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Veteran and newbie share rewards and challenges of the teaching profession

  • Written by Deborah Stone
Most educators will tell you they didn’t go into the profession for the money as it’s a well-known fact that teaching isn’t one of those careers that will make you wealthy.

It is, however, a job that attracts individuals seeking a different type of reward, one that can’t be measured by dollars.

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Kerrie Douglas. Photo by Deborah Stone
“I went into teaching because it’s a profession where I believe you can make a difference,” says Kerrie Douglas, sixth grade teacher at East Ridge Elementary. “You can positively impact the lives of kids. And what’s wonderful about teaching that is rarely found in other professions is the immediate feedback you receive that lets you know if you’re getting through to your students. When one of them has that ‘aha’ moment, it is such an incredible feeling to realize that you have helped turn on that light bulb. There’s really no way to describe how powerful that experience is and that is really what motivates me as a teacher.”

Douglas has been an educator for a total of 41 years, with the last 20 spent at East Ridge. She has stayed in the profession all this time because of the joy she gets from working with kids and being present for their successes and achievements. She derives enormous energy from her students and takes pride in nurturing their minds and instilling in them a lifelong love of learning.

Her teaching style is hands-on and it is always driven by the needs of her students, both academically and socially.

“I want to see them as well-rounded people,” she explains. “I want to help develop their minds, as well as build their self-confidence and independence. It’s also very important to me that they are good citizens in the world. Respect is key and in my classroom. I always model respect with my students and I insist that they are respectful of others.”

Douglas didn’t set out to be a teacher initially. She was going to be a lawyer or an engineer.

“I’ve always loved math,” she comments, “and my father was an engineer.”

After her freshman year of college, however, she decided that she wasn’t really interested in either profession.

“I realized that I was a nurturer and these careers just didn’t suit me,” she adds. “Then I sat in on my brother’s class. He was a high school teacher. It only took once and I was hooked. I loved it!”

Though she taught middle school for a few years, Douglas was eventually drawn to the elementary level because she saw that she had the ability to make a greater impact. She explains that in middle school, you have less time to get to know the students because they’re always switching classes. At East Ridge, sixth grade became her niche. “Sixth graders are at a neat stage in life,” she notes. “They’re excited about learning and they’re independent, yet they still like the attachment to their teacher. They have a sense of humor, so you can really have fun with them.”

Douglas has seen many changes in education over the years. One of the greatest improvements she identifies is the collaborative aspect of teaching that is now the mainstay in most schools. Rather than teaching in isolation, as teachers did years ago, today, educators share curriculum and ideas with one another in an open environment.

“It’s wonderful to work together with other teachers,” comments Douglas. “We all learn from each other, which in turn benefits our students. We also give each other lots of support and encouragement.”

Another major change that has occurred in education is the focus on standards, which Douglas feels is important in order to ensure that all students get the education they need and deserve.

With the standards, however, teachers are more test-driven and have less options regarding curriculum. They’re also under pressure when it comes to their students’ performance.

“One of the biggest challenges with all the changes in education is the lack of time that teachers have to do everything that’s required of them,” explains Douglas. “Because of this, we are less able to incorporate the activities and projects we used to do with our students to supplement and enrich learning. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it is.” She adds, “And then there’s the whole funding issue, which is affecting education across the nation. Cuts in education spending make it increasingly more challenging to provide quality education for all kids.”

A veteran teacher, Douglas is often called upon to be a mentor to first year teachers in the district. She notes the energy and enthusiasm that newbies bring to the profession and the fresh outlooks they have on education.

She worries, however, that they will burn out with the stresses of the job, which she feels are on the rise.

As for advice to the newcomers, she says, “Think of your students first. What’s best for them should always drive your actions. And collaborate with others as much as you can because it will save you time if you can help each other.”

She adds, “And above all, maintain a sense of humor. That’s really important when it comes to keeping your sanity!”

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Tim Freeburg. Photo by Deborah Stone.
On the other side of the experience spectrum is Tim Freeburg, a first year math teacher working at Timbercrest Junior High. Though he always had a feeling he wanted to be a teacher, the pay initially deterred him and he ended up with jobs in investments and insurance sales.

“I quickly found myself missing the coaching I had done previously and decided to get back into working with the younger population,” explains Freeburg. “I decided I would volunteer in the high school and junior high to see if I really enjoyed the experience. After a couple weeks of observations and volunteer work, I applied to a teaching program and have loved every experience since.”

The local man, who was a 2003 Bothell High graduate, got an economics degree from Washington State University and his post B.A. teaching certificate from Central Washington University.

Although he student taught for three months and volunteered in schools as part of his training, Freeburg admits that there’s no substitute for the real thing when it comes to preparing someone to teach.

“Being taught how to teach is a funny thing,” he says. “My supervisors said the whole way through that you will learn strategies to help, but until you teach, you won’t know how to teach. And they were right.” He adds, “I was lucky though because I have a strong coaching background, which helped me prepare for my job. Coaching is very similar to teaching because the toughest part about coaching or teaching is how to connect and motivate kids. If you can make kids work hard for you on the field, you can get them to do the same in the classroom.”

Although there are many teachers who shy away from the junior high age group, Freeburg is not one of them. He truly enjoys this level because he views it as a very moldable developmental stage. It’s where, he claims, kids form strong opinions about mathematics that stay with them for the rest of their lives.

“If you build a solid foundation, experience success and practice in an environment where you can make mistakes and learn from those mistakes, math is no longer a scary thing. And by having an understanding of mathematics, you will have a higher chance of succeeding later in life. Whether it’s entry college courses, running a small business someday or just having the ability to critically problem solve day-to-day issues, you will be better prepared because of math.”

Freeburg tries to bring a lot of energy to his classroom to match the energy of his students and makes it a point to maintain a positive environment. He stresses effort above all and like Douglas, it brings him tremendous satisfaction in being a part of those “light bulb” moments. In describing his teaching style, Freeburg notes that he brings a coaching mentality to his classroom. He sets clear expectations and utilizes daily and weekly routines for consistency.

He adds, “The students know where to find information and can expect what will happen next. We work as a team and depend on one another. I encourage them to learn from each other as much if not more than they learn from me.” He adds, “I teach beyond the math like I would in sports. That means if it connects to a larger context in life and can help us become better people in life, we will address it and encourage the right behavior.”

As a first year teacher, Freeburg faces a number of challenges. The issue of time, as Douglas noted, is always a prevalent problem. Freeburg is trying to build his website, video blog and interactive flipcharts from scratch and although he has support regarding content and tips on how to teach, it still takes much time to shape his materials as his own. The other challenge is in regards to differentiating instruction.

“I have a wide spread of abilities in each of my classes,” he explains. “Some kids get it and can teach themselves with minimal support while others need lots of individual attention and work at a slower rate. To balance daily lessons which accommodate both learners is an ongoing challenge, but it’s very rewarding when the struggling students experience success and when the accelerated students push their knowledge to the max and seek out additional learning opportunities.”

The Northshore School District’s mentor program for first year teachers is a godsend to Freeburg.

It has provided him with numerous resources and training sessions, allowed him opportunities to bounce his ideas off veteran teachers and let him have the chance to observe other teachers in action both inside and outside of his building.

“I feel like the support around me cares about me developing and succeeding,” says Freeburg. “This in turn has helped motivate me to do the same for our students. It’s important for them to know I care.”

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