BY KAREN CAMPBELL
Weakley County Schools Communications Director
SHARON (February 3) – Erasers come in boxes of 10. Victor has 14 boxes. Gabby has 5 boxes. How many erasers does Victor have? If Gabby gets another box, how many erasers do they have in all?
Before Danielle VanCleave’s second-graders at Sharon School complete their nearly hour-long math lesson they will have worked the problem vertically and with a chart for place values, bundled and decomposed the numbers, discussed wholes and parts and completed a quick assessment revealing that each student now knows what 10 ones and 10 tens equal.
As the boys and girls write on their desks with erasable markers (better than using white boards, VanCleave says), grin at the praise for working through the problem as well as correcting their grammar (“My marker ain’t working” becomes “isn’t” with just a short prompt) and celebrate great work with unicorn marshmallows, an observer cannot doubt one young scholar’s appraisal:
“I like the new math we learned today!” he enthusiastically proclaimed as the class gathered what was needed for their upcoming art class.
VanCleave was recently named the Pre-K – 4th grade Teacher of the Year for Weakley County Schools. A stop by her classroom soon reveals the classroom management, attention to goals and outside-the-box (actually school in her case) thinking that earned her the recognition.
The physical space in the classroom hints at VanCleave’s commitment to not only academics but helping each child feel safe and loved. Since her faith tells her that God brought her to teaching after her own children were school-aged, reminders that “this little light of mine” needs to “shine” fit nicely beside a display for the works of Super Student, Excellent Effort and Ready to Learn.
The “teacher talk” she incorporates into classroom instruction and encouragement is straightforward. Sometimes no words are even needed. The students learn early that a series of claps is a call for attention they must echo. “Finger on your nose if you are ready” with the answer, she advises. And, after work is demonstrated at the board that allows for colors and rapid movement from one aspect of the lesson to the next, she walks through the carefully-distanced-for-COVID desks and affirms a “yes ma’am” response with “I like your manners.” She also frequently announces “Ya’ll are so smart!”
VanCleave’s second-graders are consistently among the top performers in the county on standardized assessments, notes Betsi Foster, the county administrator charged with interpreting data from the various instruments employed to track and monitor growth and skills development.
“I have very high expectations of my students and help them attain goals by the rigorous instruction in my classroom,” VanCleave wrote in the application that will be reviewed in the next level of Teacher of the Year recognitions. “The words ‘I can’t’ or ‘it’s too hard’ are rarely heard in my room.”
She credits the students’ confidence with their knowing that they are free to give answers and have the ability to “mess up” or make a mistake. She says her high expectations are rooted in a love for the children and a desire to see them succeed.
“They know I love them. They also know when it’s time to work, we work … but they have fun doing it,” she adds.
A recipient of the Farm Bureau’s Ag in the Classroom Grant since 2014, VanCleave has taking hands-on learning outside with raised garden beds and this year brought similar experiences inside as the children used a donated incubator to hatch guineas and have just harvested a crop of cherry tomatoes they grew in their own tabletop hydroponics-growing system.
“In the spring, we are hatching ducklings and growing some herbs and mushrooms,” she points out with an enjoyment that rivals that of her students.
Such interactive opportunities are ways to develop and apply reading and math skills such as addition and subtraction and comparing and contrasting.
“I’ve been blessed that so many have been willing to help my room,” she says of pre-COVID visits from guests like UTM Chancellor Keith Carver; Juvenile Service Director Keith Jones; Weakley County Health Department’s Chelsea White and County Mayor Jake Bynum. “Meeting these leaders can only benefit the students and build up their self-esteem.”
Giving back to the community is also a part of VanCleave’s mission for her students. Last year they participated in the nationally-acclaimed Blankets of Hope program, which supplies blankets and notes to those in need. And each year she coordinates and her students perform as part of the annual Veterans Day Program for Sharon School.
“I hope when people look at me and my classroom they see my children perform well academically but they also see that we are part of a community,” she said.
Terri Stephenson, the Instructional Supervisor for Elementary Schools for the county and the staff member who oversees the Teacher of the Year process, underscores the importance of looking at what teachers are doing for the whole child.
“Just looking at the data alone would warrant recognizing Danielle VanCleave because she obviously looks at the gaps and addresses them for her students,” Stephenson noted. “But when you add in how she expands her students’ thinking with new experiences and interviews with community leaders and her compassion, she is truly a Teacher of the Year,” she added.