Remember your elementary school teacher? It was the one who taught you that respect is just as important as reading, and that manners count just as much as math. That teacher still exists in schools all over America. One of them has recently been named the 2018 Michigan Teacher Of The Year.
It’s 10:15 on a Friday morning in Vicksburg, south of Kalamazoo. But in a small room at Sunset Lake Elementary, it’s also 3:30, 6:25 and even straight up noon. Or maybe it’s midnight.
Holding cardboard clocks, a couple dozen second graders scatter off in pairs.
Laura Chang smiles to herself. She knows there’s a lot more going on here than just telling time.
“They’re working on how to agree and disagree agreeably,” says Chang. “They’re working on how to get along with peers that they might not have chosen should they choose their own partner. As many times as possible during the day, I try to make the work so much more than just academic.”
Chang has three core principles she carries into the classroom. She calls them her “rocks.”
First, be kind. Second, be a lifelong learner. And third: stand up for each other.
That one gets a lot of practice.
“We role play it and we act it out,” Chang explains. “What would we do? What could friends do? How could we take care of hearts? That’s so important these days, especially...when you think about school safety and the socioemotional capacity of kids. We’ve got to take care of kids’ hearts so that they can take care of each other and take care of themselves.”
Chang’s message is filtering into her students’ homes...and parents like Adrian McClelland are noticing.
“Instead of saying, ‘no, you can’t do that,’ or ‘that was wrong...’ finding ways to turn that around and saying, ‘it’s cool,’ or ‘let’s find a new way,’ or just different things like that,” McClelland says. “Even my other kids...we take it home and we’re able to utilize it at home as well.”
Christi Young’s two sons have both been in Chang’s class. As an educator herself, she can appreciate her patience.
“I call her the patron saint of wiggly little boys!” Young proclaims.
“There’s genius in every child, whether it’s academic, social, emotional,” says Chang.
“(There’s) leadership qualities in every child. So we capitalize on those opportunities. When students have an idea, we run with it. And it’s a joy to work in a school system that values that.”
Sunset Lake Elementary embraces a philosophy embodied in a program called “The Leader In Me.” Principal Amie McCaw believes Chang will be able to spread that message as Teacher Of The Year.
“I love the idea of her being our voice,” says McCaw. “She’s going to be a great model at the state level to share what we want all of our kids in Michigan to have.”
Chang’s tenure will differ from her predecessors. She’ll chair the Michigan Teacher Leadership Advisory Council, a new 10 member group created to help the state reach its educational goals.
“You know, when I look at the nine other regional teachers of the year, they’re amazing educators; I’ve read their bios,” says Chang. “It’s humbling that I was chosen for this because I’m just an ordinary second grade teacher in a little district here in the corner of Michigan. I hope that I can be the voice for those regular teachers who are working so hard and are passionate for their students.”