WMAES Elementary Teacher Spotlight

Heather Garner is a third-grade teacher at West Michigan Academy of Environmental Science.

What keeps your students aiming for success in the classroom?

“My students really value self-improvement. They like to see how far they can go with things and they are always up for challenges. In math, we always work on extending our third-grade topics to fourth-grade ones. They really like feeling accomplished when they learn something that is meant for a higher grade.”

How do you remind your students of the expectations you have?

“We are always consistent with expectations here. We practice a lot at the beginning of the year, and by winter break we usually have them down pat. The kids know what is expected and they will often remind one another of the expectations. They like the feeling of having a classroom that is peaceful and predictable, so they are good at holding expectations high for themselves.”

Your students seem to take an active part in the classroom. In what ways are they active in their learning?

“The students in my class have the responsibility of correcting their own work for certain subjects. They are able to see how well they are doing and also ways in which they can improve. Students also have challenge options during the week for different subjects. They are able to decide if they need more practice on something or if they are ready for a challenge. This makes them responsible for their own learning.”

With such independent students, how do you incorporate teamwork into your classroom?

“Our classroom is a team and we practice this mentality from the start of the year. We work together to accomplish goals, and we work together to practice ones that we might not have mastered. We include everyone in the class in everything we do because together we are greater than what we are apart.”

In what ways do you build a family-like atmosphere in your classroom?

“From the start of the year, we establish that we are a team. We care for one another and treat each other with respect. We always talk openly about how we are feeling, and if there is a problem, we work together to solve it. Everyone in the class knows that in our classroom, not one person is better than the other, and we must respect each other at all times. We do not leave people out. If someone wants to play, the answer is always, sure!”

What’s the ‘secret ingredient’?

“There are two secret ingredients: consistency and respect for each other, no matter how different we are. We learn from our mistakes and are better because of our differences.”

How do you keep your students interested in learning?

“I keep my students interested in learning by connecting them to the learning personally. We find ways to connect to what is being learned in the classroom. Each year I also try to figure out what kind of a group I have. Two years ago, I had a group who loved origami, so we did lots of paper projects that was built into our learning. Last year they loved dancing, so we tied that in when we could. This year, the kids seem to love to be outside and getting creative, so we let them build tribes out of sticks. Each year is different, and different is fun!”

How are creativity and innovative thinking used on a daily basis in your classroom?

“We talk about different ways to solve problems in the classroom. Each student contributes something unique. We find something our class loves that we have in common, and we try to make the curriculum fit around that.”