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It’s Teacher Appreciation Week, so I’d like to take a minute and acknowledge Janet Callum, a first-grade teacher I met when I was 22 years old. A veteran at the time, Mrs. Callum worked at an Atlanta elementary school where I started teaching out of college. The example she set for me about how to approach teaching was very powerful; she was teaching me in addition to the 20 students in her classroom.

Mrs. Callum retired last year, but even in her final years in the classroom, she was steadfast about improving her craft. “Like most teachers,” she recently told me, “I know I have my strengths and weaknesses.” Her commitment to improvement defied the stereotype of veterans as set in their ways.

Following formal professional development, some teachers cram their notes into the back of their file cabinets and get back to work, but Mrs. Callum regularly attempted the new techniques she learned. After a literacy training, she handed out drumsticks to her first-graders to help them build phonemic awareness. (“Multi-sensory phonics instruction really works,” she later said). And rather than recycling lessons from year to year, she was often the last person in the building, developing new lessons for a new set of standards instead of assuming her old lessons would work.

But her dedication to improvement wasn’t the only thing I learned; she appreciated students’ individual strengths and incorporated that into her teaching — and helped me to do the same. “Kids need to be appreciated for their unique qualities,” she said. As a second-grade teacher, I often had students in my classroom whom she had taught the prior year. The day before school started, she would look over my class list and tell me something special about each of the students she taught, as well as which strategies worked well with them. And in her classroom, which was full of English-language learners, she didn’t just do rote repetition and practice, but rather encouraged creativity and critical thinking. “Even first-graders can discuss and understand sophisticated concepts, such as courage, justice, oppression, and empathy,” she said, also reminding me that “instruction needs to be age appropriate and cognizant of (students’) prior knowledge.”

During my years in the classroom, I tried to emulate Mrs. Callum’s example. On a good day, I did it half as well.

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