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Michigan’s teacher of the year looks for silver linings as COVID fades

Leah Porter
Leah Porter, a kindergarten teacher in Holt in Ingham County, is the 2021 Michigan Teacher of the Year.

If this just-ending school year had any silver linings, Michigan’s 2021 Teacher of the Year Leah Porter said it’s the relationships with families and students.

Porter, 38, has been a kindergarten teacher for 15 years at Wilcox Elementary School in Holt. She is a graduate of Michigan State University, where she received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

From transitioning to fully remote learning in March 2020 then into a mix of in-person and online learning 12 months later, this coming fall, she most hopes for something that has been lacking in many people’s lives: connection.

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“I hope that we are able to take the time to see where kids are,” Porter said “There are students that I had in kindergarten that are now in first grade this year that haven't been in the building since March of 2020.  It's really going to be about building that community, that school family and being able to help foster those human connections in-person again in order for that learning to grow.”

Bridge Michigan sat down with Porter recently to discuss her experiences and the future of teaching. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you become a teacher?

I just always loved learning and I was just infatuated with school – I loved it. I loved every part of it. I loved my teachers, I loved pushing myself and learning more. I was just always so in awe at what teachers do and it was something that I felt inside of me that I always wanted to do. The trajectory of pretty much my whole childhood was wanting to be a teacher, wanting to work with students and foster the same love of learning that I had myself into kids as I grew up.

Kindergarteners are so young and it must be challenging to keep their attention. What did you do to keep them involved during virtual learning?

With kindergarten, we did not want them to be on a screen all day. We wanted them to have scissors, have projects they could glue, have things that they could work with fine motor skills, have playdough and all those things. The first step was figuring out everything they were going to need and trying to think how we could build mini classrooms for them at home. Then it was trying to maximize that live instructional time and what we needed the kids to do on the screen with us. But the biggest piece of all of that was building that partnership with families.

There's a lot of talk about learning loss. Do you think your students in this just-ending school year learned less than if they'd been in a classroom all year or had a more normal year?

We don't know what those students would look like in person. I do feel that at kindergarten, we did everything we could to maximize academic learning. We attempted to do as much social learning as we could. But at that age, kids need a lot of in-person interaction in terms of social play and learning how to solve problems with their peers and a lot of those social developmental experiences that we provide at those early grades. I do think there's going to be catch-up there.

I think this (coming school) year is going to be unlike any other… but kids are resilient and kids learn at a different pace anyway especially at these early grades.

What did you learn from the pandemic about teaching? Are there any changes in education that occurred because of the pandemic that you think should stick around?

I always felt I was really good at building relationships with families but I felt like that went to a whole new level this year. Sometimes it can take some time to really learn about all their siblings, learn about their pets and learn about the things they love. But when we were in their homes. I would see those things. I would see their brothers and sisters. They would show me their dog. They would show me their dollhouse.

With being remote, I did a lot of one on one video calls with students at the beginning to build those relationships. To get that one-on-one quiet, direct time with kids was never something that really happened in the classroom. I felt like I grew so much as a teacher. It really felt in so many ways like your first year of teaching.

Coming out of the pandemic, I just feel like it's such an opportunity for us to be really reflective about the things that work for school and the things that we need to improve upon.

What was it like having parents in your virtual classroom?

It felt a little strange at first but I really just saw them as partners. It was really just building that relationship with them too and providing supports [whether it] be it how to use the technology or providing stable, consistent routines.

I had a family that could never be on any live meetings on Mondays. So I would prioritize the work like, 'Just do these two things. Don't worry about everything.’ I said, ‘Do it when you can, I'm here to support you and be flexible.’ For me, it was a really positive and dynamic experience to be able to work with those families and help support them as much as I could.

There's been so much loss and grieving during the pandemic. How have you, your students and fellow educators grappled with that loss while also trying to continue to learn?

I think letting kids see our own feelings is really valuable for them to understand how to navigate problems and how to navigate things that make them sad, excited or frustrated. One of the big pieces that I've worked on over the last few years in my classroom is how to help kids understand their emotions and how to help them navigate those feelings, validate those feelings as they're occurring and [provide] coping skills. That was really interesting to do remotely.

When I was having those feelings of frustration, sadness, or things that were bothering me – even in the teaching moments if something was challenging – I would say, “This is hard for me for this reason in this moment,” and be that model of how we cope.

As teacher of the year, you're going to have a platform to speak to policy leaders. What do you want to tell them about Michigan schools and teachers?

I value building a fabulous, solid foundation for the youngest learners to be inquisitive, to develop a love of reading and writing specifically and to be able to advocate for themselves and help them to build character and leadership skills that will help them to overcome things that are difficult in their learning or personal lives.

What I hope to focus on, is how we build those skills and how we're providing equity for all students in those skills and helping to level the playing field. And some of that is going to be really looking at systems in our education system and how we can best support all students...

What do you think some of the biggest misconceptions are that policymakers or the public have around teachers, education and the work that you're doing?

Every profession is built in our school systems across the country. Teachers are where they begin. I think because of that, education is a common experience almost all of us in the United States have. It gives people the perception that they have the full picture because they've experienced it. But school systems are so much more complex because we're dealing with so many different situations. We're dealing with standards that are coming from the national and the state level, families in front of us, policies that are made by the state that might not always [be made by people] that are in front of kids.

My hope is that we can shed a light… to help develop and foster a better understanding of the complexities of that, the value of what teachers bring and how we can use their voices and what they know because they're… in the trenches of how to improve those systems.

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