Brandi Barnett, Georgia

Brandi Barnett, 28, who teaches first grade in Atlanta's Cobb County School District, says that respect and inclusion are key to her approach to both her students and their parents.

"This will be my sixth year of teaching first grade. Some of the children are emerging and beginning to read, but for the most part, they're not reading, and by the end of the year, they're fluent readers. It's so gratifying to see them learn the concept of reading, when they come in not knowing their letters. Every child is different, so you've got to expose them to it and teach them in as many ways as possible, so they can get it.

"I get very attached to my students. Oh yes, absolutely. The last day of school, the kids and I have made such a bond that they don’t want to leave, as exciting as it is to go to the next grade. On the last day of school I have kids crying. And I do miss them, and I tell them to come and visit me next year.

"There are some classes that I would have liked to loop with; that means that you go on to the next grade and teach that same group of kids. And we do loop in, but I’ve never had the possibility to loop. But I wish I would have, especially with my class this year. They were such a good class, I had a good connection with the parents, we had such a good rapport and it was such an awesome class and I was like – this would have been a great class to loop with.

"This year's class would have been a great class to loop with also because the 18 students that I got at the beginning of the year, were the same 18 throughout the whole year. And that’s very rare, in a public school. Most of the time you get kids that leave and kids that transfer to other schools -- last year, my classroom was like a revolving door. Totally! My kids were coming in and going out. And that can be hard, because you don't build a consistent connection with them and a foundation from the beginning. But I was very pleased with this year’s class: the students that I met at orientation were the same students that I waved goodbye to on the last day of school.

"The best feeling ever for a teacher is what we call it the 'Ah hah!' moment, when a child really gets something. It's almost like you see like a little light bulb go off in their mind! Especially if you’ve been working with the child for the whole year and it’s like over and over and, oh my God, you practically beat it to death, and they finally get it -- it's so rewarding!

"I think that a good teacher makes every child in the room feel like they are important to the community: that they have a job, a role, in that classroom community. They have to feel important first, before they can put out any type of good work. They have to know that, 'I’m important and my teacher respects me.' You want to provide a nurturing, comfortable environment, and that’s when they can really learn.

"Parent involvement is very important and I can’t stress that enough. I teach at a school where the parent involvement is not supposed to be so good, but in my classroom, my parent and teacher participation is like 100 percent. And it’s because I reach out to my parents. One thing that I really believe is that parents like to get phone calls and I like to reach out to my parents on a positive note, not always a negative thing. Now I know we have to call them on negative things sometimes, but before I ever make a negative call, I make sure that I have talked to that parent about something positive about their child. So I don’t just call them for the first time and say, 'Johnny had a problem with his behavior today.' No, I've already called them at least once or I’ve seen them and I've said, 'I always enjoy Johnny, he really likes -- and I mention his interests -- and that way the parents are feeling like they want to be involved in the classroom.

"I don’t just meet with the parents on teacher conferences, I tell them about everything we’re doing in the classroom, whether it’s field trips or parties, all the activities that we’re doing in the classroom. I mean, I have parents that come in and volunteer to read and they don’t just do that off the bat, like walk in and say, 'Here I am!', no, I have to reach out to them. I try to make my parents want to be involved.

"This year I had a little girl in my room who went to live with her grandparents because both of her parents were incarcerated. After the first few weeks, I got a three-page letter from her mother explaining -- she didn’t tell me what happened -- but she said that she won’t be able to be in her child's life this year and she just wanted me to know that and if I needed anything to ask her grandma.

"The little girl knew that her father was incarcerated, but she thought that her mother was in college. I kind of think she knew -- kids know a lot more than you think they know -- but this is what they were telling her. She was a very clingy, needy child, and before I got the letter I didn’t understand why this child wanted to hug all the time. In first grade they do love you: they want to hug and they want to please, but this was overly. I knew something was wrong. She was so emotional, like some days she'd be crying, and some days she’d be happy, but always wanting to hug me, love me, she even called me mamma sometimes. So this is just to say, you never know what type of children you are going to get and you have to be whatever it is that child needs you to be, and that day, I was a mamma. And I was a mamma at home with my own kids, but when I was in school I was a mamma too. So this is one thing I wanted to share with you. Just to let you know that teaching isn’t just about instruction either, it’s about whatever it is that those kids need you to be."


©Zina Saunders 2008–2014