After three years of helping her fellow elementary school teachers improve their math instruction and implement best practices in their classrooms, Tiffany LoConte is back in a classroom of her own and she couldn’t be happier.
LoConte is a second-grade teacher at Huckleberry Hill Elementary School in Brookfield this year, a return to the roots of her teaching career. She’d previously served as her school’s K-4 math curriculum specialist, a three-year stint that gave her a chance to work with teachers in a way that she said influences the way she now teaches.
“Truthfully, I’m incredibly grateful for that [time],” she said. “My new crusade has been to encourage teachers to step out of the classroom for a little while and look at teaching from a different lens.”
She said when she was donning her curriculum specialist cap, she was constantly observing teachers and stockpiling ideas that she wanted to borrow and take back to her classroom.
“Everyone comes to the table with something different,” she said. She said those differences influence how she teaches skills like the vocabulary of adding and subtracting with an eye toward making sure her future third graders don’t get lost when they leave her classroom.
“I missed being in the classroom with children on a regular basis,” LoConte said of her time away. She also couldn’t wait to implement the many strategies she said she gleaned from her fellow teachers.
Like many elementary school teachers, LoConte is keenly aware that what students learn in their early school years impacts the rest of their educational careers. So as much as she is concerned that her students blossom academically, she said she spends a lot of time working with them on their social and emotional intelligence in ways that are vital for learning and life.
My philosophy really is a quote I heard once from my father’s favorite football player, ‘When you have confidence, you can have a lot of fun. And when you have fun, you can do amazing things. We can’t teach the kids if they don’t have all their needs met. They need to feel safe in that no matter their background, or what trauma they’ve experienced, they need to feel this is a safe place.
“We’re here to support them and lift them up and elevate them so they can move forward,” LoConte added. “When you teach kindergarten, first and second grade, to me, this is the most important time. It’s where we lay that foundation.”
She said students who feel safe, who know they are in control of their thoughts, bodies, focus, and voice develop the confidence to explore and learn. LoConte said her school uses the RULER approach developed by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence to help students work through their feelings. She said because it is used so often, students learn early how to deal with difficult individual emotions and how to resolve conflicts with their fellow students.
LoConte said some of her students are becoming so proficient in the tools of RULER that they know to ask for time to resolve a conflict with another student and how to communicate a sense of urgency in achieving that resolution. She said that means less lost instruction time because students are focused on what’s happening in the classroom instead of their feelings about something that happened during snack time.
She said now that she has entered her 11th year of teaching, her best days are when students are taking ownership of their emotional growth and supporting their fellow students in the learning environment.
Her students recently were assigned class jobs and LoConte said they owned the process from the start. They created a jobs list and descriptions for the jobs. They helped create an interview question for each job. On the day job assignments were announced they each congratulated each other on being chosen.
“They were so genuinely happy for each other,” she said. “The pure joy they expressed for each other was incredible. They were not sitting there focused individually. They wanted everyone on our team to be happy.”
LoConte said her time outside of the classroom helped her challenge herself to figure out how to better align her teaching with what students need to know to be successful in their next grade.
Every teacher can be better if they take some time to step out of the classroom even if it’s for an hour every few weeks. I feel like a better educator for that time.