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Young new teachers find their way in Grand Forks

As a brand-new music teacher more than 30 years ago, Brad Sherwood wishes he could have told himself to relax. He'd turn out to be a good teacher. And if Paige Ferguson could turn the calendar back 15 months to her first days as a resident math t...

First-year math teacher Paige Ferguson walks around the classroom as her freshman students work on a proportions problem on the board at Red River High School. Ferguson graduated from Red River in 2011.
First-year math teacher Paige Ferguson walks around the classroom as her freshman students work on a proportions problem on the board at Red River High School. Ferguson graduated from Red River in 2011.

As a brand-new music teacher more than 30 years ago, Brad Sherwood wishes he could have told himself to relax. He'd turn out to be a good teacher.

And if Paige Ferguson could turn the calendar back 15 months to her first days as a resident math teacher, she'd tell herself it's OK if not every lesson succeeds. Nothing she does will make her students less smart.

Three decades of experience separate the two, but the same thread runs through the advice they'd give their younger selves. The fundamental dynamic of their jobs - the relationship between teacher and student - has not changed.

"Anything that gets in between the teacher and the student and that relationship is superfluous to what we're actually trying to accomplish," Sherwood said.

Smart advice

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Those are words of wisdom for the 70-plus new teachers hired in Grand Forks schools this year. As baby boomers continue to retire in record numbers, millennials begin their teaching careers in equally high volume.

Educators say today's net generation probably has the biggest influence ever on America's youth and its future. Both teachers and students have grown up with Google in their pockets.

And the same technology that connects students to entertainment, social media and constant learning opportunities also means a whole new world of distractions.

"Along with that comes a bigger focus with engaging the students and being able to hold their attention," said Jillian Stacy, 26, who teaches math at Grand Forks' Community High School.

"As a teacher, you just have to be willing to learn with it and try out new things," said Katie Crane, 24, a kindergarten teacher at Phoenix Elementary School. These days, teachers have myriad technologies in their classrooms - iPads, interactive whiteboards and Chromebooks - to integrate with their lessons.

"We're just now starting to realize this is a tool that's not going away," said Sherwood, 55, who now heads Red River's music and theater department. "We would never have told kids back in the '80s, 'Get rid of those pencils. Get rid of that paper. If we're truly about technology, we should be totally changing.'"

Likewise, Red River's Ferguson, 24, said it's not realistic for her to have a rule banning students from using their phones in the classroom. She trusts her students to manage their technology use.

"If your teaching is engaging, they'll be off (their phones) when they need to be," she said.

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Stacy says she also counts on her students to monitor their own use. "For so long they've been treated as children," she said. "If you give them the chance to rise up to your expectations, they will."

The old-fashioned way

Family and consumer sciences teacher Sarah Kallock, 32, has found ways to connect with her Valley Middle School students in ways that would not be possible on an iPhone or Android. Career and technical education programs are built on practical, hands-on activities-things they can't rely on a computer to do for them.

Kallock recalled the pleasure her students found in making their own laundry detergent during a recent class.

"I have never seen a group of seventh-graders more excited to grate soap with a cheese grater," Kallock said. "They're more excited about still doing hands-on things. They get that technology and they can do that independently, but something like this, when we made the laundry soap, that was a new experience for them."

As a math instructor, Ferguson sometimes struggles trying to convince her students they need to know how to take the long way around to find an answer.

"It's even difficult for me to say, this is worth teaching, because you know they're not (always) going to need it in real life," she admitted. "Or if they do, there's a computer that can tell them how to figure it out."
It's a modern challenge that has forced more innovative ways to structure classes. Crane said she believes teachers have more knowledge now of how children learn, and small group-based lessons allow her to pair students who are at similar levels.

"The teacher who expects a kid to sit in a row and listen to a lecture for an hour? The world multitasks now," Sherwood said.

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The younger Ferguson agreed.

"I think (there) needs to be a lot more collaboration and discussion and learning from each other, and getting the kids to do more than just having you in front being the fountain of knowledge," she said "Because we're not the fountain of knowledge anymore."

Dean Opp, a 30-year veteran theater and speech teacher at Red River, said the idea of differentiated learning always has been a staple in fine arts and other elective programs. Students' choice to take those types of classes drives him to keep his lessons engaging, but he said he also applies that thinking to his speech classes.

"You want your customers to come back," Opp explained. "I work pretty hard to make that a good experience, which I think all teachers do."

Stagnant structures

As the understanding of how students learn best and theories about which classes should be required to graduate constantly evolve, Sherwood said he wonders if education's institutional structure has kept up.

"Different keys unlock different boxes with kids," he said.

With the number of elective choices, career and technical classes and the variety of accommodations for differing needs, it's unrealistic to expect all students to succeed on the same standardized tests, he said.

"To implement 15 different learning modalities into one classroom and then expect them all to achieve in a standardized test? It's the definition of insanity," Sherwood said.

He's hopeful though that when his millennial-age colleagues move into administration and school board positions, their knowledge of differentiated learning will spread.

"We're looking at these millennials going, 'Rage against the machine, make changes,'" he said.

The world will change a whole lot, but the relationships will still matter most.

"It's still kids and a teacher and a classroom," Opp said. The kids laugh at the same jokes. He uses the same first-day improv exercise. Students may start out nervous, but they always grow.

"Toward the end you see the success of the students," Opp said. "And that hasn't changed from Day One."

Related Topics: VALLEY MIDDLE SCHOOL
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