First Grade Teacher Cora Churchill (left) and Interim Principal Amanda Tyrrell (right)
Cora Churchill (TIP ‘23) is a first year teacher at Elm Hill School in Springfield Vermont. Well, sort of… It would be more accurate to say that this is Cora’s first year solo teaching. In actual fact, Cora’s journey towards her current role as a first grade teacher has included lots of teaching.  She was an Education Major at UVM, a former adult education teacher, and has been in first grade classrooms at Elm Hill since 2020 – first as a paraprofessional, then as an intern and co-teacher last year for her UVEI Teacher Internship. 

 

I recently visited Cora at her school to catch up, hear about her progress, and spend some time in her classroom.  In short, Cora appears to be thriving. She said about her job,  “Teaching first grade is the first job I’ve had that is equal parts joy, challenge, and reward. There is always more to learn and that excites me.” 

“I admire her commitment to prioritizing kids, their needs, and their choices.”

~Amanda Tyrrell, PIP ’22, Interim Principal

I was curious about how Cora maintains this attitude in the face of significant challenges. Elm Hill School serves a community that faces significant structural difficulties (47% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, for instance), which is reflected in the array of social, emotional, and academic needs her students bring to the classroom. In her recent book, Where Teachers Thrive, Susan Moore Johnson observes that whether teachers derive intrinsic rewards from their work paradoxically hinges on the students they hope to inspire and guide. The impact of poverty and other difficult community factors on students’ behaviors and needs can be a major factor in some teachers’ decisions to leave the classroom; but, as is the case with Cora, it can also contribute to the sense of commitment and satisfaction that teachers derive from their work. Cora has a lot to say about her students, “The kids are the best thing about my first year teaching, and relationships are a priority for me, that’s what I’m here for… The kids are sweet and give me a lot of hope. I have plenty of challenging behaviors in my class, and there is a lot to manage in the classroom. I don’t mind doing that work. I don’t need kids to come to me perfectly well adjusted. Social emotional learning is part of why they are here.  Working with kids to help them learn how to regulate their emotions is a rewarding part of my job… I have kids who at the beginning of the year struggled to get through the day and now they are so excited to see their own progress. If I can make a welcoming environment where kids feel safe and cared about, then I know I’m having an impact. I love working someplace where I am needed and I know I am making a difference for kids.”

 

Cora’s ability to meet students where they are is noticed by others at her school. Amanda Tyrrell (PIP’22), the interim principal, remarks, “I admire her commitment to prioritizing kids, their needs, and their choices. She gives flexibility where appropriate, based on knowing the kids and individual relationships with each of them.” 

“It has helped me in my first year knowing I have people to go to when I need help.”

~ Cora Churchill, TIP ’23, First Grade Teacher

The tendency to see kids for who they are and prioritize authentic relationships and growth, which characterizes Cora’s mindset, seems to come from at least two places: Cora’s personal experience and the professional community at Elm Hill. 

 

Cora ultimately became a successful student, but her early schooling wasn’t always easy, “When I was growing up I was a frequent flier in the “planning room.” I had a great intervention teacher, Mr. Parker, who really invested a lot of time in me and I really had him in my corner. I knew someone in my school cared about me and thought I could succeed. Sometimes my family used to say about my academic success, ‘you did this yourself,’ and I would always think about Mr. Parker and I know that actually, I had a lot of help. I want to be Mr. Parker in my kids’ lives.”

 

But personal commitment alone would almost certainly be insufficient, and Cora also draws strength from her colleagues. “We have a really amazing grade level team. I really love it here. This being my first year  teaching on my own, I feel really set up for success. It helps that I was a paraprofessional and intern teacher here… My mentor and co- teacher from UVEI, Joan Whaley, is right across the hall, which is really nice scaffolding. It has helped me in my first year knowing I have people to go to when I need help.” 

 

Cora credits UVEI, in part, for her ability to collaborate effectively and to draw strength from her colleagues,  “Building and participating in a professional learning community [at UVEI] – everything we did was very collaborative, we were always looking at each other’s work, asking questions, we were very comfortable giving each other feedback and receiving feedback – really helped me as a first year teacher, I try to engage in my learning community at school, as well as in staff meetings and professional developments. I’m very grateful that I feel confident in that. I think we learn best from each other, and that experience at UVEI  helps me be as successful as I can be in my first year.”

 

Cora contrasts the supportive professional community at Elm Hill with what many of her peers have experienced at other schools, noting that many in her network who started teaching at the same time as her have already left the field or are seeking to move schools in search of a more supportive community. She feels lucky that, “At Elm Hill we really pull for each other and support each other when we need help.”

“Whatever is going on, and even when things are hard, we have a shared value about kids.”

~Jennifer Dodge, TIP ’15, School Counselor

Amanda, who joined Elm Hill as assistant principal in the fall and took over as interim principal mid-year, is similarly impressed with the collegial spirit at Elm Hill. She notes that the relationships teachers have with one another are reflected in the relationships and care they strive for with students – especially with the students who find school challenging, “Teachers are committed to wrap around support for students, and everyone is willing to help, it is a team attitude. When the former principal and I started the year together, we set one goal: To support teachers and to nurture our shared sense of connection and belonging. I have only worked a few other places in my career with this level of community.” Amanda knows that nurturing this sense of mutual support will need to be at the center of the work going forward, “Every teacher here wants to make the next  jump… project based learning, positive classrooms, reading approaches are all things people are interested in working on, and collaboration will need to be at the center of that.”

 

The tendency to see each child as a whole person, and finding fulfillment and camaraderie in working to meet their needs, was not exclusive to Cora and Amanda. I noticed a similar approach in many of the classrooms I visited, where most interactions were characterized by a sense of caring and connection. I asked the school counselor, Jennifer Dodge (TIP ‘15), who has been at the school for almost ten years, how the teachers sustain this disposition even in the face of challenges. She pointed to a deep sense of shared values,  “Whatever is going on [in the school system or in the community], and even when things are hard, we have a shared value about kids. They are who is front and center and what is important to us. We could feel bitter or jaded sometimes, but instead we say to ourselves, ‘look who we have in front of us.”

 

None of this is to suggest that teachers at Elm Hill do not face challenges and fatigue. In Cora’s case, she notes that being a first year teacher is hard! ““Being the only adult in the room is a challenge. Co-teaching with my mentor was so great and we worked so well together, I wasn’t quite ready for how hard it would be to be on my own and responsible for everybody’s learning and the classroom environment.” Cora also feels she is still developing her skills in redirecting students, helping students who are distracted to re-engage without stopping the overall progression of the class. 

This work is continuous and incremental, a lesson that Cora has clearly internalized.

For us at UVEI, an important question is what we can learn from Cora’s experience to keep improving our work with new teachers. One key lesson is to remind candidates that while structural inequalities are a reality that have significant and persistent negative effects on kids, we as educators are fortunate to be in a position to take meaningful action, even if we cannot solve these issues alone. At the same time, this work is continuous and incremental, a lesson that Cora has clearly internalized, “Sometimes when I’m driving home I’m thinking, ‘I tried something new with [Jason] today, and it didn’t work. What will I try tomorrow?… Something I feel pretty proud of is that I’m patient with myself, which comes from a good community and from my time at UVEI. I’m happy that I can be patient with myself and patient with my students. If something doesn’t go right one day, I’m not taking out on myself and I’m not taking out on my students.”

 

I also asked Cora what her advice to aspiring teachers in the UVEI program would be, and she had a practical perspective: “Don’t think of the different assessments at UVEI as homework, they are really a chance to get your hands in the dirt and do the work of teaching. I felt like I was authentic and genuine about my thinking, and my coach pushed me to think more and do more. I always appreciated it because it helped me be the teacher I wanted to be.”

 

Page Tompkins is the President of UVEI and is a faculty member in the Teacher Intern Program.