What's good at Eno Valley Elementary

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

I’ve never worked in a garden myself, but the people in my life who tend to plants talk about the great satisfaction that comes with watching life evolve over a period of time. There’s a seed buried in the soil, then the tiniest bits of green that sprout up through the surface, and ultimately a full-grown frame bears fruit or blooms flowers for the world to enjoy. None of this, of course, happens without the addition of nutrients from the soil, water from the sky, and light from the sun. The process is both scientifically quantifiable and miraculous at the same time.

I think y’all know where this is going.

As educators, our task is to be the soil, the rain, and the sun, all day every day. We must protect, nurture, and catalyze the growth of the young people in our charge. It is the most challenging and exhausting work on the planet. But it is also the most joyful and rewarding work imaginable. The good folks at Eno Valley Elementary School understand this, and I’m thrilled to share their story with the world.

Amanda Bruce was my first conversation of the day, standing in the car line, greeting students as they bounded from their parents’ cars and made their way towards their teachers. She’s in her second year as a Counselor at the school and loves the honesty and creativity that her kids bring with them every day. She mentioned the challenge of working with kids who bring great need, but shared that there is a lot of collaboration and support from co-workers that makes the load more bearable.

IMG_110513rd grade Teacher Bridgette Fagala called that staff team a family because of the same support that Bruce mentioned. In her words, the soil/rain/sun metaphor took the form of, “mama, nurse, everything…” as she described the joy that she gets from filling multiple roles in the lives of the young people that she works with.

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Denise Douglas described the task of nurturing students with specificity. She’s the only bus driver mentor in the district, and rides around with drivers helping them better serve their students. “There are no bad kids,” she said pointedly, “you just have to know how to talk to them.” And, in a statement that I wish whole professional development courses revolved around, she asserted, “You have to give respect to get it.”

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If they offered that class, Jamecia Miller would probably take it. She’s in her 3rd year teaching Pre-K at the school, and said that she’s really appreciated all of the opportunities to improve that being at Eno Valley has offered. She mentioned that she’s had access to lots of training and has grown quite a bit as a professional. All of this, for Miller, is about serving the “sweet, witty, funny, willing to learn, and excited” young folks that she works with.

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Luis Martinez is a Custodian at the school, and he said that he loves “everything” about the place. When I asked him to elaborate, he offered that the Teachers at the school are welcoming and kind and that the students are respectful and excited to learn.

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EC Teacher Velma Bethea highlighted those students as her favorite part of the work. She especially likes working with elementary school students because of the greater potential to have a lasting impact on their lives.

IMG_11091NaShonda Cooke has seen the kind of impact an elementary school Teacher can have. She’s in her 16th year in the classroom, and is excited to be part of a staff team that “understands the challenges and comes back every day with a smile on their faces.” That team is “there for each other,” and both pushes and challenges one another to be better for their students.

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Kindergarten Teacher Latonya Deal called this support, “pulling together as a team to uplift one another.” She specifically mentioned the Kindergarten and 1st grade teams as “one big unit” and said that they “celebrate and hold each other up both inside and outside of school.”

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1st grader Teacher Teresa Lasher backed up Deal’s statement, affirming that the camaraderie both in and away from the school is her favorite part of Eno Valley. “We all face the same things every day,” she explained.

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Angeline Paul is an Instructional Assistant for Kindergarten and is probably the source of my garden metaphor for this post. She said that she loves, “being able to be among kids, help with their learning, and help them grow from day one until the end of the school year.” She also mentioned that all of the hugs are great, in a recognition of what I truly believe to be the best part of elementary schools.
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Lisa Barnes knows a thing or two about teaching elementary school, as she’s worked in one for the last 26 years. Like Paul, she used language that led me towards the plant analogy, saying that she loves to see the progress in the kids as they go from a “clean slate” and grow as learners throughout their years at school. She shared that the parents are an important part of the team at the school because of their willingness to practice with students at home. Her highest praise, however, was reserved for her co-workers who “will give you anything that they have.” She pointed around the room and said that her co-workers have told her, “whatever is in my room is yours.” Clearly, the Eno Valley staff knows that the task of growing children requires teamwork.

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The captain of that team is Principal Rodney Berry. In his 30th year in education, Berry is in his first as the head Principal, and is excited to land at a school that “has touched so many educators.” My conversation with Berry ran the gamut from the origins of his desire to teach to his love for young people and his wish that any public school doubters would come visit his school. If they did, he shared, they would see “lots of positives” from the child-centered and nurturing staff. In his first year at the school, he’s encouraging the team to focus less on test scores and develop more individualized lesson plans that build student learning systematically, rather than strictly following a pacing guide that leaves so many students behind. It’s not often I get to hear a Principal minimize the results of standardized tests, and I was excited to understand his primary motivation for doing so: students. “When kids come in in the morning, that’s the time I love best,” he offered, adding, “The kids are fired up about learning. They love being here. This is a safe and happy place for them. I get an endorphin boost every morning when they get here.” This is exactly the kind of garden that we need to be building everywhere.

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Herbert Thornton is an Instructional Assistant for the school’s Pre-Kindergarten EC program, and sounded like a veteran gardener himself. For him, working with children who have autism is about “seeing a budding genius” at work. He pointed to the different corners of the room and talked about the different stations I saw and how students were assigned to them because of their different strengths and learning styles. “I love learning how the brain works,” he added, making sure I knew that this gardening was not just an art, but a science too.

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3rd grade Teacher Ashley Rowell also loves “learning different strategies to use with struggling students.” She remarked that she’s grown a great deal as a professional since she’s been at Eno Valley, and benefits from the “wonderful” people that she works with and the “incredible support” that they offer.

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For Media Coordinator Monique Houston-Taylor, the specials team is her home base. They eat lunch together every day, in addition to the frequent staff breakfasts and lunches that build school morale. The staff, she said, is “like a family,” and reflected a commitment that the gardeners have to take care of each other.

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ESL Teacher MIsty Cain feels well taken care of at Eno Valley. She’s in her 3rd year at the school, and talked about the high levels of support that the school’s staff provides for each other. She loves working with ESL students because of their humility and motivation to learn English. “I like my job because I see students for more than one year and get to watch them grow and change,” she shared, pointing back to the metaphor that so many of her co-workers had helped me create.

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Lori Ellis also referenced the ability to see people change over time. She’s been an Instructional Assistant at the school for 17.5 years and loves it when her students come back later in life to say, “Ms. Ellis, do you remember me?” She went on, adding, “I love working with kids. I love seeing the light in their eye when something matters.”

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For Assistant Principal Nathan Hester, it’s not just the kids that are growing and learning, he is too. He told me that he loves getting “to make connections with kids who are not like me. I learn from them, and I learn how to improve their overall experiences at school.” Those relationships, he offered, are the key to student success, and that Teachers need to prioritize the students lives if they are going to help them learn. The staff at Eno Valley does that, according to Hester, always looking “for new ways to hook a kid every day.”

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So there you have it, a school full of gardeners tending to a campus full of seeds ready to burst and bloom. The Eno Valley team has experience, expertise, excitement, and energy, and the students there are lucky to have them. I’ll end this post with a photo of the Rose Garden in the middle of the school’s grounds, beautiful and scientific and miraculous–just like the students and Teachers who enjoy its flowers every day.

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Thanks for letting me visit your garden for a day Eno Valley. I can’t wait to see how much you’ll grow.

from Bryan Proffitt on Monday, October 26, 2015

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