How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.
Denise Perritt, a reading specialist and high school English teacher at the tiny Paradox Valley School in the western Colorado town of Paradox, knew she wanted to teach as an elementary school student. The inspiration? Her fifth-grade teacher, who showed her the joy in teaching.
Perritt, who also serves as vice principal of the charter school, talked to Chalkbeat about her former teacher’s special qualities, the importance of parent feedback and why she likes it when students laugh in class.
Perritt is one of 20 educators who were selected for the state’s new Commissioners Teacher Cabinet. The group will provide input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education on the impact of education policies in the classroom.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
Why did you become a teacher?
I was inspired by my fifth-grade teacher, Miss Johnson. She led her classroom with compassion, which caused me to believe I could teach. Miss Johnson genuinely cared about our learning, but she also cared about us as students. I learned from my previous teachers in grades K-4, but they were all about the learning and not so much about personally getting to know their students.
I really noticed and liked this teaching style. Further, Miss Johnson’s class was fun and we helped each other learn so everyone was successful, which felt good. I was not just responsible for my own learning, but also for the success of my friends and classmates. So, I guess this is when I first experienced the joy of teaching and became hooked.
What does your classroom look like?
I teach in multiple spaces within our school (sometimes even having to move in the middle of a lesson when the conference room is needed for a meeting). My class spaces are small resource rooms in which I try to create learning energy we can take with us (because my class spaces are fluid, but also as inspiration for students to make learning fun for themselves). I believe learning is a state of mind and does not always have to be connected to a particular place. Although environment does inspire learning, we can create a fun place to learn anywhere if we have the desire to learn within us.
Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my________?
My heart. My desire to teach started in my heart when my fifth grade teacher’s compassion for her students and teaching stirred my soul and started me thinking about teaching. There is definitely an art and science to teaching. I believe students learn more —and there is plenty of research to support my belief — when they know teachers sincerely care about them. (Not just about what they are learning, but also about the joy in their lives.)
What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
Honestly, I do not have a favorite lesson. I engage students in my planning (i.e. we decide together which novels we will read and what we will write about) so learning is fun and meaningful for all of us. My students often come up with better lesson ideas than I would.
As we progress through lessons, we include things along the way. For example, one group of readers chose the novel “Hoot” by Carl Hiaasen. The story is about burrowing owls and saving them from having their habitat destroyed. Just yesterday, I received a call from my principal, Jon, who is on vacation and just happened to photograph a mother burrowing owl feeding her babies. We discussed him sharing his photos with our students upon our return to school. Now, if I read this novel with another group of students, I have this additional resource to draw upon. Jon is a wonderful photographer so I also may have him share a bit about how he became interested in photography (sort of a career/mentor teachable moment). So, you can see how things just fall naturally into place, if you are open and flexible with lesson-planning.
Thus, I do not have a favorite lesson because my lessons are not plans, but scaffolds upon which to build student knowledge. The structure supports and allows lots of room for new thoughts and ideas, which allow broader and deeper connections to be made, even if they are months later (as in the case of the owl photos).
How do you respond when students don’t understand your lesson?
I usually ask the students to tell me what they are thinking. Then I can learn how I can add to their thinking to help them get to the expected level of understanding.
How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I usually tell a joke related to the topic to get them all thinking about the same thing and laughing. Then I have their attention and we are back on topic.
I use laughter in class for many reasons. It decreases stress hormones and increases immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies, thus helping to keep all of us well and in school. Iit triggers the release of endorphins, which promote an overall sense of well-being and can even temporarily relieve pain. Also, it promotes a general feeling of fun while learning. I have had teachers say to me, “When I passed your class, I heard a lot of laughing. It sounded like all of you were having fun.”
How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
Teaching in a small school — total enrollment is 75 in preschool through 12th grade — makes it easy to know all students. I am also the vice principal of the school and stand at the front door each morning to greet each student. I do this for many reasons, but mostly because I like to and it gives me an overall feeling about how each student’s morning has been thus far. Most students have about an hour ride on the bus to get to school; and, since we have one bus, our entire student body comes in at once. Having preschool through 12th grade students together on one bus sometimes causes problems, so I like to nip them early in the day.
I have been at Paradox Valley School two years and have built relationships with students by: Listening (I ask questions to be sure I understand what they are sharing with me); helping; and, being firm (keeping expectations high) and fair. I think the students respect these qualities and I encourage them to do the same as they interact with one another. Our students are truly amazing young people and the foundation of my relationships with them is based upon mutual respect and learning. I learn from them as much as, I hope, they learn from me.
Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach?
One of the most memorable occurred early in my career and has stuck with me for decades. I was teaching first grade and had a student who was reading significantly below grade level. Diagnostic testing confirmed she needed more time to learn to read. Unfortunately, given the structure of the school in which I was teaching, this meant repeating first grade. Her parents did not agree with the decision so we compromised. I agreed to read with her over the summer and continue to do my best to get her ready for second grade. They agreed, if she was not ready, she would repeat, which is what happened.
I stayed at that school one more year and then transferred to another district, but continued to live in the same community. Years later, her mother sought me out to let me know her daughter was doing well and repeating first grade was the right decision. I was moved that she reached out to let me know. During the span of time between her daughter repeating and seeing her again, I had my own daughter, which also changed my perspective. In my new role as a parent, I tried to let Anna’s teachers and mentors know — from pre-K through college — how much their hard work was appreciated.
What are you reading for enjoyment?
“The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World” by Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama
What’s the best advice you ever received?
One piece of advice I have used often was shared with me by a professor, Dr. Robert Hanny, while I was studying at The College of William and Mary in Virginia. I was struggling to narrow my research for my dissertation, and he said, “Denise, you do not have to build the wall, you only have to add a brick. Add your brick [research] on top of someone else’s brick, which is already laid; and, design your brick so another can be put on yours by someone, who comes along after you.”
This is true for so much of what we do as educators. We teach our students for a limited time and then they go to another teacher. We cannot teach them all they need to know. We can add to what the child knows already, teach as much as possible in the time we have, and know they will continue learning after they leave our classroom.