Great teachers make every student feel included

March 26, 2018

The library at Redwood Heights Elementary School in Oakland, Calif.,

This week at their annual conference, the California Charter Schools Association will give Rocklin Academy Gateway kindergarten teacher Kaelin Swaney their 2018 Hart Vision Teacher of the Year award. Rocklin Academy is fortunate to have had many teachers receive awards since we opened our first school in 2000. However, this award is likely to generate more interest than other current and past winners.

Jillayne Antoon

Nearly a year ago, a student who had been transitioning from a boy to a girl brought the book “I am Jazz” to class and asked that Ms. Swaney read it out loud. The autobiographical children’s book describes the life of a young transgender child. Just like she had for other students who had brought books for her to read, Ms. Swaney read the book to the class. Following the reading, she closed the book and the class went about their normal routine.

This simple act created a firestorm of unwanted attention for the student and her parents as some used it to push broader agendas around transgender issues. Ms. Swaney was thrust into local and national news stories that questioned her fitness to be a teacher when she only sought to ensure that this student, like every other in her class, was treated with dignity and respect.

With the benefit of time and perspective, this award now allows us to reflect on why this ordinary day in the classroom demonstrates the extraordinary value of a great teacher.

A public school teacher’s job is to provide a safe learning environment for every single student in their classroom. No matter the students’ backgrounds, experiences, situations, or beliefs, a great teacher creates a place where each student is included, supported, and able to learn, grow, and thrive.

Our goal is for our students to grow into knowledgeable, ethical, responsible, critical-thinking, engaged members of society. Students understand how to navigate the world by learning from the experiences of others.

Our students learn complex content starting at the earliest grades. They learn about world religions in first grade and they learn about Buddhism and Hinduism as part of a study of ancient Asia in second grade. The curriculum we use is designed to teach students about science, about different cultures, religions, and perspectives. We want our students to ask questions and to appreciate the diversity which makes up our classrooms, our communities and our world.

Some have suggested that the schools’ role should be to focus on reading, writing and arithmetic, and that everything else should be taught at home. To do so would reduce teachers to content-delivery mechanisms and deprive students of so much that makes teachers often among the most positive influences in our lives, the people we remember fondly when we think of the people who set us on paths to success.

Great teachers like Ms. Swaney do so much more than teach academics for students — and it’s important that they do. Teachers wipe tears and give band-aids when children fall and scrape their knees on the playground. They help children learn to listen to each other and collaborate with one another, respectfully and productively. When a conflict does occur, teachers help their students learn positive conflict resolution strategies. Teachers give their students food when they’re hungry, they hug them when they’re sad and they make sure each child in their classroom is known and feels valued. All that on top of the enormous task of ensuring students master grade-level standards.

Looking at student achievement data, there’s no doubt that nearly all of Ms. Swaney’s students excel academically. She strives to ensure that they all leave her kindergarten classroom at the end of the year more than prepared for the expectations of first grade, and that is important. But beyond that, they leave her kindergarten classroom with a healthy, positive view of school, and an excitement for learning.

They leave her classroom knowing that it’s okay to ask questions, and it’s okay to make mistakes, because that’s how we learn. They leave her classroom understanding how to show integrity and perseverance, and how to speak with good purpose. And in the case of one student last year, she left her kindergarten year fully, publicly able to be herself, surrounded by classmates who showed kindness, acceptance and compassion. That’s the kind of classroom we strive for at our schools, and that’s the kind of classroom led by a great teacher.


Jillayne Antoon is Rocklin Academy’s director of Growth and Community Engagement and former principal at Rocklin Academy Gateway.

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