What's good at Merrick-Moore

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

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the ways that teachers (everyone who works in a school) support and love each other. When I’ve had the opportunity to talk in rooms full of them, I’ve been using airplane oxygen masks as a metaphor. When the cabin pressure decreases and the masks drop, everyone knows that you’re supposed to get yourself situated first before you help other people. If you can’t breathe, how can you help anyone else? People seem to be getting my point about self-care and the need to scoop each other up, love each other, and get each other back to a place where we can give our kids what they deserve: our best.

The kids, of course, are the center, and any educator worth a salt is a driven by that truth every moment of the day. But the truth that becomes clearer and clearer with every school I visit is that no one can give our kids what they need when they can’t breathe. And the crises that the attacks on public schools are producing just causes so much chaos that it’s hard to catch a clean breath. Our kids are in crisis. Their parents are in crisis. We are in crisis. It’s hard to know where to start.

For the staff at Merrick-Moore Elementary School, the answer is obvious: you start by loving and supporting each other.

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For the staff at Merrick-Moore, the love woke up early today. Their day began, like the first Friday of every month for the last 10 years, with a hearty breakfast personally made by lead custodian Deborah Andrews. Andrews, who wakes up at 4:00 A.M. to make the breakfast every month, loves the staff and treats them like her family.

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IMG_02721If Ms. Andrews holds down the family’s kitchen, school based support program manager Quincy Dennerson is the welcoming committee and utility man . Mr. Cason and I had the chance to chat with him in the school’s foyer as he personally opened the door for, greeted, and showed love to every student who walked in the door this morning. He knew each of their names, even though he isn’t in the classroom every day, and he talked proudly about being able to watch the students change as they move through their elementary years. He pointed towards the culture of collaboration at Merrick-Moore, especially when a student needs specialized interventions to help them succeed. The EC facilitator, counselors, school psychologist, social worker, Principal, Assistant Principal, and the before and after school care staff all collaborate to develop interventions to help kids be happier, healthier, and more successful. One aspect of intervention that Mr. Dennerson was particularly proud of is the school’s step team, which regularly wins competitions around the state. Students are often recommended for the team as a strategy to get them engaged in learning and the school in different ways, and the competition and teamwork allows them to thrive.

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Jennifer Schoener, in her 4th year as an ESL teacher, pointed to the team atmosphere as the key to bringing her back to Merrick-Moore every year.

Later, I got a chance to watch her team in action, and her ESL counterpart Marion Dixon shared that the key is that “everybody values every person who walks in this building, from the littlest person to the most experienced adults, we try to support everybody.” She is one of the school’s few veterans, as Merrick-Moore has been plagued by high turnover in the last few years, as most schools with a +90% poverty rate are. The core of Merrick-Moore’s veteran teachers, according to Ms. Dixon, know that “change is going to keep coming, so you need to get used to it. You have to hold onto your core values.” Clearly, mutual love, support, and cooperation among the faculty and staff are among these core values.

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Michelle Korfeld suggested that she felt like she was working with her family every day. That atmosphere, according to Kornfeld, is established first and foremost by Principal Kia Eason. Ms. Eason pays close attention to her staff and always asks about, and remembers, aspects of their lives outside of school. This practice is not universal among school administrators, and Ms. Eason clearly deserves the praise that Kornfeld was heaping on her.

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Administrative Assistant Phillip Shaw has only been at Merrick-Moore for three weeks, but he already clearly fits in to the family, matching a knowledge about the school with a wry sense of humor that we experienced as very welcoming.

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It was a treat to get to spend a few minutes with Tara Glasper, the mother of a former student of mine who always treats me like family when we see each other. She is in her first year at Merrick-Moore and has already felt welcomed by both the staff and the students.IMG_02761

1st year teacher Richard Akucewich described the welcome that he has received as energetic and passionate.

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Carmeesha Dudley, in her 10th day as a teacher, also talked about the team, but centered her excitement about learning from her students.

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Being a new teacher, as so many of Merrick-Moore’s are, is the hardest job in the world. Everything feels overwhelming and there is very little in our culture that encourages the kinds of cooperation that teachers need to survive. Despite the worship of competition in the world beyond our school’s walls, however, teachers consistently support one another not only for the sake of our kids, but out of a genuine love for our comrades and our profession. 1st year teacher Ashley Lopez noted that she “can go to anyone in the building for help and not be judged.” It is not in an educator’s interest to be isolated, and it was heartening to hear that the Merrick-Moore staff has each other’s backs, from the veterans to the new kids.

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Lauren Walton, in her 2nd year in the school, used nearly the same exact language as Lopez when she discussed the ways that her co-workers support her. Merrick-Moore’s teachers don’t need to be afraid to ask, because the rest of their team will respond without judgment.

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Similarly, Latasha Brown noted that no one ever says, “that’s not my job.” They just pick up for each other and do what needs to be done for the students.

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I’ve heard this kind of language in every school I’ve worked at or been too, but the same feeling of ease in asking for support is not always extended to the administration. Because they have the power to evaluate us, administrators are often the last place that teachers turn with questions, fearful that not knowing something or needing help will reflect poorly in their assessments of us. Not so with Ms. Eason, says 3rd grade teacher Kayla Belote. “I’m going to make mistakes, but she’s got me,” she stated, noting that Eason is the reason why she came to teach at the school.

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At this point in the post, I kick myself for neglecting to get a picture of Eason. Mr. Cason and I had the pleasure of a nice long sit-down with her and I was so engaged in the conversation that I forgot to get her image. Hopefully her story will paint the picture you need.

For as long as she can remember, Ms. Eason has wanted to be an educator. Her aunt was a teacher, and Eason grew up grading her students’ spelling papers on Friday nights. She comes to her administrative position with the kind of breadth that one would hope for in their school’s leadership, having been a TA, a 1st grade teacher, a 3rd grade teacher, a kindergarten teacher, a pre-K teacher, an Assistant Principal, and a central office support staff person before landing the Principal job at Merrick-Moore five years ago. Eason seems to be the glue that holds together a school that has struggled through both high student and high faculty turnover. She described the Beginning Teacher meetings every month, the school’s mentoring system, and her open-door policy as practices they’ve put in place to build a climate of support for new folks coming in the doors. The staff’s support for each other, though, she named as “never-ending.” The first Friday breakfasts are a highlight, and it is entirely staff organized. The teachers donate sick days when someone needs an extended medical leave, they help each other get to and from work, and they step up to support each other in the classroom and hallways constantly.

We found the Information Technology team in the hallway, and the duo of Giovanni Tumicelli and Tom Prica reiterated the staff’s words about Eason, calling her, and all the people who work at Merrick-Moore, “awesome.”

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Substitute teacher David Hager is covering for a teacher who recently gave birth and talked about the kids as the best part of the place for him. Peeking my head into the gym later on, Hager seemed to be having a blast while a room-full of young folks bounced about in the games that he had organized. Subs don’t often step up in the way we saw Hager, and it was heartening to know that the kids are in good hands while their teacher recovers.

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Brian Dickerson, who is assigned to students with severe behavioral disabilities, has been at the school for a few weeks providing support for the students and helping teachers put strategies in place. He works in several schools per year, but was struck by how well the staff got along at Merrick-Moore.

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The relationships he’s seen are clearly the key in kindergarten, where veteran teacher Tanga Wilson-Best serves as Team Mom for 2nd year teacher Melissa Taylor and 1st year teacher Jessalyn Stull. We walked in on the beginning of their planning meeting and Taylor and Stull raved about Wilson-Best and the family atmosphere she helps to facilitate. Having been an Instructional Assistant for 16 years gives Wilson-Best an important perspective, and the relative newcomers clearly thrive amidst the love that she extends.

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That love, of course, does not stop with the staff, and 10th year Instructional Assistant Shanetta Johnson defined her role as not just providing instruction, but the love, life skills, and coping mechanisms that the kids need.

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Because the students show up with so much need, AIG coordinator Annie Hill reinforced Johnson’s claims, and is committed to addressing the young folks she works with as whole people, not just test scores.

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I wrote earlier in the week about teaching as a caring profession. It is important that we note that the work that we do with our students cannot be categorized neatly into limited definitions of curriculum. And while none of that shows up in the job description, the kinds of emotional and spiritual support we provide for young people is publicly understood as a part of the gig and pretty universally taken for granted. It is important to name it and value it. Teachers teach, but we also parent, and befriend, and counsel, and nurse, and worry.

And if we’re going to love teachers as whole people, and really understand the job we do, we have to tell the story of the support that we provide for each other. As it turns out, we regularly teach, parent, befriend, counsel, nurse, and worry about not only our kids, but each other. It makes us better professionals. And it makes us better people.

Thank you Merrick-Moore Elementary, not only for the ways that you love your students, but for the ways that you model loving each other. I’ll see you soon.

from Bryan Proffitt on Saturday, September 5, 2015

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