by Camille Jones, 2017 Washington State Teacher of the Year
Before I became Washington’s Teacher of the Year, I was just a small-town teacher to a school full of great kids. Rural. Poor. ELL. Hispanic. Undocumented. Our school system loves to put them in these boxes. But it’s my job to look beyond the labels. To bring opportunities that inspire and engage all 441 students in my school. To make sure they are all challenged, every day.
The various proposed budgets floating about leave me with mixed emotions, at best. I celebrated when I heard the voices of my peers jump off the page of Governor Inslee’s plan, calling for supports for teachers and social and emotional learning. But even there my voice was a whisper. I have been given a microphone, and I realized I need to turn it up.
Today, opportunity knocks for kids from affluent neighborhoods. Philanthropists bring relevant programs to schools in need, but their reach is limited. In more isolated areas, opportunity still exists where innovative leaders encourage it. Kids who are fortunate enough to be qualified into the state’s “Highly Capable” (gifted) program are also prepared well. However, this patchwork leaves out many more than it includes.
The Governor’s Education Plan triples funding for career-connected learning and computer science. It expands career and technical education and Highly Capable programs. These sound impressive, and they are vital steps in the right direction, but they are still not enough to ensure this critical training is available to all.
We will never achieve equity, close the achievement gap, or fill the needs of our economy, unless we invest in the opportunities that will adequately prepare students for today’s (and tomorrow’s) global society. We have to look for the best in students just as intently as we scrutinize their weaknesses. Show them how to engage in a world outside their circumstances. Push them to their full potential, and prepare them for competitive opportunities to come.
There are many steps that remain necessary to achieve this goal. Teachers need continual training so we can adapt our classrooms to reflect the changed world outside. STEM/STEAM education should be infused throughout the K-12 continuum, so students can clearly see the path from classroom to career.
One of the most basic needs, one that breaks my heart, is the lack of appropriate, universal screening for Highly Capable programs. Gifted education remains among the most segregated sectors of education, and that is appalling. How can we close the achievement gap if students of color, from poverty, and in special education are denied access to our most challenging opportunities?
In my district, we screen all students with a nonverbal assessment. This test looks at a student’s cognitive ability, regardless of academic performance or ability to read. We include every student in my enrichment classes. By looking for the strengths that exist in all students, the demographics of our Highly Capable Program have changed dramatically. Three years ago, only two white students were called “Highly Capable” at my school, now there are eight Hispanic students and 14 overall.
Can you imagine if we learned how to look at every child in Washington through the lens of their ability? We might discover a whole new outlook on our students. They might discover a whole new perspective on themselves.
I have certainly found those both to be true. Let me give you an example.
I was thrilled to find a kid-friendly, build your own computer kit on a Black Friday sale this year. Two of my second grade girls, Gabriela and Xochtil, jumped at this project. At first, they didn’t even understand the difference between the HDMI cord and the memory card. They were bamboozled when I explained that the display screen isn’t actually a computer.
But they figured it out. They built the computer, plugged it in, and started programming. When they had finished, Xochtil said, “I love building computers! Now I know how technology works!” Later, she told me, “I want to be a science teacher, just like you.”
Xochtil has almost every label in the book. Low income. Hispanic. English Learner. Rural. Girl. My support afforded her two more. Highly Capable. STEM Fanatic.
We shifted our perspective about Xochtil. When we gave her a chance to show her advanced potential, she discovered a new vision for her future. I have seen the difference that relevant, personalized learning brings to the lives of many students like her. I have seen these opportunities grow into passions that even improve effort and outcomes in other school subjects.
Every detail of that memory pushes me to make my voice heard. I purchased that kit with my own money. Too many schools, without sufficient funding, leave it to parents to tell them if a student has advanced abilities. Most Washington schools don’t even have a teacher like me at all. And the saddest part? There are over 400 other students in my school who still don’t “know how technology works”.
It’s easy to say that we want students to reach their maximum potential. But we must be willing to look for it. When we find it, we must be prepared to develop it.
Our students and our state both deserve better. It’s time to shift our perspective.
See their potential.
Fund their path.
Grow the future.
Camille Jones is the 2017 Washington State Teacher of the Year. She is a Highly Capable and Schoolwide Enrichment teacher at Pioneer Elementary in Qunicy, Washington.
Amy Abrams, Kent