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First-year teacher balances approach

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The sniffling students streaming from the third-grade classroom had just watched a sad movie, but the film wasn’t really why they were crying.

Thursday was the Westwood Elementary School students’ final day of the school year, and they were going to miss first-year teacher Laura Westercamp. The 20 children had been emotional all week, telling her they’re proud to be her first class, and watching the film on their final day was all it took to turn on the tears, Westercamp said.

The school year was a 10-month learning experience, an accomplishment like finishing a marathon, Westercamp, 23, said. She began teaching at the Greenwood elementary school in the fall to fill in for a teacher on a yearlong maternity leave. She’s heading into summer break still a temporary teacher, but Principal Lisa Harkness hopes to bring her back full time in the fall.

Westercamp quickly learned that her job would be much more than reading “Charlotte’s Web” aloud, teaching students how to write in complete sentences and preparing the class for taking IREAD and ISTEP tests for the first time.

Early on, she felt overwhelmed by the responsibilities she didn’t expect of her new career, such as giving weekly reading and math tests to students and analyzing the results to figure out how to help them prepare for standardized tests.

The other two third-grade teachers helped her, but Westercamp was put in a classroom without a mapped-out curriculum and with weekly tests to learn to give. She was a new college graduate and didn’t know what she would be teaching from week to week.

“It was terrifying,” she said.

She tackled the tasks, spending the hours needed to learn how to give the assessments and use the data to adapt her teaching.

The young teacher was a natural, turning from a good teacher into an extraordinary one within the school year, Harkness said.

“It’s almost like magic. She just has this ability, this uncanny ability, actually, to draw people in,” Harkness said. “She is interested in what kids have to say and what people have to say, and they’re just naturally drawn to her.”

Westercamp learned early on that she needed to spend about 15 hours per week outside of her seven hours a day in class to study the assessments and prepare for class. Based on the weekly assessments, she split students into small groups or worked with them one-on-one. Those sessions helped her see, for example, if they understood what they heard when she read to them and if they knew they needed to read all of the captions when looking at a page.

The additional work hours were a surprise, and despite loving the work with the other third-grade teachers, some weekends she wanted a break. The three teachers would share ideas by text message and get together at a restaurant to plan lessons.

“I just wanted a Saturday when I didn’t have to think about my job,” Westercamp said.

But she put in the hours with the goal of becoming an excellent teacher, working in the evenings and on weekends to plan lessons and brainstorm ways to motivate her students. Westercamp also had to learn to manage an excited, hyper, dramatic bunch who constantly wanted her attention or wanted to make her laugh, she said.

A struggle she tackled after Christmas break was figuring out how to discipline students who talked constantly throughout the day. Her system for rewarding good behavior by filling clear cups with colored plastic foam and giving candy once 15 pieces accumulated didn’t work.

Instead, she offered a pizza party and an ice cream day if the children went without what Westercamp called stepping on her words. The students began to complain when classmates interrupted their teacher, miffed that they were losing points toward their ice cream day.

Westercamp taught the students to encourage each other — to whisper reminders not to talk out of turn, instead of getting frustrated. And it worked. The class turned quiet, and the students earned their parties.

Lessons she taught in respect and caring for each other became the culture of her classroom, she said. At the beginning of the year, she told her students that they needed to love each other, regardless of disabilities and other differences. By the end of the year, they were policing each other for unkindness, saying that making fun of each other isn’t allowed in their class because they love each other, she said.

Those lessons, and being a person the students trusted with their concerns, were part of her goal of excelling as a teacher, she said. She took upset children out of class daily to talk to them and encourage them.

“I really think my philosophy is growing them overall as a whole child,” she said. “I think that’s what I’m most proud of: giving them a piece of myself.”

Westercamp is a strict teacher who is able to maintain a balance of being likable, while staying in charge, fellow third-grade teacher Susan Lukich said.

She is intuitive and naturally figured out why her classroom got noisy and maintained control, Lukich said.

“She’s very kindhearted without being naive. I see that play out in such a way that she will listen to the kids, but not be taken advantage of,” Lukich said.

“Her kids absolutely adore her, but she is their teacher.”

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