Hitting the books

Everything Shelley Sanders needs to know, she can learn from her fifth-graders.
The new teacher says each day comes a little easier, but she is still hitting the books.
Sunday, December 14, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:07 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 24, 2008


Live & Learn



Second of two parts


Sometimes there’s a fine line between teacher and student. A good teacher never stops learning and students often teach their instructors something new or unexpected.

Shelley Sanders offers some of the lessons she learned in her first year at Paxton Keeley Elementary School.

Last week we heard from Annice Wetzel, the district’s longest-serving teacher, with 35 years

of experience.

Motivated by the same spirit, both educators say their care for students extends beyond

the classroom — where helping students decide who they are becomes the true goal.


First-year teacher Shelley Sanders is learning as much in her classroom as her students. And she wouldn’t have it any other way. While Sanders is teaching her fifth-grade students at Paxton Keeley Elementary School about decimals and geography, she’s learning the nuances of working with parents, how to manage her time and the value of patience.


The 23-year-old first-year teacher is also learning to balance life outside the classroom, like car and student loan payments.


Sanders said she’s always liked things to be done her way, but now her students are teaching her there are many ways to do any task.


“With 26 kids, I have to be patient, and I’m not very patient,” Sanders said.


She said she now knows it’s all right if things don’t happen exactly as written in the lesson plan.


She’s also learned you can’t label children, because those she was told were problematic coming into the year aren’t necessarily the ones she has problems with now.


After dealing with the initial shock of being responsible for 26 other people, Sanders said every day is a little easier than the one before.


The shift from the self-centered environment of college, however, hasn’t been an easy one. The transition from being graded to being the grader was more difficult than Sanders expected, as well.


Teachers can’t skip classes or come unprepared like students can.


Sanders now goes to bed at 9:30 every night because her students depend on her to be awake and prepared.


Other fifth-grade teachers at Paxton assure her the first year is the hardest and most time-consuming because she’s creating everything as she goes. Laughing, Sanders said she was in the classroom until 9 p.m.,worrying about parent-teacher conferences for two weeks.


“You always go to bed wondering how you can do better,” Sanders said. “I’m learning so much. I wish I would have been keeping a journal. I would love to look back on it. But I haven’t because I don’t have time.”


When the conferences were over, Sanders said all her worrying was unnecessary. She’s learned how good parental support is one of a teacher’s biggest boons: like when they bring in food or buy books for the class.


But Sanders is having more fun than she ever dreamed — a reward in itself.


“You’ve got to make it fun,” she said. “If I’m not having fun, I know they’re not having fun.”


Enjoying learning is a central part of her teaching philosophy, and Sanders said she’s learned it pays to combine laughter with learning.


More importantly, Sanders said she feels responsible for more than just academics.


Her students are trying to figure out who they are, she said, so along with teaching them decimals, Sanders gives advice on everything from nagging to the thriftiness of buying Wal-Mart clothes.


After a three-day weekend this school year, Sanders said she was surprised she missed her students. The Kansas City native told the class they’re her family in Columbia, and she brings them presents of postcards and peppermints.


Sanders said she knew she wanted to be a teacher while in fifth grade. During a class period when she couldn’t sit still, her teacher told her to create a lesson plan to keep her busy. She couldn’t sleep that night because of all the ideas swirling in her head.


“I know it sounds a little cheesy, but sometimes life is,” Sanders said.


The first of her immediate family to attend college, Sanders said she was raised mainly by her grandmother who thought she should become a pediatrician instead of a teacher so she could earn more money while still working with children.


It wasn’t until halfway through her freshman year that Sanders’ grandmother was reconciled to her choice, realizing there would be no doctors without teachers.


No one in her family had money to help pay tuition or rent, so Sanders put herself through college with scholarships, loans and jobs. Sometimes she said she’d talk to her grandmother and say it wasn’t fair that she had to work so hard while other people didn’t.


Her grandmother, also her best friend, told her it would make her stronger.


“I’m here totally because I want to be. No one told me to go to school, graduate or have a career,” Sanders said. “If you want something, you make it happen. No one’s going to do it for you.”


Sanders said she always loved school because it was an escape from the difficult problems of home with parents who were indifferent to her career choices and didn’t have money to help even if they wanted to.


But at school, everything focused on her. Her love of school led her to graduate with honors in high school and magna cum laude at MU.


A poster on Sanders’ second-floor classroom wall states, “30 years from now, it won’t matter what shoes you wore, how your hair looked or the jeans you bought. What will matter is what you learned and how you used it.”


Sanders said it describes her because she is a self-made woman.


In the future, she hopes to be a principal, but she hasn’t decided if she’ll teach full time or go back to college to earn a master’s degree next year.


The passion that was first sparked when she was a fifth-grader, however, burns brightly.


“I know this is what I want to do,” Sanders said. “This is it.”


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