It's not just about getting it right, it's about having grace
October 5, 2020
There was never any question for Caitlin Ritter - she was going to be a teacher. Having a grandmother who taught first and third grade, a grandfather who taught biology at Central Michigan University, and a mom who served as both an alternative education teacher and a school principal, teaching was simply in her blood. She spent her childhood sitting her little sister down, determined to teach her something - even if her sister was less than interested in learning.
After beginning her teaching career down state in Three Rivers, then bouncing around to a couple other districts, Caitlin found herself interviewing with Boyne City Public Schools - then she got a phone call from a small charter school called Concord Academy. Intrigued, she took the interview and has been loving her time as a Concord teacher for nearly five years now.
Nestled just a short drive from both Boyne Falls and Lake Charlevoix, Concord is set right into Northern Michigan's beautiful landscape. But the scenery is just one thing that sets it apart; boasting class sizes that average just 9-12 students and a focus on integrating the creative arts into education, Concord is a special place for both educators and students. For Caitlin, it means that even though she's a math teacher (which in her words "isn't known for being a creative subject!"), she gets to use things like art, singing and more to help her students grasp complex math subjects.
I have this equations song that I make everyone sing - from sixth grade all the way through senior year. The older kids roll their eyes, but I know it sticks in their head! Just being able to have that multi-academic connection is important; the more they can connect to things, the more it will stick in their brain, and the more they're going to see value in it.
As a 6th-12th grade teacher, Caitlin also gets students for seven years - she gets to know their parents, their families and their personality as it evolves from an energetic middle schooler all the way up to a senior, who's looking at college, work and life beyond. This longevity with kids has given her time to practice and refine her teaching philosophy, which is quite simple: meet a kid where a kid is at.
You can't expect a child to come up to an academic standard if they're not prepared for it. As educators, our job is to figure out how to use our tools, our knowledge, that child's interest, and what's happening in that child's life, to connect with them. If we can connect with them on a relational level, we can connect on an academic level. I would much rather link arms with a kid and walk together towards a common goal than grab them by the arm and drag them.
In practice, Caitlin might identify a student who knows the content, but isn't a strong writer and struggles to demonstrate their knowledge through writing. Instead of trying to force improvement, she gives them options to express what they know in a way they're comfortable with. As the teacher, she looks for ways to fit that need - whether that's a new element of technology, a one-on-one verbal evaluation, a creative solution, etc. It's all about matching a student, and their academic need, with a tool or strategy that gets them where they need to go - in a way that ensures they enjoy the learning process.
Heading into a school year marred with unknowns and challenges, Caitlin and the Concord team knew that their reopening strategy would require that same compassion - meeting families and students where they were at, after a trying few months away from school. One of the biggest considerations was developing a virtual learning platform and a set of tools that were simplified and streamlined for parents and kids - especially those who had students in varying grade levels. Concord is currently operating with two options - a 100% virtual instruction option, and a 100% in-person option. Thanks to the school's already small class sizes, reworking their building and classrooms to accommodate the in-person learning was a no brainer.
Caitlin is elated to have students back in her classroom - and she's learning more and more every day. In addition to using Google Classroom, she's incorporated creative tools like Whiteboard.fi, FlipGrid and more - all geared to increase engagement between her, the in-person learners, and the virtual learners. But it's been a steep learning curve - and one of the biggest lessons she's learned about technology is that sometimes, less is more.
And as this year continues to unfold, Caitlin has been most proud of the way the entire Concord family - from parents, to students, to teachers, and administrators - have given one another the grace to try new things, make mistakes and even fail. While it might not be perfect, and there might be technology hiccups, the support flowing through the school is sure to make this school year one to remember.
Just because the technology is there, doesn't mean you have to (or should) use it. Evaluate your tech tools before implementing them, and ask yourself if you're using this because it's new and shiny, or because it's meaningful and helpful to your students, and fulfills a need that isn't currently being met.