Touring the State Shows How Teachers Help Students Shine

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April 12, 2022

If you’ve spent any time connected to the learning of students this year, you know that the impact the pandemic has made is unprecedented. The learning landscape has been complex, and the legacy of what has happened will take years to fully understand. I could examine the endless cascade of hurdles on both teachers and students' shoulders, but that has been done in countless ways over the past months and will continue well beyond this school year.
This time, I don’t want to do that.
Instead, I want to celebrate the learners across our state and some of the magical moments I have witnessed in my travels over the past several months. Despite the challenges, I have observed time and time again the creativity, engagement and brilliance of learners because they’ve had educators who  push aside the pressures of the moment and see students for who they are. And because of that, the confidence and growth of these students is exponential. It is the very essence of what makes this profession beautiful and rewarding.
I sat in a kindergarten classroom in St. Johns where I watched a teacher supporting her littlest learners in building reading stamina by examining pictures while making text-to-self connections about feelings. The students sat for five minutes, slowly turning pictures, whispering to themselves and practicing what it feels like to be a reader while simultaneously connecting to the emotions of the characters of the story. After the five minutes were up, the teacher invited the students to share with a partner, then asked for a few students to share with the class. A little girl raised her hand, and her teacher invited her to the front of the room. She placed an informational book about wolves underneath the camera projector and a picture of a pack of wolves eating another animal popped up on the screen. The student exclaimed, “This is how I feel when I am hungry! I just want to eat everything around me!” Her joy and excitement to share her connection was infectious as many other students began to raise their hands, inspired by her confidence. 
I spent the day at Caro High School to see their first in-person musical in two years, “Chicago.” I was sitting in the auditorium long before the show began while their director was giving them feedback about the performance from the night before. She began to discuss with two of the student actors about the need to add in a minute-long dance sequence to help another actor change costumes. I watched the two students choreograph the dance within minutes, practicing it only once, and then, during the show, do the dance flawlessly as if it had been rehearsed for months. Their creativity, spontaneity and collaboration were extraordinary to witness and continued to affirm to me the power that the arts bring to youth.
I was visiting an elementary school in Pontiac, and when I stepped into the classroom, the teacher was reviewing the laws that the British passed to the colonists in America. Trying not to disrupt, I tiptoed in quickly and found a seat at a round table in the back of the classroom near a student sitting by himself. After the review, the teacher had his fourth-graders take a few minutes to reflect on a text they were reading comparing George Washington and King George. He then asked the students to write down some thoughts on a sticky note about things they noticed and wondered about King George. As I turned around to observe the student behind me, he asked if he could share his thoughts aloud to me. I happily agreed. This incredible student then spent the next three minutes explaining in detail what he noticed. He gave oral justifications to every point with evidence from the text, discussions with peers and his own rationale. I was blown away at his ability to connect a variety of sources and defend his positions with evidence. His knowledge and ability to orally communicate his message left me in awe.
At a charter academy in Benton Harbor, I was invited to read to a class of first-graders. As I stood at the front of the room, I began talking to them about the types of books we read, and how they help us learn, laugh and grow. I then shared that some of those books nestle into your heart; those are the special books that stay with you forever. I introduced the book I was about to read (“How Rocket Learned to Read” by Tad Hills) and shared that this book would be forever entwined in my heart because of reading it over and over to my kindergarten students when we were learning from home at the beginning of the pandemic. I then asked the class if they had books that nestled into their heart. To my surprise, every student started to excitedly share their favorite books, turning to the pocket on the back of their chair and pulling out books. Some held them high, pointing at their favorite characters; some hugged them close to their chests like they were holding a prized possession. I had to turn away for a moment, overwhelmed with emotion by their pure love of stories.
I could write about countless other moments just like these.
Here is what I know. No matter how complicated things become, or as divisive as things feel, or as overwhelming educators are collectively, the beauty and love of learning is present every day. It is more important than ever that we give students the autonomy to develop their brilliance, creativity and joy of learning. It is the sunlight emerging from the horizon and will be our guide while we make our way through this challenging time. 
About Leah Porter: I am a third-grade teacher at Wilcox Elementary in Holt Public Schools. As an educator for over 15 years, I strive each day to help students develop into their most authentic selves. I value providing instruction that helps create leaders and competent, critical thinkers who will be strong voices and caring citizens in their community. As Michigan Teacher of the Year 2021-2022, I strive for all my work to be seen through the lens of equity and accessibility, and how to build educational systems for learners that will transform the trajectory of education across the state of Michigan and beyond.