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Lessons for the teacher

After just a few months in her first teaching job, Brook Bell has learned that every day can't follow a lesson plan.

By LOGAN NEILL

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 9, 2000


Editor's note: For a rookie teacher, the classroom can mean a reality that is far different from expectations. This story is one in a series appearing periodically throughout the school year about the trials and triumphs of Brook Bell, a first-year kindergarten teacher at Brooksville Elementary School.

Standing at her classroom doorway, Brook Bell looks over her kindergarteners as they line up in front of her and smiles at what she sees. There is no squirming, no poking, no whining. All eyes and feet are forward, and all mouths, for the moment, are closed.

"Why, this looks like a first-grade line!" she announces in a tone that oozes with obvious pride.

For the 23-year-old Bell, this is a victory she could only dream of 11 weeks ago. Back then, her 20 pupils were mere recruits, filled with boundless energy and enthusiasm for learning but unaware of the regimen and focus required.

Which is why the way her pupils line up at the classroom door has become so significant. It was one of the first tasks Bell began teaching when she first stepped in the door to Room 2044 to begin her career as a kindergarten teacher at Brooksville Elementary School.

Because her class travels the hallways up to six times each day on its way to and from "specials" classes, lunch and physical education, a quiet, disciplined line allows everyone in the school to see what good students they are becoming.

The act is also indicative of the kind of overall progress that Bell's students have achieved since school started. By most respects, Bell's students are well on their way to success in kindergarten. A recent evaluation of her kindergarteners revealed that nearly all are at or near the state standards expected after nine weeks.

So far, they have learned to form the alphabet up to the letter K. In math, they are learning to count objects and numbers, and some are beginning to learn simple arithmetic. Many students can also already recognize some of the 25 or so three-letter sight words.

"They are really smart kids," Bell said. "They catch on to concepts a lot quicker than I thought they would at first. Seeing that kind of success has really been important to me."

As her fledgling career has taken wing, the former Hernando High honors graduate who came back to teach in her hometown has seen tremendous personal growth as well.

Each day has been a lesson in adaptation to things that once seemed etched in stone. However, the reality of watching 20 5- and 6-year-olds all day long has altered some of the ideals that Bell brought to her job the first day. And while she still clings to education principles taught in her child education curriculum at the University of South Florida, she has had to discover many of her own methods toward achieving those goals.

That includes no longer obsessing over the things she cannot control. Therefore, she no longer bends to pick up every scrap of paper or broken crayon the moment they fall to the floor. At lunch, she doesn't beg her pupils to clean their plates. And she has learned to ignore most of the barrage of interruptions and outbursts throughout the day.

Surprising as well, has been the amount of time her job consumes. Bell arrives at 8 a.m., roughly 45 minutes before school begins, and generally stays until 5 p.m.

But the nine hours she spends on campus are seldom enough to prepare for the hands-on types of activities she thinks are important to her pupils. Therefore, Bell takes much of that home with her and often returns to her classroom on weekends.

"If you teach an older grade, you get some time to yourself when the kids are doing their work," Bell said. "With kindergarteners, you're with them every minute in class, so you have to look for other ways to get things done."

In a recent evaluation by her superiors, Bell earned an effective rating in all areas of her job. Still, she sees areas where she admits a need for improvement, most notably in the realm of discipline.

"I need to be tougher," she said. "I tend to be very soft. I give in easily because a lot of times it's easier to do than to fight a battle."

Indeed, discipline has proven to be the most challenging aspect of her job, Bell said. Because kindergarten lays the cornerstone of a child's education career, she recognizes the importance of assessing behavioral problems and trying to eliminate them early.

An infraction log at her desk details all incidents that have caused a pupil to be sent to the principal's office or that necessitate a call to a parent or a meeting with a behavior specialist. Fortunately, those incidences have been rare, Bell said.

But aside from the state and school guidelines she must follow in handling classroom situations, she admits the line of action can sometimes be fine.

"Sometimes you get stuck," Bell said. "I have to weigh things all the time. There are a few that will have stretches of real good days, and then they'll have a day when they aren't. You have to decide whether it's something that will pass, or something that is only going to get worse."

Bell emphasizes a system that uses small tangible rewards such as candy or snacks to get her pupils to think about behaving better. She reasons that if children see others getting a reward for good behavior, they will want to earn the same.

Students at a table who perform their work well or earn points for good behavior can earn the opportunity to lunch with Bell outside at the end of the week. But Bell's favorite method of reward comes in the form of a small bottle of glitter paint, which she dispenses in small dots on the faces of her deserving pupils.

"They love it," she said. "It gives them something to show off to each other and to the rest of the kids in school. It says they've done something good."

Bell thinks she has already jumped most of the tallest hurdles she will face this year, including the ones that involve pleasing the parents of the children she teaches.

"They've been real supportive," Bell said. "But the best news I can possibly get from a parent is for them to tell me their child really likes me. That's how I know if I'm making an impact."

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