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How do you teach for 43 years and still have fun? Cheryl Beckwith, Colorado Rockies MLB All-Star Educator does that every year. Each new school year is a blessing for Cheryl, and those of us who share her profession – regardless of this being our 1st or 51st year – can certainly learn plenty from this #InspirationalEducator. Jake Miller sat down with her to see what drives her back to school, day after day and year after year.
Jake Miller, The Educator’s Room: First of all, how many years have you been teaching?
Cheryl Beckwith: I’m currently in my 44th year. Starting in 2nd grade, I was inspired to be a teacher. I loved that teacher and really connected with her. I wanted to be a teacher since then, and it has never changed.
JM: I’m inspired that you’ve been able to do this for so long. Have you started to see grandkids from your first group yet?
JM: In your 44 years, what has changed the most about education?
CB: Hard question. Not much hasn’t changed. Technology has certainly taken over the classroom. Some of the tech additions have been great; many others get in the way of the human connection.
I have to connect with those kids at their level and across all spectrums. They need to feel safe (I taught in Jefferson County, Colorado when Columbine happened). I made a commitment to stop bullying and encourage my students to speak up. Things like that happening in our schools today shouldn’t happen.
On the other hand, there is just far too much testing. Just let us teach! Let us prepare these kids. If I can’t use the data from a test to drive my instruction (as most state standardized tests arrive over the summer), the data isn’t very valuable.
JM: Do you feel that Colorado has received a fair amount of press for the gun violence in your home state?
CB: When kids are killing kids, it’s a national issue. When they want to kill one another, something is wrong. We don’t know the students like we used to. We don’t have to time connect with them. When elementary are packing in 60 kids and 120 parents, it’s a struggle. I love knowing the whole child and teaching everything – not just content. I can help them more that way; there’s more accountability on for all of the stakeholders in education.
One year I had 85 students in reading class. We’re now pigeon-holing elementary students into classrooms like a junior high. We should be focused on the integration and cooperation of education instead of isolation. Kids can’t learn if they don’t feel safe. Address that and then we make schools safe.
JM: I read that you have written a book about a famous Colorado historical figure. How did that come about?
CB: I wrote about William Bent and his role in the Sand Creek Massacre. I took a class and fully researched the topic and the individual from a variety of resources and sides of the issue. I like to have students study the people because it’s the people who have changed the landscape and structure of our state. Thankfully Denver School District also had a vision to bring these people to life. As a writing teacher it was fabulous to live the writing process rather than doing something small scale. I watched the process go from an idea to a published book. It certainly has made me a better teacher. There is so much experience, background, and depth that I was able to pass along to students.
JM: You seem to have a flair for creative classroom cultures. Can you talk about some of them?
CB: Probably the top hit is when we transform my classroom into an 1890s version, complete with dunce hat, livestock, and more. One year we centered the class around the power of a cyclone, showing its causes and effects. Last year I used an ecology system with gallons of water to show the interaction between plants and animals. This year I’m probably going to hatch some eggs in class.
JM: Which costume that you wear is the students’ favorite?
CB: Every year the students like something different. The wet suit and SCUBA outfit was a big hit (reading with 85 students), as “Diving Into Reading” was the theme. I wore an astronaut suit. Last year our school went to uniforms (which I didn’t necessarily agree with), so I wrapped myself as a big present and wrote on the tag “your clothes are just your wrapping paper, it’s what inside that’s the present.”
At some point I’ll turn the classroom into a bank. I dress up like a banker, wear real funky glasses that are eye candy to hide my wrinkles. It helps inspire students to be unique and be the best they can be.
JM: I also read that you won a service project sponsored by the Today Show, baking dog biscuits for a student of yours who was suffering from cancer. How did that all come to shape?
CB: One student I had in class was diagnosed with brain cancer in the 1st grade. I taught her in 3rd and then 4th again. She was really struggling with recovery, especially with staying attentive in class. That is, until her parents got her a therapy dog. She wanted to get other kids with cancer dogs. She called it the “Stinkbug Foundation.” We started baking dog biscuits to raise money for the dogs. You should’ve seen the math skills they used to cook. How they were entrepreneurs of industry, mass production, and quality control. Cooperation was amazing.
When we started to buy dogs, the women’s prison down the road trained the dogs. Now a teacher at school who has a service dog. Another student last year had one again in class. I’ve raised 4 of my dogs in the classroom – which shows I have really wonderful principals. But we transformed kids and the pets alike. It was win-win-win on all accounts. Now its own independent non-profit.
JM: I just visited Colorado this summer and found it to be an incredible state. What’s your favorite thing about the Rocky Mountain state?
CB: I like the seasons and weather. We receive over 300 days of sunshine a year. I took up fishing this summer and caught my first fish. I can hike, mountain bike, ski, snowshoe, and more. It’s an athletic state that inspired me to enter the Boston Marathon (which she’s completed 7 times!). It’s also showed me how to complete tasks in the classroom – one step at a time; go slow to go fast.
JM: I interviewed Garrett Liam for last month’s #InspirationalEducator. Did you two strike up much a conversation at the MLB All-Star Game festivities?
CB: We spoke a lot. He’s an amazing teacher. It was fantastic just to have a connection and talk with him. He’s got a wonderful future ahead of him. It was an incredible opportunity and I was so inspired by all the teachers there. It reminded me that I’m constantly evolving into the teacher I always wanted to be. The 3rd year teacher was just as inspiring as the 52nd year teacher. I still don’t have my feet firmly on the ground from that heavenly experience.
JM: What’s one thing you wish teachers did more of?
CB: I’d like to see them connecting to students who are “in the background” and building up their self-confidence. Inspire them. Encourage them to find their own path. Help them to become innovators. To change the world. If we’re teaching them to all think alike, where’s the world going to be?
They know I’m no different than they are. I’m never afraid to put students above and ahead of me and think different than me, especially when it comes to solving a math problem. Many ways to enter a house – not always the front door that I’m using. That’s what wrong with Common Core: the government is selecting what we teach. There’s so much deep thinking that’s left out.
JM: How many years do you have left in the tank?
CB: I never even think about it. Friends keep asking me “when are you going to turn it in?” I have many more years. I’ll know it’s time when I don’t like it anymore, when I’m not successful, when the test scores sink, and when students and parents aren’t happy. I’m not even close to being there yet. I feel like I can do anything when I succeed with kids, and last year was one of the best yet.
JM: Thanks so much for being an inspiration to our students, Cheryl! We hope you have an incredible year!
CB: Thanks Jake! Keep on doing great things in the classroom yourself. God bless.