Going Above and BeyondMar 15, 2021 ● By Sam Martin
Albert Einstein once said, “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” If that’s a yardstick by which to measure the success of a teacher, Frisco ISD teachers Kaiti Laitinen, Ami Smith and Lindsey Jones are among the best. Despite unprecedented challenges and obstacles to traditional education, they have created a new landscape for learning, complete with virtual lunches, underwater math lessons and karaoke dance parties.
When COVID-19 began to spread last spring and schools went virtual, FISD teachers and administrators sprang into action, translating everything they knew and practiced about teaching into a new virtual experience. While the end of the 2019-2020 school year was an unplanned pivot and required an unforeseen amount of flexibility, 2020-2021 is presenting a new challenge as schools continue to educate both face-to-face and virtually, trying to offer the same quality of education no matter the mode of education in which students are engaged.
Kaiti Laitinen and Ami Smith have been teaching for twelve and eight years, respectively, and currently teach second grade virtually at Robertson Elementary. Lindsey Jones is a first-year teacher working as a resource and inclusion specialist, serving both face-to-face and virtual academy students at Robertson. The trio has been singled out for their positive attitude and ability to embrace the challenges and opportunities an unusual school year has provided while finding innovative ways to reach and engage students.
Ami Smith and Lindsey Jones both grew up in the north Dallas area and attended kindergarten through twelfth grade in a neighboring district. Both struggled with school and found themselves ill-equipped to meet the expectations of a traditional classroom environment. “When I was in school, the approach was, ‘This is the one way I’m going to teach you and even if you don’t get it, we’re moving on,’” recalls Ms. Smith. As a student who didn’t respond to that conventional mode of teaching, it wasn’t until she had teachers who met her on her level that she finally enjoyed school and flourished. With teachers who wanted to connect lessons to Ms. Smith’s interests (the Dallas Cowboys and cats at the time) she was finally able to engage in the classroom.
Similarly, Ms. Jones was diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivitydisorder (ADHD) in the second grade and was blessed to have a teacher who understood her need to move and engage through interactive learning. Ms. Jones’ sister required special education services in school, and through both her own experience with an understanding teacher and watching her sister’s time in special education (SPED), Ms. Jones knew she wanted to teach with a focus on SPED.
Much like her teaching peers, Kaiti Laitinen also found school to be a challenge, so much so that she notes struggling to even graduate high school. She always needed to move and touch things and was often labeled as a troublemaker and a chatterbox. She remembers vividly the teachers who made her feel inferior, but she also remembers those who made her feel successful through acknowledging and tapping into her strengths. “Those teachers poured into me,” shares Ms. Laitinen. “What other teachers viewed as challenges and shortcomings, they viewed as strengths. I became a teacher because I wanted to be a light to my students, to show them how much fun it is to be outside of the cookie-cutter box.”
Operating and teaching outside of the cookie-cutter box seems to be a unifying theme for these three. When Ms. Smith was determining where she wanted to teach eight years ago, she gravitated toward FISD because of the flexibility within the district to teach in her own way and not be limited to reading straight from a curriculum and asking a specific set of questions in one specific way. That led her to Robertson Elementary where she has worked for the entirety of her teaching career and was recently named 2020-2021 Teacher of the Year.
While the current school year is a departure from the norm for veteran teachers, it’s all Ms. Jones has known. When asked what it has been like to embark on a teaching career in the midst of a pandemic, Ms. Jones notes that her goal is “to make it as normal as possible for my students. Obviously, there are plenty of things that aren’t ‘normal,’ like wearing a mask and social distancing, but I want to make sure they’re not experiencing any added stress coming from us.”
Ms. Jones has quickly gravitated towards Ms. Laitinen and Ms. Smith as mentor teachers and kindred spirits. “They’ve shown me that it’s okay to be silly and dance and be yourself,” she explains, a quality that has not gone unnoticed by the students at Robertson.
Jayden Muchiri is a third-grade face-to-face student at the school. While he isn’t directly taught by these three teachers, when asked what he is most enjoying about this school year, his face lit up as he spoke about Ms. Jones, Ms. Laitinen and Ms. Smith. “They’re here every morning, no matter what,” Jayden beamed. “They make everyone smile, encourage everyone and just make
One of the ways they are making students smile is through their Friday morning karaoke and dance parties in the halls. They show up each morning bright-eyed and ready to engage with students in accessible ways. They sing, in the words of Jayden, “so much silly stuff. And they say hello and use nice manners.” Kyla Prusak, Robertson principal, is also eager to praise these teachers for their joyful demeanors. “I see their joy and it really just makes my day. They have stepped up in an unbelievable way.”
Teachers across the district have worked hard to retool classroom procedures and traditions to fit a virtual setting. A beloved tradition in Frisco ISD – the morning meeting – has been rethought in both virtual and face-to-face classrooms. Typically, morning meeting consists of all students sitting together in a circle engaging in a greeting, share time, fun activity and a message geared toward the focused character trait of the month. This vital non-curricular time is essential to social and emotional learning and relationship building between students and teachers. In the reimagined classroom setting, students continue this time but now circle the perimeter of the classroom to maintain an appropriate distance. Virtually, students gather together for this special time of community building.
Ms. Laitinen and Ms. Smith have also tried to replicate some of the intangible aspects of a school day. When they realized how much they missed the short, seemingly mundane interactions with their students they used to have in the cafeteria, lining up and traveling the halls on the way to specials, the teachers instituted Lunch Bunches. Students are allowed to gather virtually in small groups of three to four and share their lunchtime with their teachers. They get an opportunity to talk and get to know each other in ways that simply can’t be fostered within a typical Zoom classroom or meeting.
This trio is also promoting ways for their students to build up and encourage their peers. Ms. Laitinen has a Google document entirely devoted to allowing students to submit specific encouragements. When a student sees a classmate working hard, showing grit and determination despite challenges, or simply being a good friend, they can fill out the Google document and share their encouragement with Ms. Laitinen who in turn adds that “shout out” to their morning meeting agenda.
Brooklyn Darby is a second-grade student in Ms. Laitinen’s class. After the first semester, Brooklyn’s parents asked her if she wanted to switch over to a face-to-face classroom. Despite missing in-person school, Brooklyn decided to remain in a virtual class because she couldn’t imagine not being in Ms. Laitinen’s class anymore. Even though Brooklyn has found that some subjects like math are more challenging outside of a traditional classroom, “Mrs. Laitinen really makes it fun!” She continues, “One time she dressed up as a shark and had an ocean background with math problems on it. She played ‘Baby Shark’ and took bites out of the problems when we got them right.”
Ms. Smith, in turn, makes science engaging by inviting a “special guest” to teach the lessons - her Russian alter-ego named Dr. Pepper. When Ms. Smith told her student teacher about Dr. Pepper, he eagerly jumped in as Dr. Pepper’s assistant, Mr. Pibb. She also found a way to translate classroom jobs into the virtual setting and invites a student to serve as her co-host, monitoring the Zoom waiting room and allowing classmates to join.
Despite the myriad of challenges they have faced trying to educate students in the midst of a global pandemic, these teachers remain focused on their students’ experiences. “No one chose this,” remarks Ms. Laitinen. They continue to focus on “giving these kids a safe place to explore and build friendships.” She goes on to note the unique opportunity this year has provided her students to truly become independent learners who advocate for themselves and take charge of their own education. When she considers the end of this school year and what all the students will have accomplished, Ms. Laitinen says, “Will they have grown academically? Absolutely. Probably more than they thought they could. But more so, I hope they are proud of themselves for going through something no one ever expected – and going through it with grace.”
Ms. Smith calls all of the students and teachers who are pioneering a new way to approach school “trailblazers.” She notes the incredible growth and additional skills they are acquiring this year regarding the use of technology. “Every day they are actually teaching us about grit and perseverance,” she remarks. “I hope that [despite all of the changes] they know that I see them. I will continue to call them by name and exchange those little pleasantries.”
Ms. Jones agrees. Her ultimate goal is that each student she works with, whether in-person or via Zoom, knows they are seen and that they matter. She prioritizes individual goodbyes even during group meetings. Each student is called out by name and given the choice of a virtual high five, fist bump or hug.
In a year when so much has been turned on its head, these teachers want their students to know that a few things will never change: they are a part of the Robertson family, they are known and valued by their teachers and they will always be loved.
Sam Martin is a graphic designer and writer who spends her days chasing two toddlers around their historic home in downtown Frisco. Sam volunteers extensively with Hope Mommies, a Christian support group for women who have lost children.