Sandra Copes has been a Head Start Teacher in Harrison County, Kentucky for over 25 years. Her coach, Ms. Vickie, recommended Sandra because, “Working with Sandra is a pleasure. She is open to suggestions and is very thoughtful about how things play out in the classroom. She is the first to try new ideas and help other teachers. Her enthusiasm is contagious and makes us all better.”
How did you get started as a teacher?
I’ve always enjoyed working with children. I studied early childhood at Midway College and worked in daycare and private preschools. When Community Action Council started its Head Start center-based programs in Harrison County, I was the first teacher hired. I liked it so much I’ve been here ever since—and that was over 25 years ago. I now teach the children of children I taught years ago.
What is it that you love about teaching?
I enjoy watching children’s excitement and eagerness to learn, especially when we do small group and the children are so eager to share and talk about what we’re learning. It’s wonderful when the children start to apply what they have learned.
Tell me about moments that stand out to you in your teaching career.
There are so many moments! The CLASS tool has really changed my teaching style. My co-teacher I are teaching at a higher level than before. It’s helped us broaden our horizons and extend learning for the children. This year, we spent an entire week talking about the beach: how it’s formed, the effects of erosion, etc. We never would have pushed their learning as much in the past.
I’ve started taking lesson cues from the children. We talked about landmarks and they loved it so much that we extended the lessons. Since then, we looked at landmarks and how they connect to maps, different types of maps, how to use them, and how we fit on a map. We started with our community, then our county, our state, etc. Now they are excited to explore different places when they grow up.
But, what stands out to me most is how I’ve had to be open and willing to change. My co-teacher has been here for 20 years and I have been here for 25. We’ve been doing this a while, and CLASS is fairly new. Because we’ve been willing to try something new, I’ve seen a huge impact in my teaching and in the children’s responses. It was tough at the beginning but it keeps getting better and better. I joke that I feel like we cheated our students in the past (when we weren’t using CLASS) because we didn’t challenge them as much, and we didn't talk about our lessons with the level of depth that we do now.
Talk to me about your relationship with your coach (Ms. Vickie) and how that helps you in your teaching?
Ms. Vickie supports all of the teachers in Harrison County. She helps us review our lesson plans and objectives, and she challenges us to think about the types of questions we’re asking of the children. She encourages us to promote higher level thinking. We don’t want to just talk about a pumpkin because it’s October. Instead, we want to make pumpkins (and everything else!) more exciting and interesting for the children by helping them connect it to their lives.
I also benefit since she is right down the hall from my classroom. We talk at least once a week. Ms. Vickie videotapes us and we review the recordings together. It’s helpful to see yourself and your classroom from that perspective.
There are a lot of similarities between how I interact with my students and how I interact with my coach. She makes sure I’m engaged—just like I do with the children.
What makes your classroom unique?
We try to think out of the box and connect the lessons to the children’s life. We ask what the children want to learn about. The other month, the students wanted to learn about penguins and flamingos, so we talked about birds. Learning is so much fun when the children are excited about what we’re learning. And with each of these new lessons, we expand vocabulary and language skills.
I also share what we’re working on with our parents so they can get excited and support their children’s learning. We did a unit on photography and hosted an art show showcasing the children’s photography.
How would you describe CLASS to someone new to the tool?
The CLASS tool will help you be on your toes and think about your teaching strategy. I’ve been able to push myself to have more meaningful conversations with the children. I’ve started thinking about my conversations with children as I do my conversations with peers. Would you ask an adult “what color is this apple?”
It’s important to go deeper and challenge children’s thinking. They're capable of so much more than rote memorization, and CLASS helps me focus on that. CLASS is now part of, and guides, our everyday practices.
The time has come for hard conversations.
That’s the feedback we have been receiving from educators across the country. There are plenty of tough conversations educators are trained, taught, or feel equipped to handle with children and families - gently bringing up a developmental concern, facilitating a disagreement between students, or explaining what happened with the classroom goldfish are all part of a day in the life. But in the last year, since the killing of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of police, educators are increasingly asking for help in communicating more comfortably with young children about diversity and difference.
I was supposed to be an architect, instead I was a teacher of young children; it felt like my calling.
When I started my coursework, they tasked me with visiting multiple classrooms. It overwhelmed me when in some classrooms, children were crying, teachers were frustrated, and no one seemed to enjoy the day. I thought I had made a mistake. Thankfully, I had a professor who inspired me to continue. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the behaviors I observed in both children and teachers, the professor charged me to uncover the root of those behaviors.
And so, my journey to support social-emotional development began.
This past year of hybrid and virtual learning due to the pandemic highlighted the gaps in learning and the inequities that we already knew existed. It is apparent, now more than ever, that there needs to be a narrow focus on bridging the divides (e.g., digital) that exist and meeting students where they are in order to promote growth and put less emphasis on standardized testing. This would allow teachers to concentrate on curriculum with greater impact, differentiate their instruction, and utilize effective strategies that they know make a difference for children’s outcomes.