State of Our Schools – New teacher combines best practices, passion for learning

By Michaela Gibson Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

PONTOTOC – Angela Harris’ students were investigating lines of symmetry, but the lesson went beyond geometry.
Harris, who is in her second year of teaching, worked through the concept – how many times could you fold an object and have the halves mirror each other – with the entire group. Then she set the Pontotoc Middle School fifth-graders to work in small groups to evaluate a set of paper shapes. They had to sort them into regular polygons – all sides the same – or irregular polygons, find the lines of symmetry by folding the figures and record what they found on a poster.
Beneath the geometry, the students were working on a host of life lessons – problem-solving, teamwork and the art of giving and taking constructive criticism.
“It starts from day one,” with helping the students learn to accept and evaluate constructive criticism, said Harris, who was trained to see her role as more facilitator than traditional lecturer. Her goal is to create an environment where it’s not embarrassing to make mistakes, and questions are welcomed.
“It sets the stage for future learning,” Harris said.
When the small groups had completed the symmetry exercise, they rotated to see what other groups had done and left notes for them. Then they had a few minutes to reflect before sharing time.
“Let’s see if your theory is correct,” Harris told the group that volunteered to share its poster first.
Harris wanted them to figure out on their own that for regular polygons, the lines of symmetry are equal to the number of sides: a square has four, a pentagon five and so on.
The group had the right answer, but it didn’t draw in all the lines of symmetry.
“I don’t see it,” piped up one student, and Harris patiently worked through the lines with different colored markers.
She aims to be calm, patient and firm with questions. She has her own questions for students, and it’s often “Why?”
“If they aren’t asked to justify why it’s correct, then do they really understand?” Harris said. “It’s not just memorizing it, they’re applying it. There’s a better chance of them retaining it.”
Harris isn’t the traditional new teacher. She began her undergraduate degree at the age of 34.
“I was a hair dresser for 20 years,” said Harris, who is a mom of three. “My business was successful.”
But from volunteer work with her church, she knew her heart was in working with children. It took her four-and-a-half years to graduate from Itawamba Community College and the University of Mississippi. But the effort that went into balancing school, family and work enriched her life.
“This feels like home to me,” said Harris, who puts in hours of extra time to review materials and develop lesson plans. “This is what I need to do. This is what I’m passionate about.”
Her first year of teaching, her students’ test scores were through the roof – a Quality of Distribution Index of over 200, said Pontotoc Middle School Principal Mitzi Moore. Earlier this year, her colleagues named her Teacher of the Year for the school.
“Most first-year teachers don’t do that,” Moore said. “She really desires to do the best job she can in reaching students.”
Harris plans to start preparing for National Board Certification next year and then pursue a masters degree.
“Teachers are lifelong learners,” she said. “I want to model and evoke a love of learning.”

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