What's good at Bethesda

[NOTE: This article was originally published on the blog of the Durham Association of Educators. Click HERE to read it and view the photographs.]

Before I write anything about the wonderful things we witnessed at Bethesda Elementary today, I have to start by saying how awesome it was to be on the Xavier Cason Homecoming Tour. As soon as Mr. Cason rolled up, the young folks that he taught two and three years ago started swarming. They shouted his name, gave him high fives and hugs, and told him they missed him. The grown people in the building did the same, and it felt a bit like walking around with a rock star. Mostly that’s because I was.

Xavier Cason, in short, is the kind of teacher, and the kind of person, that I hope to grow up and be like someday. I know that I’m not alone in feeling this way.

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I also know, after a morning at the school, that he is not alone in garnering the love of the students at Bethesda. It was high fives and hugs all morning, and it is obvious that the Bulldog students feel loved, safe, and challenged to be better versions of themselves every day.

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Instructional Assistant Jeremiah Scott was one of the many Mr. Cason fans in the school, and he proudly called Bethesda his “blessed place.” He’s been at the school for 5 years and loves the camaraderie and friendliness of the staff.

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Caroline Miller is an EC Teacher and also spoke highly of her co-workers. According to Miller, they are always willing to support her in meeting the needs of her students.

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We walked with Ms. Miller down to the entrance where bus students arrived, and the swarm of hugs that awaited Mr. Cason and Academic Coach Annette Johnston made me wish I taught elementary school. When I asked Johnston what was good about Bethesda, she responded with an easy “what isn’t good…?”, before she rattled off the attributes of her students, her co-workers, and the school’s administration. She is fairly young to be in a leadership position at the school and feels supported as she takes steps to grow in the profession.

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4th grade Teacher Quincy Farmer is in his 5th year of teaching, but his first year at Bethesda, and he is excited about the strength of the school’s community. People at Bethesda, according to Farmer, smile and carry a lot of spirit. Farmer’s Red, White, and Blue fashion game added to the spirit of the hallway, and we were glad the Southern High graduate posed for our picture.

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Shuree Harper teaches 3rd grade across the hall and loves the collaborative spirit of the Bethesda team. Everyone “bounces ideas off of each other to do what is good for the kids,” she shared, in a tribute to the teamwork that we would be hearing about all day.

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Harper’s 3rd grade teammate Lakhendra Johnson loves the challenge of the job. Her students bring a wide variety of needs with them to the classroom, and she loves getting to share ideas with her colleagues about how to best support them.

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Michael Collins is “in it for the children.” He’s in his 5th year teaching 4th grade at the school and loves the opportunity to build relationships with young folks that have so much need. This need shows up in lots of ways, but Collins emphasized that the stuff does whatever they need to in order to meet the students where they are.

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Down the hall, 4th grade teacher Saadia Owen meets her students with hugs. These loving exchanges clearly feed her, but working with so many young people all day can be exhausting. At the end of the day, according to Owen, the Bethesda staff does a great job of picking each other up. They take time to sit, talk, and de-stress before heading off to the rest of their lives, and it creates a family atmosphere that Owen relishes.

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This kind of family atmosphere is related to the school’s small size, according to Custodian Tim Taylor. “Everyone here gets along,” according to Taylor, and the staff provides him with any support that he needs in his work of making the school environment healthy and safe.

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Angela Buckles is the AIG Facilitator at the school and mentioned this strong collaboration among the staff as its strength. The Bethesda family, according to Buckles, is always willing to share and support one another.

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Adrian Datcher has her own little family in the classroom. She has the same students in 3rd grade that she had in 2nd, so she started off the year with relationships and a baseline knowledge of where each student is academically that allows her to hit the ground running this year. This kind of flexible scheduling of teacher assignments is an example of the ways that a school community can be creative in its approach to student learning.

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Counselor Katina Hardiman has been a part of the school’s support staff for 3 years. We spoke with her in the gym as she prepared for the monthly PBIS school store to be open. There, students can use rewards that they are granted for positive behavior to “buy” fun stuff that either the school purchased or one of Bethesda’s many community partners donated. She also used the word family to describe the school, and pointed to the school’s administration as the center of the school’s positive atmosphere. Hardiman raved about Principal Shaneeka Moore-Lawrence for the ways that she regularly celebrates the staff. There are breakfasts, lunches, appreciations for big accomplishments, and frequent birthday celebrations. These efforts are not part of the job description, but any quality school leader knows that extra recognition and emotional pick-me-ups are an essential part of a healthy school community.

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The school’s Secretary, Syboney Moore also mentioned the Principal as a bright spot at Bethesda. According to her, Moore-Lawrence brings her staff quality professional development to make sure that teachers get what they need to best support their students. Additionally, the school’s administration also sends out weekly communication to parents and prioritizes direct connections with the whole school community.

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We got a chance to catch up with Principal Moore-Lawrence (who I failed to take a picture of), herself a product of Durham’s public schools. Her mother was a teacher and she attended college as a participant in North Carolina’s innovative Teaching Fellows program (eliminated by state budget cuts despite its remarkable success in teacher recruitment and retention, by the way). She’s in her 6th year at Bethesda, which means that she will have seen this year’s graduating 5th grade class through their entire elementary school journey. This kind of consistency is invaluable, and Moore-Lawrence is no doubt responsible for many of the smiles in the hallway that she points to her as favorite part of the school.

Moore-Lawrence called Bethesda Durham’s “hidden treasure” and described the numerous opportunities for extracurricular enrichment that the school offers. It’s the first elementary school in Durham to offer students membership in the National Elementary Honor Society. She also mentioned the student ambassador program that promotes volunteerism, and the chorus that Mr. Cason helped to rebuild as some of the other highlights. These opportunities are important, but for Moore-Lawrence, relationships are the #1 priority. One result of this focus is increased engagement with parents. According to Moore-Lawrence, more parents are showing up at the school inquiring about how to better support their students than ever before, and the school’s Family/Community Specialist is playing an important role. The person in that role is also reaching out and building community relationships, which has resulted in local churches adopting classrooms and Bethesda families for emotional and financial support. One example is the church across the street from the school, which regularly feeds the whole staff and provides 80 backpacks filled with non-perishable food items for students every week. Additionally, the Raleigh Women’s League clothes over 100 students with 3 new outfits every single year. This kind of community outreach and relationship building takes work, and it’s clear that Moore-Lawrence is committed to going the extra mile for her students and staff.

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Data Manager Lakeika Davis argued that the whole staff goes that extra mile along with Moore-Lawrence. For her, the best part of Bethesda is the caring staff who commit to doing whatever it takes to ensure that students are learning.

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When we ran into Instructional Assistant Justin Bethea in the hallway, Mr. Cason made sure that we stopped to talk. The “whatever it takes” attitude that Davis spoke of defines the role of the IA in any school. While the state’s General Assembly has described them as disposable, a conversation with staff at any building makes it clear that our schools can’t run without these all-purpose staff members. Bethea shared that he helps pull together lesson plans, deals with students’ behavior challenges, and creates opportunities for the teachers to plan and collaborate. Without IAs, elementary teachers wouldn’t even be able to go to the bathroom during the school day. And yet, the state government thinks we can do without them. Despite this “slap in the face,” Bethea and his colleagues show up to support the young people that they love every single day. What Bethea wasn’t counting on when he entered the school, however, were the ways that he would be changed by the job. He’s not “the huggy type,” but when students offer an embrace, “it’s empowering.” He claims that working with young people has changed his perspective in ways that he didn’t even know that he needed.

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2nd year Teacher Kayla McLean has also been changed by the job. For her, working with students from such diverse backgrounds has really shifted the ways that she has seen the world. She works hard to expose her kids to new things, but she’s also clear that she’s been exposed to just as much and has been transformed by the process of mutual and reciprocal relationships with her students. This openness and humility are among the best qualities that any educator can bring to the table.

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Consistency, of course, is another, and physical education Teacher Danielle White has it in spades. She’s in her 20th year at Bethesda and loves “everything” about the school. In particular, she’s been excited to see former students of hers dropping off their own children at the school in the morning. These long-term relationships are invaluable, as is the ability to build up a program that “has all the things that I need” to support student growth, according to White.

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The Kindergarten crew also brings a long-term lens to the building every day. We got a chance to chat with the Instructional Assistant team for the grade, and I didn’t know that we had stumbled into a history lesson. Tammie Dixon has been working for the last 30 years at the school that she herself attended, and for her, calling Bethesda home is not a metaphor. Robbie Keaton has been an IA here for 9 years, and Oteria Wright has been on the school’s staff for 25. According to Wright, no one who works in this profession does it for the money, and she loves helping young people learn and grow.

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Wendy Brisbane, who I also apparently forgot to take a picture of, is only in her 2nd year at the school, but she’s already learned that she will be transformed by this profession just as much as her students will. Multiple staff members mentioned this reality and it is important to understand. Professional educators always talk about the joy of instilling a love for learning in the lives of the young people that we work with. Most of us do this work because we share that same love, and it is inevitable that our lives change with every student we connect with. Schools, if they work well, are places where EVERYONE gets to learn and grow and become better versions of the people we were put here to be. Bethesda is working well, and it was a great privilege to spend a morning watching the whole Bulldog family love and learn and grow together.

Thanks for hosting us this morning Bethesda. I promise I’ll bring Mr. Cason back through sometime soon.

from Bryan Proffitt on Thursday, September 24, 2015

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