What's good at George Watts

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

By now, we have all seen the footage of a school resource officer dragging a high school student across the floor in a Columbia, SC classroom. The video has circled the globe and raised important questions about school discipline and the environment that parents are sending their children into every day. While it is imperative that we have conversations about the policies and practices that we need to keep our young people safe in our schools, we need to go beyond the basics and reach a deeper understanding of the impacts of physical and emotional trauma on the development of their brains. Unfortunately, so many of our students are exposed to violence and chaos while their brains are still forming, and, with or without intervention, it shapes who they become in ways that can’t be undone.

For this reason alone, the emphasis on peace at George Watts Montessori Magnet School is important to highlight and consider as a model for the environment that all young people could grow and thrive in. Peace is at the center of the Montessori model, and its language and practice shows up consistently and deeply in the school community. We all could learn a thing or two from this crew.

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My day at Watts began with Matt Jones, the school’s Data Manager/Administrative Assistant. He said that he loves everything about the school, but specifically mentioned the great staff, who he called “easy to work with” and noted that they “go above and beyond to help each other out.” Additionally, he mentioned that the school has strong parental support, with a committed PTA that organizes to provide material and moral support for the school’s staff.

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Mary Ann Crites is an Instructional Assistant for the school’s pre-K and Kindergarten classes, and she’s been in education for 26 years. Following Jones’s lead, she also asserted that “everything” about the school is good. For her, the Montessori model’s emphasis on hands on work and the creation of a peaceful environment are her highlights. She pointed out that the school feels like a family, and that the staff gets along and works well together.
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Christie Hawkins, who also works in the Pre-K/Kindergarten program, also mentioned the sense of community both inside the school and with the school’s parents. She shared that in other educational settings, “everyone tells you to differentiate, but no one tells you how.” Because an individualized approach to each child is built into the Montessori method, the training and support that educators receive helps them meet the needs of every single student.

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That differentiation, according to Celia Oakley, is helped by the school’s organization into multi-age classrooms. That, coupled with the hands-on and individualized instruction, allows the Watts staff to support student growth more effectively.

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Instructional Assistant Missy Riggs elaborated on the strengths of the Montessori approach. She likes that the school groups 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders together because it allows for kids who are slightly ahead at younger ages and slightly behind at older ages to work together in a way that doesn’t make anyone feel badly about themselves. She noted that most of the kids who attend Watts go on to Lakewood Montessori Middle School, which allows them have both a routine and a community of students for the first 9-10 years of their schooling. That routine, she pointed out, emphasizes teaching students how to get along with one another and create peaceful environments. The school also has the advantage of having strong engagement from parents and the “Friends of Watts” in the neighborhood, who provide support for the school in a number of ways.

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Mike Rogers has been helping to set the routine for students at Watts for 9 years. He also mentioned the “great families” and the support of the neighborhood that Riggs named. Like so many others, he also talked about the emphasis on peace and how great it is “to work with a group of people that you respect so much.”

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Rogers has won the respect of his Student Teacher, Erin McInerney. She’s in her 3rd semester working at the school and raved about her mentor teacher, saying that he is “really passionate and dedicated, and cares so much more than any teacher I’ve ever met.”

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Eli McDuffee cares deeply about the Watts school. He’s in his first full year as a Teacher working with students who have autism, but he attended Watts as a student in the 1990s. He loves the sense of community that he gets from the school’s PTA and the closeness of the staff. He called that closeness an “emotional tie” that you can sense at staff meetings, and that “any news good or bad gets felt as a whole community.”

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As an Occupational Therapist who works in several different schools, Milisa Dapper shared that the strength of Watts is its small environment, and the ways that the students that she works with are able to integrate themselves into the school’s community.

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I could really feel that sense of community when I caught up with Andrea Burton in the hallway. She said that she “loves everything” about the school, specifically naming the focus on peacefulness and hands-on learning. As we talked, she spoke to every single student in the class that passed us, using each of their names and referencing something that she knows about them. Community-building takes time and practice, and clearly Burton and the Watts staff are invested.

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The excitement I observed in the hallway makes the school feel different to Kaitlin Thulin. She shared that the kids are “eager and anxious to come to school every day with smiles on their faces.” For her, the job is about more than just academic instruction, the Watts staff is helping students develop their skills in relationship-building and problem-solving every day.

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Those relationship-building skills must be working, because Mark Clayton emphasized the spirit and the attitude of his students as the school’s strength. He said that they have “kind hearts, are considerate of their teachers and peers, are receptive to the modeling provided by teachers, and are willing to help their peers without hesitation.” That is quite an endorsement, and it reflects the hard work of the staff.

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Speech Therapist Jennifer Fox referenced that staff when she said that “everyone I work with communicates well and is on the same page.” She’s been in education for a little over 2 years and loves being able to chart the progress that young people make with the staff’s support.

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Alex Dubois called that progress the “independence” and “resiliency” that the Montessori method stresses. She also noted the friendly atmosphere and the kindness extended by her peers among her favorite aspects of the school.

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Dave Cook exemplified that friendly kindness as he walked through the hallway chatting with his co-workers. For him, the kids are the strength of the school, and he said that they are “enthusiastic, curious, excited, and fun to work with.”

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Patti Crum has been helping to facilitate the growth of the students at Watts for 10 years. She’s been working in a Montessori environment for most of her career and loves the opportunity to bring its principles into a public school setting. While we talked, I understood why so many of the staff mentioned peacefulness in their reflections. Crum used a variation of the word repeatedly throughout our conversation, referring to the students, the sense of community at the school, and the environment as peaceful in one way or another. She said that Watts students are “the best kids in Durham,” calling them “wonderful and kind” and saying that they are “excited to be here.” Crum and I were joined by Administrative Intern Heather Henson. She feels “lucky” to be at the school, sharing that she “likes the peaceful environment.” Because of that emphasis, she is clear that the students feel safe and are excited to come to school.

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Assistant Principal Cynthia Webb rounds out the school’s administrative team and loves “everything” about the school she’s worked at since 2009. She called Watts, “a place that when you walk in the door, you can feel the positive energy among the students and staff.” She, like everyone else, called it “peaceful,” and said that “a culture of glee and courtesy permeates through every grade level.”

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I felt that glee myself when I walked by Music Teacher Jennifer Suggs’ classroom. I was moving quickly, but I caught the sounds of a cover version of Vickie Sue Robinson’s “Turn the Beat Around.” I had never imagined I’d hear this disco anthem in the halls of a school, so I had to go back and check it out. Her students were so engaged in dancing, singing, and smiling that I couldn’t help but pop my head into the room to watch. When they were done, and I had informed the class that they clearly had an amazing teacher, she and I got a chance to talk. She’s been at Watts for 11 years and loves all of the resources that she access to at the school. Additionally, because of the ways that her co-workers and the school’s leadership values the arts, she can run a program that “houses variety,” asserting that she can “teach different things to different types in different ways.” I couldn’t help but smile as I walked away, excited about how lucky her students are to be with her and have the support of the whole Watts community.

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Custodian George Holman has been a member of that community for 5 years, and loves the pre-K/Kindergarten kids the best. According to Holman, they are “innocent,” and the school’s staff can “impact their minds very quickly.” Because the school is so small, he gets a chance to know all of them, and spoke excitedly about the students who are graduating from the school next year because he will have been with them for their whole time at the school.

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As I was talking with Holman, I was struck by the evenness and soothing character in the tone of his voice. The folks who work at George Watts Elementary School, it seems, are so committed to peace that even their speech helps to build the foundation. In a world filled with violence and chaos, it felt good to spend a morning with people resolutely committed to creating and guarding the calm that young people need to develop healthy, resilient brains and spirits and become the fullest version of themselves possible.

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As I said goodbye, Principal Crum wished me “a peaceful day,” and I was struck by the way that it calmed me for a second as I made my way out into the world. Once outside, I took a deep breath, smiled, and walked away strong in the knowledge that these students, in this place, were getting what all children everywhere deserve. Thanks for sharing your peacefulness with me Watts family, I can’t wait to come back for more.

from Bryan Proffitt on Monday, November 2, 2015

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