Preparing a Student's First Classroom
September 17, 2019
It’s the Friday before the first day of school, and Anita Mathias (Greater Chicago-Northwest Indiana, ‘19) is focusing on her classroom at Stagg Elementary, on Chicago’s South Side. She’s working to assemble the library, compose bulletin boards, and arrange desks. Anita will be teaching early childhood education, so she’s thinking about how to best support her students as they begin their educational journeys. She’s planning to read them The Kissing Hand, a book that always helps students who are missing their parents. "I want them to feel safe and cared for,” Anita says. “And to have the freedom to ask questions and truly explore what they want to learn."
Anita wants to create the sort of classroom she needed as a student. She often had trouble focusing in school, and always felt a deep appreciation for teachers who tailored their lesson plans to different learning styles. She needed teachers who cared about developing their students as people, not just as students. In college at Pomona, this spurred her interest in education theory and policy. She knew traditional classrooms didn’t serve every student—but why was that, and how could it change?
“I want them to develop close relationships, ask lots of questions, and be excited to explore their world.”
This led Anita to mentor and tutor students in a variety of educational settings, from a first grade dual language classroom to a high school peer counseling program to a college chemistry cohort. “Each classroom was so different, and I learned that every kid has unique needs that people need to address,” she says. “But with every student, I worked to let them know how much I believed in them, to help them get a place where they could express who they are.” The experiences of these students, and the relationships she built, inspired Anita to apply to Teach For America.
Though originally Anita thought she’d teach high school in the corps, she was assigned to early childhood education. Throughout her summer training experience, she began to realize how this placement plays to her strengths and interests. Personalized learning and social-emotional learning are foundational to early childhood, and Anita is deeply invested in both as a teacher. When she considers her path after the corps, she thinks she may become a social worker or a guidance counselor.
But first, there’s a school year ahead. Last year, Chicago Public Schools launched universal pre-K, and because of this, Anita has gotten boxes of resources. They’ve sent games, decorations, and learning tools to support classrooms. As a new teacher, she’s grateful for the support of not only the district, but also her fellow staff members at Stagg. “Teachers have provided resources and advice. My principal always starts the day with some words of inspiration. Everyone has been so wonderful,” she says. Anita has also been leaning on her Teach For America coach and fellow corps members. She knows that a strong community will be essential to her success in the year ahead.
As she finishes setting up her classroom, she considers what music she wants to play—Anita is a singer, and believes deeply in the power of music. She plans out a few getting to know-you-games, though she knows how quickly the time will pass, and how before she knows it her first school year will be coming to an end. When she thinks of what she wants for her students by that time, she shares her classroom vision. “I want them to be able to recognize and write their names, count to 100, and know lots of songs. But more importantly I want them to develop close relationships, ask lots of questions, and be excited to explore their world.”