Teacher Feature – Ms. Beth Carmichael

November 17, 2015

(Photo courtesy of Beth Carmichael)

This November, Inspired Teaching spoke with Beth Carmichael, a kindergarten teacher at Powell Elementary School (DCPS) and a 2013 Inspired Teaching Fellow. The following is a condensed version of this conversation:

When did you know you wanted to be a teacher?

I think I’ve always wanted to be a teacher, and I remember a moment in fifth grade when my class and I were talking about what we wanted to be. I told everyone that I wanted to be a teacher, and I specifically remember my teacher saying “Oh, I can see you as a teacher! You’d be a good teacher.” That’s when I really started thinking more seriously about it.

In high school, I went back and forth and then decided that teaching really was what I wanted to do. I went to college in California and studied bilingual education. California doesn’t certify teachers as part of your undergrad, and by the time I was at the end of my degree, I needed a little break from college. So after graduation, I went and taught abroad in early childhood classrooms. When I came back to the United States, I started looking for a program that certified early childhood teachers, which is how I found the Inspired Teacher Certification Program.

What led you to the Inspired Teacher Certification Program?

I did a lot of browsing online and talked to friends who were already teachers. Inspired Teaching really spoke to me because they focus on building relationships with students, having mutual respect with your students and colleagues, and learning through student discovery. I knew that this was the type of education system and movement that I wanted to be part of.

Why was it important to you to learn how to build relationships with students?

Teaching students how to have productive relationships with their peers and to be responsible for one another is really important. Part of our job as teachers is to prepare students to be capable human beings in our communities and in the future workforce. For a student, being able to trust that your teacher believes in you and wants you to grow makes you try harder. I want to create a mutually beneficial system where we all look out for one another. That works in life, and it works in a classroom.

Do you believe in the residency model as a way to train new teachers?

Definitely. I think that having hands-on experience is always better, no matter the profession. In teaching in particular, you’re juggling so many different things – you’re lesson planning; you’re capturing students’ attention; designing a curriculum that meets their needs; scoping out how your students are feeling and then altering your plans if needed; pressing students or challenging them with questions. By actually teaching in a classroom and getting that practice, particularly with an experienced educator by your side, you can see what things you do well and what things you need to continue to work on. You have someone there to guide you and provide instant feedback. Having another set of eye on what you’re doing in those first months in the classroom is invaluable.

When you look back on your residency year, what was the most difficult part for you?

At the beginning of the year, I hadn’t really learned yet how to collaborate with colleagues. I felt confident with children and providing instruction, but working side by side with someone who had 20+ years of teaching experience was a challenge for me. I needed to learn how to co-teach and collaborate and to practice receiving feedback, expressing my needs, and advocating for myself. I was with a teaching partner who worked with me to figure all of that out, and I think we’re both equally grateful for the experience we had.

How was the experience being in a cohort of new teachers?

It was interesting because we all came into the Inspired Teacher Certification Program with different levels of experience. I had a few years of teaching experience, some members of the cohort were fresh out of college, and some were career changers coming from very different fields.

I remember that first week of summer institute was a time to bond and to build this family of people who understood each other and all of our individual, quirky qualities. We heard about each other’s passions and drives and why people wanted to be educators, and that’s really nice. It’s wonderful to have a group of people you can work with in different capacities. I became closer with certain people, but I felt that I could go to anybody in the cohort and get the support I was looking for.

You’re a member of the Fellows Advisory Board (FAB). What made you decide to join?

I think it’s always good to have a network, especially in teaching. You need to have a support system and people on your side who are working with you to help you improve. It makes it easier to continue to grow and to find answers to new problems. Each year you have 20-25 students who have different personalities and challenges from your students the year before, and it’s great to have a community of educators who can help one another grapple with meeting those different needs.

My drive to join FAB was to make sure we Inspired Teaching Fellows build those connections. I wish I could think of a better description than this, but I think we owe it to each other and to ourselves to work together. Meeting once a month to discuss interesting ways to bring people together, holding each other accountable, and understanding that building a network benefits us all has been powerful. We need to continue to spread the word so that even more teachers will become connected and that motivates me to continue to be involved

What are you most excited about for school year 2015-16?

I’m excited for those ah-ha reading moments. Those moments when a student who’s feeling discouraged finally figures it out are my favorite part of teaching kindergarten. There’s this cycle I observe where students initially think they’re readers because they pick up a book and tell a story about it (which is definitely a part of the process), but then they realize that reading requires processing and understanding the written words. So students get down on themselves. Then, right after that, they experience this boost of “I can understand these words!” Those moments are the best, and that’s what I’m the most excited about.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing educators today?

I think the drive for data is important because teachers should be held accountable for the work we do and for the learning that’s happening (or not) in our classrooms. But I think that too often we get caught up in the numbers, and people don’t find a place for observation and anecdotal evidence. Multiple-choice or true/false tests are typically named the solution to the accountability problem, and as a result, those other valuable assessments fall to the side. I hope there’s a push for understanding that we need to track not just content understanding, but also social and emotional skills.

I think that in early childhood classrooms across the board, there’s not enough play. There’s so much content to put into our students’ days that we don’t dedicate the time to building those social-emotional skills I mentioned. Often, outsiders who come to a classroom want to see students working with pencil and paper and letters and numbers, and it’s more difficult to explain the important learning that’s happening when two students work together to build a tower or make a racecar track. I’m hoping that organizations like Inspired Teaching will move us in the direction of thoughtfully incorporating serious play, so we can be sure we’re doing what’s right for kids.

What do you think is the most important skill you now have as a teacher?

I’m very calm. This is important in a classroom where there can be 21 different emotions or a challenging student who’s not engaged with the rest of the class. Juggling all that can make anyone overwhelmed, and I’m always aware of when I start to get anxious so that I can take a step back, regroup, and then reenter that conversation or problem-solving process. I think I do a good job of checking myself and making sure that I’m ok so that I can be better for my students.

What would you say are the biggest ways Inspired Teaching has influenced your teaching practice?

Certainly building relationship-based discipline and earning students’ trust is at the top. The idea of inquiry-based learning has also been extremely important to me. I hadn’t heard of this framework before, and I didn’t grow up with it, but it really speaks to me. I was always a strong student, but what was valued when I was growing up was getting the task done and replicating and memorizing what my teacher said. I love the challenge and success that inquiry produces for all students, not only the student who’s good at filling out the worksheet. Learning about inquiry through Inspired Teaching has been key for my classroom.

The application to join the 2016 cohort of Inspired Teaching Fellows is now open! Learn more and apply today

September Inspired Teaching Institute

Teachers can’t control what happens between the time students wake up and when they arrive at school but they have a lot of control over what happens when students cross the classroom threshold. Participants in this fast-paced, idea-rich Institute will learn 20 different strategies for starting the school day!