We do this for the kids.
Despite the disrespectful ways that those bent on privatizing our schools characterize us, teachers are the most selfless people on the planet. We get up early, we stay up late, we rest very little in between, and our whole lives are dedicated to one very simple objective: helping young people become the best people that they are capable of being. While we often experience anguish and anger at the attacks on our schools, nearly every teacher I ever met pauses, smiles, and gushes when the conversation turns to our kids. We don’t just work with them, we love them and identify them as our own. And when it works right, they love us and identify us as theirs too. In those moments, there is nothing better on the planet.
Today, I started off my day watching about 100 of those moments, and it moved me nearly to tears.
After I had the great privilege of speaking with the staff at Burton Elementary School, one of the EC teachers grabbed me and said I needed to follow her. We walked hurriedly to the back entrance of the school and I got to see something that filled my tank up for at least the rest of the week. There, 3 staff members greeted every single student who got off the bus with a high five and words of love and encouragement. It’s a daily pep rally for the students, and the smiles on their faces expressed a joy that words can’t capture. All I could do was grin and hold back tears.
But beyond starting the students’ day with love, the high fives and greetings provided the staff with an opportunity to check in with each kid. Who looked extra sleepy? Who seemed upset? How was the student who felt sick yesterday doing today? I heard them challenge one student to behave better than he did yesterday, and I walked away clear about the commitment and compassion of the Burton staff.
And this was before the students even started their day.
Earl Carroll was part of that early morning crew, and he clearly has a passion for these kids. According to Carroll, they’re always respectful and always willing to learn. He’s been an EC Teacher at the school for 3 years and loves both the professionalism of the staff and the good time that they have as a team.
Daya Johnson, another part of the early morning pep club, also raved about the professionalism of the staff. She sends her own children to the school, and has seen her co-workers develop more comprehensive strategies to meet her kids’ needs than she could have ever imagined. Their love and dedication, she noted, shows up in their constantly elevated expectations for her children.
Rounding out the early morning crew was Assistant Principal Ronnie Geter. 5 weeks into the job, Geter brings a different set of tools to the table than many administrators because of his background in counseling. Mr. Cason and I got to speak with him for a long time, and he’s bringing a lot of energy to his new position. For Geter, relationships with students and their parents are the priority. “So many parents,” says Geter, “are bitter about the school system because their kid has had bad interactions.” Because of this, Geter centers a mental-health-based approach that recognizes that students are often coming to school carrying trauma. He shared the story of a student who was barking in class. Upon investigation, he realized that the kid and his family had been sleeping in their car and were disturbed by the barking of a dog all night long. For Geter, these stories hit home because of his own childhood struggles, and he works hard to put conversations, relationship building, and positive interventions in place before taking any disciplinary measures with a student. Starting the day with high fives, it seems, is just an early morning intervention aimed at setting students off on the right path.
Custodian Julius Earl Griffin also starts the day off with positivity. After 25 years in another job, he’s been working in schools for the last 4, and he spoke with great excitement about Burton, which he says is changing “1000%”. He pointed specifically at the physical space, noting the abundance of flags and art that reflect the school’s International Baccalaureate program. “Everybody here,” he said, “is on board for the kids.”
The appearance of the building is definitely a highlight. As soon as one walks in the door, both bright colors and clear evidence of the school’s international focus stand out. The physical environment at a school makes a big difference, and it felt good to walk through halls that reinforced the school’s curricular focus, highlighted student work, and just generally felt bright and enlivening.
A core component of the school’s IB focus is its language program. Each student takes Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, and French in their kindergarten year before choosing a path for the rest of their time at the school. Teresa Leal has taught Spanish at Burton for the last 2 of her 17 years in education, and she likes integrating her content into the school’s curriculum. For her, the fact that students get to learn about other cultures at such an early age is a key selling point of the school.
The kindergarten team of Candace Barnes and Shana Boseman also love the language component of the school and named the diversity of cultures that students are exposed to as a strength.
This exposure to cultural diversity is not limited to the curriculum. Burton boasts staff members from all over the world. Sherene Thompson, in her 4th week in the U.S. from Jamaica, loves the support that she has gotten from her co-workers and has enjoyed the smaller class sizes and the curriculum that she teaches here.
Franca Emezie came to the U.S. from Nigeria, and she’s been teaching at Burton for the last 15 years. She said simply, “I love the kids,” before offering that they are touched by the story of her life. She tries to help them understand that, “it isn’t where you’ve come from, it’s where you’re going.”
While the Virgin Islands are not technically international., Rovena Gibson certainly brings a different cultural perspective with her from her home across the water. She has worked with young people for 17 years and loves to watch them “gain skills and make progress.”
Because the families of Burton students also come from all over the world, parent liaison/interpreter/translator Maria Salazar’s work is vital. She sat at the front of the school as the day began, greeting parents and students, and clearly plays a critical role at the school.
Bookkeeper Rhonda Ashe also plays a crucial role, maintaining the financial integrity of the school’s multi-tiered funding structure. Because Burton receives money from Title 1, the task of financial management is both critical and complicated, but Ashe is up to the task. She also smiled broadly when she talked about the students’ bright faces first thing in the morning.
The most challenging role at any school, though, is the front desk staff. Spend 5 minutes in the front office of any school, and you’ll marvel at the whirlwind of activity that the school’s secretary manages second by second. At Burton, Kelly O’Neal capably navigates the omnipresent challenges while still enjoying the opportunity to watch the kids grow and develop over their years at the school.
Having worked at the school for 10 years and volunteered for a number of years beforehand, Kindergarten TA Ramona Brown has seen more than her share of kids grow at Burton. She named the IB program as her favorite part of the school, noting that the whole point of the curriculum is to nurture the questions that children have. For her, learning is about the process of asking questions and figuring out how to find the answers, something that often gets lost in the rote instruction of many more teacher-centered approaches to pedagogy.
We saw evidence of student learning everywhere we turned on this hallway, and we had a lot of fun watching 1st grade Teacher Amanda Bass quiz her students on the way into the room. For the whole 1st grade team, the day starts by answering a question that the teacher asks while she sits at her door. The teachers have a variety of questions that they can choose from, some reading focused and others mathematical in nature, and they choose questions based on where they know each student is in her/his development.
We followed Emily Leal’s students into the classroom after they asked their questions, and it was awesome to see how they all knew the class routine and busily began their morning lessons on their own. The instant engagement of the kids made it clear that they feel safe and loved and ready to learn when they walk into her room.
3rd grade Teacher Anita Jarrett also emphasizes engagement. She noted that she “wants her kids to be excited about school every day.” That excitement extends beyond the school day, and she stresses the importance of going to the students’ sports games and after school programs and connecting with their parents as a way to keep the energy up.
High energy was following Instructional Facilitator Prince Thompson around the building. He just got married over the weekend, and it was so sweet to watch his co-workers love on him and share some joy as a school family.
Kindergarten teacher Destiny Chevis also has big joy on the horizon, working despite being a week past the due date of her pregnancy. She spoke about the staff as a family, noting that everyone gets along and is quick to help one another out. She has strong relationships with the school’s students, and they’ll most definitely be excited to hear the news when their teacher finally gives birth to her own child.
For counselor Ponsella Brown, Burton’s children are her own. She’s been at the school for 10 years and knows the kids’ parents, grandparents, and neighbors. She loves getting to interact with current students’ older siblings who come back to show their love for their Burton family,and she’ll take trips into the surrounding neighborhood to make house visits and feel right at home. This kind of rapport doesn’t come easy, but those of us that put love at the center of our profession know how necessary a part of the job it is.
My day at Burton Elementary started and ended with student-centered actions and expressions, and the smile I started with never left my face throughout. This is how a school should feel: student-focused and happy. It was an absolute joy to spend some time with the Burton family, and I highly recommend that anyone in the need of a pick-me-up go spend a day with this school’s stellar staff and students.
Thanks for letting me share in your smiles Burton. I can’t wait to come back.
Please note that the intent of these “What’s Good?” posts is to highlight the positive elements of each of Durham’s public schools. They are intended to focus on the best efforts that our well-meaning and supremely dedicated educators make every day to love and nurture the young people in our schools. These posts are snapshots, not comprehensive reports on each school. The important contributions of so many will, unfortunately, be left out.
We fully acknowledge that each of our public schools is imperfect when it comes to meeting the needs of students of color, poor students, LGBTQ students, students with disabilities and mental or physical health problems, and lots of other students for a variety of individual reasons. However, this blog is not intended to shed light on those problems, which are much more complicated than can be explored in a disclaimer.
So, we ask that if you choose to write a comment, you keep with the celebratory intent of this blog. We’re happy to post comments that focus on the good. Meanwhile, DAE is also out in DPS every day, fighting to win the schools we ALL deserve. We hope you’ll join us. Thanks for reading.