The Empowered to Lead Symposium, an event presented by the Connecticut Teacher of the Year Council last week, focused on the power of the education profession and the vital work that teachers do, impacting thousands of young lives.
The symposium gives teachers opportunities to share new ideas and strategies and learn from other educators representing all grade levels and disciplines. At this year’s conference, attendees learned from other teachers about professional well-being, playful learning, indigenous studies, social emotional learning, and more.
“We teachers are the experts,” Mansfield art teacher and 2022 Connecticut Teacher of the Year Kim King told educators. “We have the most authentic knowledge about education, so the most authentic learning is going to come from our fellow teachers. That’s why this symposium and ones like it are so valuable.”
King encouraged educators to create postcards she will send to them next winter to remind them what they took away from the symposium. Several of the postcards are pictured on these pages.
CEA Teacher Development Specialist Kate Field and Wallingford teacher Jamie Hocking shared with educators attending their workshop how children learn about themselves, the world, and others through play and gave concrete examples of how to incorporate play in the classroom.
They offered a sample lesson plan and tips for teachers that covered how to create structured play scenarios, encourage collaboration and problem-solving, connect play to real-life experiences, support self-regulation during play, and more.
“Participants engaged in a play-based activity during the session, and I hope it was fun and showcased how effective play can be to reach both academic and SEL standards,” Field said. “Our materials were just a pile of recyclables Jamie and I collected in the weeks leading up to the session; we wanted to show participants you don’t need to buy expensive materials to make play-based learning effective.”
Thanks to legislation CEA championed that passed the General Assembly this year, play-based learning is now required in preschool and kindergarten and encouraged in grades 1 through 5.
Teaching today, inspiring tomorrow
In a panel discussion, three 2023 Connecticut Teacher of the Year finalists shared their expertise, experiences, and passion for teaching with other educators.
“I teach civics, and it’s really important to me that when students leave my class, they not only know how the government works but also know how to use their voice,” said Putnam High School social studies teacher John Allen. “Some of my proudest moments are when I get Instagram messages from former students saying, ‘I voted, and I thought of you.’”
“When students see you as a teacher, they think you must have been the best student,” said Simsbury High School band director Lisa Abel. “I share my struggles with my students so that they can see themselves in me.”
She added, “Even though I have high expectations, I balance that with the silly. I want students to see that I don’t take myself too seriously. In high school they’re surrounded by all these pressures, and I want them to feel they have a safe space to just be who they are with me.”
“I live in the same town that I teach in and that my kids went to school in–I have a visceral connection to the community,” said Jennifer Rodriguez, a Newington first grade teacher. “I make sure my classroom reflects my students. I invite families in. I talk with my students about what it means to be a member of the Newington community.”
Rodriguez said that she was very vocal several years ago about the need for renovations at her outdated Title I school. She saw it as an equity issue.
“Educators sometimes are fearful about speaking out,” she said. “I made sure our focus was on policy. For me, my hope is that my students learn about agency.”
Maximizing small moments to improve equity
2020 Connecticut Teacher of the Year Meghan Hatch-Geary said she used to think equity always had to do with things like gender, race, or ethnicity. After attending a workshop with Jackie Thurston, a special education teacher from North Branford with whom she presented at Empowered to Lead, she realized, “At the end of the day, anything that stands in the way for our students means they’re receiving an inequitable education.”
Thurston and Hatch-Geary asked participants to identify moments of friction that happen in their classroom, such as students arriving with uncharged Chromebooks or students who are consistently late to class. Then they asked teachers to consider potential inequities that arise from that friction and what changes they could think of to make their classroom more equitable.
As an example, Thurston shared that a significant number of her freshmen students in a general level class would arrive every day without a charged Chromebook or without a charger. Her students, most of whom had 504s and IEPs, were missing the first 10-15 minutes of class while they went to the library to borrow the necessary technology. That 10-15 minutes a day would add up to over 30 lost instructional hours over the course of an entire year.
“I asked our administrators if I could keep 10 Chromebooks and chargers in my room, and that changed everything,” Thurston said. “Instead of kids starting class feeling ashamed, we’re ready to go and instruct.”
She added, “The lesson on executive functioning and how to charge your Chromebook was for another time. We added an hour of instruction a week, multiplied by every week of the school year.”