incorporating free time into the curriculum.
“In the morning, I give my kids free-choice time, because they don’t get that a lot. They learn I’m not going to tell them what to do; this is your unstructured time, I tell them. In the beginning, it’s difficult for the children to make choices. But they learn.”
Another part of classroom learning involves exposing the students to new opportunities, ideas and people. Every fall, the class takes a trip to the Union County courthouse and government center. “Of course we can’t go everywhere so I have people come in year after year, and it grows. This year, I have a mom who is a baker and she came in and made bread from scratch. The children were involved every step of the way.”
And Erdley leans heavily on her contacts at Bucknell University. A civil engineering professor does Bridge Day every year. The Turtle Man, Tristan Stayton, a biologist, comes in with his turtles. Retired Bucknell professor Allen Schweinsberg became Erdley’s Bird Man this year for a learning segment on vertebrate animals. The students, speakers agree, listen intently, ask appropriate questions and remember these experiences vividly.
Perhaps the most important part of her job, stresses Erdley, is teaching children that they are not born knowing things—that someone has to teach them, and they have to be willing to work to learn and discover—and be willing to make mistakes as they learn. “They are old enough to understand this concept,” she says. “And they want to fit in and do the right thing. And they feel so big and important when they can.”
Do you know a great teacher with a track record or going above and beyond who would make a great focus for an upcoming article? If so, tell us why in an email to SusquehannaLife@gmail.com.