Gynna Garrett is a pre-K teacher in Bartow County, GA. As our September Teacher of the Month, I asked Gynna what makes her classroom unique.
Tell me about your program and your work there.
I teach in a Head Start/pre-K blended classroom which means we receive both federal and state funding. I’ve been here for about 14 years (which is a long time to be doing something if you don’t love it!). There are six classrooms at my site, but our program under Tallatoona CAP supports 36 classrooms across six neighboring counties. Tallatoona CAP was just awarded one of the Early Head Start–Child Care Partnership grants, so this year, we started partnering with established child care centers and have been providing support and training to them.
How did you get into teaching?
My mom was a Head Start teacher nearby at Floyd Head Start and I was a student there. After I graduated, some of the ladies who worked at the center and had watched me grow up encouraged me to apply—and I’ve been here ever since!
How do people learn about your program and services?
We have some amazing family advocates who recruit families in need of support and care and there are a lot of returning families who recommend our services to new families.
Head Start isn’t just about child care and education. We’re also trained how to provide support for the whole family in a variety of areas (like nutrition). Every year we attend federally mandated pre-service trainings about abuse, health, and more, so we can help the families that need it.
How does that play out in the classroom?
We hold monthly meetings for our parents and talk about child development. Often, our parents come in expecting their 3- or 4-year-old to know all of their numbers, colors, and letters. They feel like their children are behind. We work with them to understand what the appropriate developmental milestones are and encourage them to support their child's development at home. In the classrooms, we educate our children on health and hygiene. The children brush their teeth every day in the classroom. We also work a lot on mental health like self regulation and controlling our actions. A really good tool we use is called Scripted Stories. These picture stories help give children the words to describe how they are feeling and help them label tough emotions. We focus on social-emotional development every day.
What are some of the most challenging aspects of your job?
Time management. There are challenges in working with children, but the most challenging aspect of my job is finding time to fit in all the paperwork and non-teaching tasks. We have an online child assessment system and have to document what the children are doing, upload work samples, and more. I have 20 children in my classroom and have to update the system everyday so I don’t get too behind. There are 69 indicators that we have to meet across our different subjects (science, math, language/literacy, social/emotional, etc.). And our lesson plans have to cover each indicator every week. It’s a lot to manage and keep track of especially since we do everything with the kids. We eat with them and are in the classroom during nap time, so the paperwork is hard to fit in during the day.
With so many things to focus on during the day, how do you find time or space to focus on interactions?
I used to serve as a mentor-teacher at the program and was certified as a CLASS Observer. A lot of the dimensions of the CLASS tool fit in with what I’m already doing, you just have to make sure to think ahead. There are some dimensions that are much easier and more natural for me, especially the Emotional Support dimensions, so I don’t have to think about those as hard. I really work on building my interactions around the Instructional Support domain especially for instructional learning formats and concept development. I want to make sure that the kids are really grasping the concepts I’m teaching and that I have all of the resources and tools prepared.
I challenge the children to use all of their senses when we are working on a new concept and focus on making what we’re learning relevant to their lives. For example, if we’re comparing objects by size (which item is bigger or smaller), I bring in real photos of cars or buses in the neighborhood—pictures of things that they see every day.
What are some of the PD tools that you find the most helpful?
We’ve had some great training sessions. Last year, we had a training on challenging behaviors and managing negative climate. They focused on redirecting and encouraging positive behaviors, identifying triggers ahead of time and anticipating reactions. For example, if there are only three cars in the play area but five children are heading over, it might be a better idea to remove the cars all together. It’s all about being proactive instead of only reactive. This fits right in with CLASS and the behavior management dimension.
We had a training on improving the quality of our questions and having “thick” conversations instead of thin ones. There’s a big difference in the types of questions you ask if you’re focused on having “thick” conversations. Again, this fits right in with the interactions we’re focused on with the CLASS.
Another training I really enjoyed was how to set up the classroom to support active learning—making sure the materials you have out are age appropriate and are challenging the child’s thinking in some way.
I’ve also done a lot of personal learning (Google is my friend!). I found an online course on how to support dual language learners in the classroom and that has been really helpful. And I subscribe to newsletters from Head Start, Pearson, and Teachstone to learn about new tools and resources that are out there.
What makes you and your classroom unique?
My biggest focus in the classroom is helping the children learn to be independent. I think that it’s really important that children learn skills on their own but also know that I and others are there to help them if needed. At the beginning of each school year, I focus on setting up a routine so kids can start doing things on their own. The kids sign themselves in at the beginning on the day, put away their bags, wash their hands, and get out their notebooks. I have all the shelves labeled and reachable for the children.
This year, I’m trying a rewards system to encourage positive behavior like using words to express emotions or feelings, helping friends. It teaches the kids that they are in control of themselves–their own behavior and rewards.
We have a "chill spot" in the room with a soft chair, stuffed animals, blankets, feeling faces, and solution kits. The kids know that they can go there for quiet time. The faces and solution kit helps remind them with pictures and words that feelings are ok and that they have the tools they need to deal with their emotions. I let them do a lot of things on their own but they know that I’m there to lead and guide them.
Another way to encourage independence is to let the children know that they have friends in the classroom. We have two kids who can already tie their shoes, so we encourage other children to ask them for help if they need it. By teaching the kids how to be independent, I can also fit in some time to work with individual students. They know that they have other people who can help if I’m busy.
We’re a family and we’re friends in the classroom. It’s a community. Everyone has a job on the job chart to make our classroom run smoothly and everyone has a good day. I don’t clean up at the end of the day, we all do it.
Since it’s back to school time, do you have any advice for your peers as they start the new school year?
Set a routine at the beginning of the year and stick to it. It will really help set the stage for a successful year and kids learn what is expected. It’s also important to always have some activities available or something for the kids to do. Let’s say someone spills milk and I have to clean it up. Having a floor puzzle ready to grab gives the kids something to do that is still encouraging thinking and development, gives me time to tend to the spilled milk, and keeps the kids active and engaged.
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.