By Corinne Wnek
“Teacher Feature” is a new column that offers readers a look into today’s classrooms so they can see some of the innovative teaching that is going on by talented educators right here in our communities.
Devoted to her students and dedicated to their education, it is easy to see why veteran fifth grade teacher Kathy Burke of School #8 in Linden is that district’s Teacher of the Year.
“I love teaching and can remember ‘playing school’ when I was a little girl. My third grade teacher had the biggest influence on me, always making me feel important and useful to her in class. I came away with such warm feelings about teachers and what they do that to this day I try to remember her example with my own students.” And there is no doubt that she has been successful even in today’s modern classroom.
Teaching methods have evolved quite a bit over the years, Ms. Burke acknowledges. “It used to be that the teacher taught subject after subject throughout the day. But now, classrooms are much more dynamic and project based. In our school, for example, students work together in small groups to learn the skill of collaboration. We also take a thematic approach to learning so that they can connect the dots among the different things they learn. For instance, we try to make the history lesson relevant to a writing project we will work on”, she explains.
Ms. Burke is especially proud of an interactive project that her students recently completed. “We were reading a novel, “Sees Behind Trees”, she says. This is the story about a young Native American boy who only has the nickname ‘Walnut’. He must pass a series of difficult tests before he can earn his manhood and be known by a real name.”
“Each of my students was given a new name that they went by in class to help them to identify with the main character. They learned about a different culture, about the importance of everyone’s unique skills to society and about earning respect. Eventually, ‘Walnut’ succeeds in his quest to become a man and is given the name ‘Sees Behind Trees’.”
One would never guess that this gentle teacher has an adventurous side to her, something her students might be surprised to know. “When I turned 30, I went skydiving, something I always wanted to do”, she says laughing. “It was a personal challenge and one that showed me a different view of the world from way up high. I loved it and would definitely do it again.” And it doesn’t stop there. Ms. Burke also tried scuba diving and even an encounter with a sting ray on a dive in Curacao did not kept her out of the water.
“The best piece of advice I ever got about teaching came from a former principal who often reminded us that sometimes kids need a mother before they need a teacher. I try to be both,” she says, “because adults forget that kids today have a lot of stress in their lives. Teachers need to be flexible and good listeners with their students.”
Kathy Burke gets a big, gold star.
Corinne Wnek believes that teachers, and the administrators and boards of education which support their work, deserve a big, red apple for doing an outstanding job in shaping our most important commodity, the lives of our children. Her weekly column, “The Writer’s Block,” already appears every Friday in the online edition of this publication.
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