Meet Michigan Teacher of the Year Laura Chang

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August 14, 2018

Laura Chang is Michigan’s Teacher of the Year for 2018-19, an award Meemic is proud to partner with the Michigan Department of Education to sponsor. Laura is entering her nineteenth year of teaching at Sunset Lake Elementary in Vicksburg Community Schools, where she is currently a K-5 interventionist.

We talked with Laura about her teaching experience.

What is your teaching experience?

I’m a proud Western Michigan University graduate x 2! I graduated in 1999 with a Bachelor of Science degree in education and again in 2004 with a Master of Arts in education and professional development.  Shortly after, I began teaching as a part-time instructor in the WMU College of Education’s Special Education and Literacy Studies department.

My classroom teaching career began 18 years ago at Sunset Lake Elementary in Vicksburg, in second grade. Over the years, I’ve taught second grade, first/second grade multiage, third grade and worked as an instructional consultant.  Next year, I’ll serve as an interventionist in my building. In this role, I will work primarily with K-2 students who struggle in the areas of reading and mathematics. 

What is your mission as Michigan Teacher of the Year?

As MTOY, I will chair the Michigan Teacher Leadership Advisory Committee (MTLAC), which comprises this year’s cohort of 10 Regional Teachers of the Year, representing every region of our state. During this year of service, the MTLAC will work with MDE and other Michigan educational stakeholders to find solutions facing Michigan’s education system issues, while ensuring that the voice of teachers is present in these discussions. This group is unique because as a team, we will determine which issues are most important in our education system right now that need to be addressed. I was fortunate enough to be part of the MTLAC over this past year, and we focused on new teacher induction and mentoring, teacher leadership, educator evaluations and other important issues for students and educators in Michigan.

My mission is also to be the voice of Michigan teachers and the voice for the students of Michigan. I hope to be an advocate for students to petition for teachers to have resources and training to meet the students’ diverse social, behavioral and academic needs, both in school and in their homes.

What is the biggest change in your classroom from when you first started teaching?

The wonderful thing about teaching is that it changes every year. We are always improving our practices in order to meet the ever-changing needs of our students and families. 

When I began teaching almost 20 years ago, the classroom was very teacher-directed and based on a specific curriculum that would meet the needs of the average to high-performing students. Today, every part of what we do is differentiated. 

Student data drives our instruction in the classroom. We assess students at the beginning of the year and throughout the year to meet their diverse academic and social needs. Students in my classroom sit on ball chairs, stools and wiggly seats instead of the neat rows of desks that I used when I began my career. 

Technology integration is also completely different. When I started teaching, I had one teacher computer and one student computer that the kids shared. We used the student computer to take comprehension tests and play computer games like “Oregon Trail” for a special reward.

Today, my students have one-to-one access to Chromebooks, and technology is woven seamlessly into the curriculum. We use it in all subject areas to enhance learning. Students have the opportunity to demonstrate their new learning by using tech tools like Google docs, Flipgrid and Seesaw, just to name a few. 

My second grade students are fluent in computer coding and program robots to complete tasks. It is so exciting to have a career that is different every day and certainly every year. You truly must be a lifelong learner as a teacher because the best practices for students and the latest ways to incorporate technology to enhance our instruction are constantly improving.

What are the most important things that your students have taught you?

I have had the privilege of teaching many challenging students over the years in my career as a classroom teacher. Teaching these students has been a privilege because it has pushed me to be a better educator as a teacher who guides students with empathy and compassion.

The most challenging group of students that I have taught during my career was the group of students from this past year. These precious students brought to school a wide variety of behavioral, academic and socio-economic struggles. I had a student who was angry with the world because of a messy divorce and custody arrangement. I had students who were hungry and tired each morning because they didn’t have dinner or a good night’s sleep. I had students who had struggled academically for years with little improvement in their reading and math abilities. I had a student with a mother who was receiving intensive chemotherapy treatment for her recent cancer diagnosis, and he was living with fear and uncertainty for which no child should have to struggle. I had a student with so much anxiety that he often screamed in frustration and curled up in a ball in the corner of the room.

However, I had success with building relationships with each and every one of these students over this past year. Everyone wants to feel cared for and valued by the significant people in their world. For some of my students, the only safe and consistent place they have is here at school in my classroom. I use my passion for teaching and passion for developing relationships with my students to inspire them to work harder than they ever thought possible.

Teachers must have a passion for their work when they walk into a classroom each day. I’m passionate about my students’ academic, behavior and socio-emotional growth and success. Our students look to their teachers for hope, for guidance, for encouragement and for inspiration. What my students may not realize, though, is that those are the things that they give to me each day when I walk into my classroom.

One thing that my students have taught me is to never give up hope. I see students walk into my room wearing the same clothes that they’ve worn all week, tired from too little sleep the night before, or without a backpack, homework or shoes for physical education class.

However, that same child knows that I hold high academic expectations and that I’m fully confident that the child can reach the goals that we have set together. That student knows that I will work as a team with my colleagues and the school staff to provide clothes, food and school supplies for this struggling family. I have hope, and confidence, that each one of my students will be college and career ready because their social and academic needs are being met.

Another thing that I’ve learned from my students is the importance of celebrating milestones. Differentiating instruction for my students to meet their diverse needs gives me the opportunity to celebrate these academic and behavioral achievements.

Although my students may think that I am guiding their learning, they are actually guiding my teaching. I meet students where they are and push them harder to achieve more than they ever thought possible. We celebrate even the smallest victories because this encourages all of us to continue to work to meet and exceed the goals that we have set together. 

When examining student data, I must always be self-reflective to determine what I need to do differently to meet the needs of the students who did not master the content. I use that data to guide my instruction to stretch and challenge the students who show proficiency in the content as well as change my methods of instruction to ensure that students who struggled can also show adequate growth.

Finally, my students have taught me the importance of encouragement and inspiration in the classroom. We laugh every day in our classroom. In fact, colleagues often point out that my laugh can be heard all the way down the hallway!

My students fill me with such joy. They inspire me every day to do my best work for them.  They encourage me with their curiosity, their excitement for learning and their passion for accomplishing difficult tasks. I am so blessed to have a job in which every day is different. I am so fortunate to work in this fulfilling, life-changing career of teaching.

What is your favorite story/event from teaching?

I find the rewards of teaching to be immeasurable. In addition to the smiles, hugs, compliments and handmade cards that I receive on a daily basis from my precious students, I am privileged to help and observe my students as they learn, grow and lead throughout the school year.  The growth of my students throughout the year is truly remarkable.

It is even more fulfilling to observe my students take ownership of their accomplishments as they collect data, monitor growth and take ownership of their learning in their leadership notebooks. Watching a child beam with pride and self-confidence when they have struggled academically in an area but then achieve success is beyond rewarding. This is why I want to inspire young adults to move into this extraordinary profession. This is why I became a teacher.

Who would play you in the Oscar-bait inspirational movie about your class and what would the movie be called?

Oh, wow. This is a tough one! The movie would be called “Live in the Moment,” starring Julia Roberts, of course (we’re virtually twins, obviously). 😉 No, it would be Julia Roberts because she and I both laugh loudly and smile often.

As teachers, we have so many pressures coming at us from every direction in the classroom. We have curriculum-pacing guides that dictate the amount of time that it should take to teach our content. We have teacher evaluations that take an incredible amount of time from our lesson planning to complete, with artifacts, to prove our effectiveness. We have parent communication to maintain through phone calls, texts, emails and social media. We have more meetings and paperwork that one could imagine.

All of these factors cause teacher burnout and teachers to leave the profession because they’re unable to devote the time for what is most important – the students in our classrooms. My movie would be called “Live in the Moment” because in order to find balance under all of this pressure, we must prioritize and put first things first. We have to focus on what is the most important thing at that very moment. We need to set aside the pressures of these things that are out of our circle of control and focus on what we have control of in our own classrooms.

In my own classroom, I must teach students to be kind and contributing members of a community. They need to be passionate for learning throughout their lives. They also must be empowered to stand up for one another. When these things are in place, negative student behaviors decrease dramatically.

Students deserve to have a teacher with whom they’ve made a connection, a teacher who has invested time and energy to get to know them on a personal level. They need a teacher who capitalizes on their strengths and gives them leadership opportunities in the classroom. When students feel safe and trusted, academic achievement increases drastically. These are the things that are most important in my classroom.

Do you have any words of advice for teachers (rookies or veterans)?

This is what I’d like new teachers to know: Teachers, we have one of the most difficult jobs but also one of the most rewarding and fulfilling careers. We take home our students’ hurts, heartaches and struggles and pore over ways that we can make a difference for them socially, emotionally and academically. 

However, we also see the pure joy when our students have worked so hard for so long and finally have that “AHA” moment ... that moment when it all makes sense and they have applied that new knowledge and made it their own.  There are no words to describe this joy and pride that we have for our precious students, especially when we see that same joy and pride in their eyes. 

Teachers, continue to teach with passion, with excitement and with empathy for these gifts that walk into our classroom each morning. Teach to students and not to the tests. Differentiate your instruction to meet the needs of the students. If the students’ data isn’t showing that they’ve mastered the content, look within. Reach out to colleagues, coaches and mentors for support.  

Most importantly, make strong connections with your students. A teacher once said, “A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in or the kind of car I drove ... but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.”