Interview with Linda Dunnavant, Alabama Fifth Grade Teacher
We recently had the opportunity to catch up with Linda Dunnavant, a fifth-grade teacher currently on sabbatical in Alabama, who’s taken the year off to stay at home with her baby son. Following her undergraduate studies, Linda discovered that it was her “true calling” to become a classroom teacher. She returned to school and earned a master’s degree at the University of Memphis in elementary education. She taught for three years, gave birth to a son, and is now staying connected to the education world by connecting with other teachers via the blogosphere. She will return to the classroom in the future. During our interview, we discussed Linda’s advice for teachers considering starting a blog, her favorite technological tools, and how she prepares fifth graders for the significant transitions ahead of them.
What makes fifth graders unique?
There is never a dull moment teaching this quirky and inquisitive age group! I feel like fifth grade is the bridge between kids wanting to stay kids, and kids wanting to become teenagers. Fifth graders also seem to be at that age where they are figuring out who they are, what they like, and what interests them. As a teacher, I feel it is my job to encourage students’ creativity and curiosity. Students ask me questions every day that I don’t know the answer to. I will say, “Why don’t you go look that up and share what you find with the class?” As a fifth-grade teacher, I learn new things every day! Fifth graders are also capable of handling increased responsibilities. I love giving open-ended projects and assignments for students to complete. I have found that if fifth graders are engaged and motivated, they will amaze you with what they are able to accomplish.
You’re a busy teacher, wife and mother. What techniques do you use to create a harmonious work and life balance?
Get out of the building! During my first year teaching, I was devastated that I didn’t have a key to my classroom. I wanted to spend all my time making things perfect for my students. However, my school closed at around 04:00 P.M. every day, and when the school closed I had to leave. As time went on, I realized what a blessing this was. Staying after school for hours on end does not make you a better teacher. I learned how to close my door and get everything done during my planning period. I also started planning with my grade level teammates once a week. Why should every teacher in a grade level make his or her own plans? Collaborative planning is amazing because you are able to capitalize on everyone’s strengths and plan better lessons together than you ever could on your own!
I also think that it is crucial that teachers (especially new teachers) ask for help from their colleagues. These can be face-to-face colleagues, or people that you know from blogs and social media such as Twitter or Facebook. I tried to ‘do it all’ my first year teaching. I felt like I had to create every lesson and activity from scratch. I spent an incredible amount of time on things that, in hindsight, really weren’t that important. Will your students notice that cute font that you spent hours looking for to match the theme of your activity? Probably not. Will your family notice that you spent all weekend on the computer working on lesson plans? Absolutely. That being said, I think it is important to plan innovative and relevant lessons for your students. Instead of trying to create everything yourself, collaborate with your teammates at school and reach out to your blogger and social media friends. Chances are that someone has already created materials for the lesson you’re working on!
How do you use technology as a tool for learning in your classroom?
I think that it is our job to make sure that our students feel comfortable using technology to communicate and learn. I created a classroom blog and website to communicate to students and parents what was going on in the classroom. I also gave students the opportunity to contribute to our class blog. When I go back into the classroom, I’d like to try using a platform such as Kidblog.org so that each student has the opportunity to share their work with a broader audience. It is important to put the technology in the hands of the students. In a perfect world, each student would have a laptop in the classroom. However, the reality is that many of us are teaching in underfunded schools. Be creative with how you use your classroom computers. I also like to make sure my students have access to digital cameras, video cameras, and voice recording software when they are doing projects in the classroom. Tests have their place, but I think it is important to let students show what they’ve learned in a variety of ways. One great way to get the things you need for your classroom is to post projects on DonorsChoose.org.
Was there a particular person or experience that inspired you to become a teacher?
I think somewhere in the back of my mind, I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. It took me a while to get to that point, however! I attended Rhodes College, a small liberal arts college in Memphis, Tennessee. While I was there I had no idea what I wanted to ‘be when I grew up.’ After graduation, I got a job working for Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes. My experiences there definitely awakened my desire to become a teacher. During those two years, I worked with students with autism and learning disabilities. I loved working with the students, and it was thrilling for me to witness ‘light bulb’ moments when a student would suddenly grasp a concept. One day I woke up and realized that my true calling was to be a classroom teacher, so I decided to pursue a master’s degree in elementary education at the University of Memphis.
Also, I have to credit my own fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Chambliss, with inspiring me to want to become a teacher. I remember how kind she was and how special she made me feel.
Can you share any words of wisdom for teachers who are thinking about starting a blog? What essential components or features should be included on a blog?
Just do it! I started a blog two summers ago, and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Start by looking at other teaching blogs to get an idea of what all is out there. Make sure you do a Google search to be sure that the blog title you are considering isn’t already in use. Also, begin keeping a log of ideas that you’d like to blog about. I recommend using Blogger.com because it is very user friendly. If you are planning on becoming a serious blogger, I think it is worth it to get a one-of-a-kind blog design. There are some great blog designers out there that have reasonable prices. If you are at all tech savvy (and have the time) you can create your own custom blog design. I recently redesigned my blog, and I learned all about how to make headers, backgrounds, buttons, etc. from Google searches. Contact me if you’d like me to create a custom blog design for you!
How do you prepare and empower fifth graders for the significant transitions that are just around the corner in middle school and beyond?
I think the most important thing that I can teach my fifth graders is that it’s okay not to always have the right answer. We learn by making mistakes. I love the quote by Albert Einstein that says, “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.”
We thank Linda for taking the time to share her insights into teaching, and wish her all the best as she enjoys the rest of this year at home with her son. Check out her blog, Tales of a Fifth Grade Teacher, for more great ideas and networking opportunities.
Read about how to become a teacher in Alabama.