Natalie Novak, 3rd grade teacher at Clyde Erwin Elementary School, dreamt about becoming a teacher from a young age. Earning the title, 2017 Teacher of the Year for Clyde Erwin, comes after a rigorous selection process that included an extensive information packet on her teaching philosophies as well as key interviews and classroom observations by a panel of judges from Onslow County School District.
Grade level/class: 3rd grade
School: Clyde Erwin Elementary School
Number of years in education: 6
Number of years at current school: 6
Graduating colleges/universities: Pennsylvania State University, University of Chichester (England), and University of Jonkoping (Sweden)
Q. What encouraged you to pursue your job as an educator?
A. Since the age of five, I knew I wanted to become a teacher. Teddy bears, stuffed animals, my siblings, and my parents all became my students. I brought home extra worksheets and book order forms to use in my classroom at home. Throughout high school and college, I worked in day camps, daycares, classrooms, and after-school activities in addition to coaching a 7th and 8th grade cheerleading squad for eight years. Each one of these experiences enhanced my determination to pursue my career in education at Pennsylvania State University.
Q. What encouraged you to pursue education within your specific age level/curriculum?
A. Believe it or not, at 10 years old, I made the decision that third grade was the best grade and I hoped one day to teach students at that level. I love this grade level because it’s the bridge between the primary grades and upper elementary grades. Students are knowledgeable, curious, full of energy and can work independently.
Q. What is your main classroom philosophy?
A. The most significant aspect of teaching is creating a positive and nurturing learning environment where all students feel confident and motivated to succeed. Building a community through morning meetings and reflections plays an important role in my classroom structure. I also strongly believe in inquiry-based, collaborative learning where students make connections and investigate their own ideas through meaningful learning experiences.
Q. What is a lesson you have learned from your students?
A. I have learned so many things from my students, but one important concept is that it is okay to not know the answer. At the beginning of my teaching career, I panicked if a child asked me a question and I did not know the answer. Now, I embrace those moments to model learning in real life. Throughout the past few years, children have asked such amazing questions that led to more engaging learning experiences.
Q. What is your favorite part of being an educator?
A. Although being an educator can be demanding at times, it truly is one of the best jobs in the world. Each day is a new opportunity to explore new ideas and connect with children to broaden their understanding of the world around them. It is amazing to see how students connect to learning differently and share their unique perspectives. No two days are alike.
Q. What advice would you give to upcoming/new educators?
A. Two important pieces of advice I would give to new teachers is to ask for help when you need it and to take the time to establish a classroom community. Often, new teachers are assigned a mentor teacher for the first three years of teaching, but sometimes the mentor teacher is not in your grade level or busy schedules make it difficult to find time to meet. Take the time to seek out the experts in your building who can support you with whatever you need. Also, take the time to establish a classroom community. Throughout the first weeks of school, provide opportunities for students to get to know each other well and practice strong communication skills. Building a positive classroom community at the beginning of the year sets the tone for the rest of the school year.
Q. What are three words that would describe your life outside of the classroom? (hobbies, interests, etc.)
A. Travel, outdoors, and books. I began traveling during a Mexican exchange program in 5th grade and have loved it ever since. I studied abroad in England and Sweden during a two-year teacher exchange program. I have been to 24 countries so far and I am determined to get to “30 countries before 30.” While traveling, I love being outdoors doing activities such as hiking, kayaking, and riding my bike. I also love to read.
Q. What is a favorite memory from your teaching career?
A. A few years ago, a student in my class began the year with poor behavior. He did not complete many assignments. If others were working, he would find ways to distract them. He demonstrated typical behavior of a child who wanted to avoid reading. Through many meaningful discussions, and working to find out more about his interests, he began to love reading. I was concerned that he would not meet his end of the year target. After Christmas break, he began to show tremendous growth. He loved reading the news on a website for kids called NewsELA. He happily jumped up and came to the table during his reading group and would enthusiastically share his learning with others. During the last two weeks of his school year, it was time to take his final reading test with our literacy facilitator. After he was finished, he was coming down the hall attempting to conceal a huge smile. When he got right outside my door he yelled, “I did it!” He leapt into my arms and gave me a huge hug. The look on his face when he achieved his goal was one of my proudest teaching moments.
Q. What advice would you give to a parent of a 3rd grader?
A. There are a lot of tests in third grade. Please don’t be afraid to ask your child’s teacher about what the tests are and what the scores mean. In addition, scores on tests are not the single determining factor of whether or not a child is successful in school. The best way to help at home is to talk to your child about school and make learning at home enjoyable. Learning should be a positive experience for all students.
Q. What changes would you like to see implemented in the school system within the next 5 years?
A. I would love to see less standardized testing, especially in kindergarten. In third-grade, students take tests from the lower elementary grades and the upper elementary grades. I understand the need for measuring student achievement, but the amount of time spent assessing students interferes with meaningful lessons focused on enduring understandings.
Q. What are the biggest challenges you face as an educator in a military town?
A. The most significant challenge of teaching in a military town at Clyde Erwin is teacher turnover. Teams of teachers are different year after year and the amount of money required to train new staff, especially at an International Baccalaureate school, is expensive.
Q. Is there anything else you’d like to share about being an educator?
A. Teaching is a very important job. I want my students to know that I am there for them not only inside the classroom, but outside of school as well. It is very rewarding to receive handwritten invitations or personal phone calls asking me to come watch them play football, come see their piano recitals, or run a 5K with them. Building positive relationships with students benefits them socially and academically.
Editor’s note: The Teacher Feature is a column that highlights accomplished educators on and off base and seeks to recognize the important role they play in children’s live and education.