Stoddard teacher meets her students on their own turf

By KAITLIN MULHERE Keene Sentinel Staff
Published in Keene Sentinel, Saturday, August 31, 2013

STODDARD — Fourth-grader Colby Lyons’ room is decked out corner-to-corner with Boston Bruins memorabilia. He’s the ultimate fan, and he was pumped to prove that to Faulkner Elementary School teacher Laura White.

Then, he showed her his trophy, a symbol of hockey success from when his team won the league championships in the spring.

And when the two got down to school business, hockey was still a part of the conversation, as White asked Colby about his hockey schedule and gave him advice on how he could get schoolwork done while he’s on the road.

All this, seven days before Colby even set foot in White’s 4th- and 5th-grade classroom for the first time Wednesday.

White is a staunch supporter of conferences with families before the school year begins. In the two weeks leading up to the start of school, on her own time, she met the parents of all 11 of her incoming students — oftentimes at their homes.

“It was just a really neat way for her to bond with him one-on-one,” Colby’s mother, Deb Lyons, said.

When White was studying education at Antioch University New England in Keene, she did a student teaching internship at Greenfield Center School in Massachusetts, where the school requires teachers to meet with parents before the first day of school.

She was blown away by the practice, she said. So when she started at Green Street School in Brattleboro, she organized the meetings on her own time before the school developed a policy encouraging teachers to do it. (The school offered teachers an exchange for a professional development day.)

When a fellow teacher friend talked about her success organizing at-home conferences, White decided to try that, and she’s been hooked ever since.

“Education depends a lot on relationships, and you have to take time to build those,” she said.

In her first year at the school, White visited the homes of each student in her multi-grade classes — 18 in all. That year, some parents were a little surprised by the practice, she said.

Now, White’s reputation precedes her, and most new families await her call, Lyons said.

White told parent Jennifer Susmann Magoon that the visit was a way to welcome her daughter, Hannah Magoon, into the 4th grade, and that’s exactly what it was, Susmann Magoon said.

“It was a nice way for (Hannah) to get to meet her teacher,” she said. “It’s less intimidating for her to do it on her own turf.”

Hannah and her sister, 2nd-grader Grace, showed White their guinea pigs, Krista and Kiki.

“They were very excited to have a grownup that was there to visit them,” she said.

Most students usually are, White said. Often, they’ll be waiting on the porch when White arrives and then talk nonstop about their summer and their favorite toys. The students always give her a tour of their home. Colby showed her the garden he grew this summer.

The home appointments have also turned out to be a great incentive for parents to get kids to clean their room, White said.

The visits aren’t just play dates, though. White uses them to ask what they enjoyed about 3rd grade and what they didn’t. She asks about their hobbies, the types of books they like and what they dream of being when they grow up.

“I want to know who the kid is as a person,” she said.

Then she questions parents about what they think their child’s strengths are and where they’d like to see improvement.

There’s a lot of research about the importance of parents and teachers cooperating to educate students, and these early conversations support that, White said.

Once White and the parents have a connection, that makes it easier to talk later in the year, even if it’s about misbehavior or poor academic performance.

The visits are a way for teachers to research, so they’re ready for the students, said Cat Fletcher, a student-teacher in White’s class this year.

“You’re consulting the expert about each of your incoming students,” she said.

And that research helps ease her start-of-school jitters, White said. (Yes, teachers get nervous for the first day of school, too.)

Lyons said she was a little unsure of the idea of a home visit before the start of school. She has older children, and she’d never come across the practice before, she said.

Now, she wonders why more people don’t do it. The one-on-one time between White and Colby was a great jump-start to the year, she said.

On Tuesday, Colby told his mother, “I can’t wait to go to school tomorrow,” Lyons said. “And that, to me, is just fantastic. He has no hesitation. He’s excited. He’s eager to learn.”