On the run, all day long – Experience a day in the shoes of a first grade teacher

Sandy Hook Elementary first grade teacher Holly Taff looks over at her classroom Smart Board while assisting student Cami Golliday, 6, on a writing project. Rich Cooley/Daily

Editor’s note: Reporter Kaley Toy spent a day recently shadowing Sandy Hook Elementary School first grade teacher Holly Taff. 

STRASBURG – Holly Taff spends her days with 16 first-graders who would rather be outside playing than inside a classroom learning how to read or add double-digit numbers.

Taff is a veteran educator – this is her 27th year as a teacher, with 22 of those years spent at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  She teaches first grade at Sandy Hook and is on the run daily as she manages the individual needs of the 6- and 7-year-olds in her care.

“They need a lot of structure,” she said of the 10 boys and six girls who make up the smallest class she has had in years.  Last year she had 22 students.

It’s “an unusually small class, which is nice,” she said, explaining that as a result she is able to provide more individualized support.

Teacher Holly Taff quizzes a student while playing a game with flash cards during math class. Rich Cooley/Daily

Technology in the classroom

Taff’s role as teacher is constantly changing as students and requirements evolve to adapt to a changing 21st century world ruled by a fast-paced, technology-based society where, she said, “What works one day might not work the next.”

An example is the old chalkboard – that’s been replaced by a Smart Board. The board allows her to use more color and pictures than she could on a traditional chalkboard. She also uses a computer math program that allows students to work individually on math problems and will track each student’s progress with each lesson.

Technology, she said, allows her to “instantaneously” find something online and show it to her students. Streaming videos or finding images of what she is discussing with the class allows her to bring her words and descriptions to life for the students.

She noted that when technology breaks down, it puts a damper on what she is able to do that day and forces her to change her plans.

Olivia Moxley, 7, receives help with a writing project from her teacher, Holly Taff. Rich Cooley/Daily

Screams and boo boos

Taff oversees 16 children, all with different needs and personalities. At their age, temper tantrums are a daily occurrence. Telling a student to sit quietly in his or her seat could prompt screaming and pouting, and require the teacher to pause classroom instruction until the student calms down.

Students also get into arguments with each other. Taff then becomes a mediator who teaches her students to use problem-solving skills to find a solution to their disagreements.

Children are also prone to injuries. Paper cuts and accidentally slamming the bathroom door on a finger forces the teacher to become a nurse who checks the injury while trying to soothe the crying child.

“Relax, it’s OK,” she tells the students.

Brianna Doughtie, 6, hugs teacher Holly Taff as Taff reviews her work. Rich Cooley/Daily

A comfortable environment

Over the years, Taff has decorated her classroom with kid-friendly calendars, seating, blocks and supplies.  She posts colorful student artwork and projects in the hallway outside her classroom as well as on the door and walls inside it. Taff is a fan of flamingos and has added the birds to her classroom – their splash of color brightens the room and offers originality.

“They’re our kids,” she said, and because she considers her students as family, she wants her classroom to be a comfortable learning environment for them.

But turning a classroom into a warmer environment costs money. She is given about $150 a year from the school to use for class supplies. Anything else she wants for her classroom comes from her own paycheck. The beginning of the school year, she said, is when she spends the most money, replenishing her supplies and updating materials. Other expenses crop up, too – in addition to classroom materials, she buys things like snacks for students who aren’t able to bring them in. Once, she recalled, she bought a pair of sneakers for a student.

Structure for all

7:30 a.m.

Taff’s day begins at around 7:30 a.m. each morning as she arrives at her classroom to prepare for the students’ arrival at 8 a.m. Her day ends around 4:30 p.m., but she said there are days that she stays later, and she works on weekends in advance of important events. She said the holidays are also a busy time of year for her.

8:20 a.m.

At 8:20 a.m. students watch the morning announcements and then they turn in notes from parents and signed grading sheets.

8:30 a.m.

Language arts is first on the teacher’s lesson plan. Taff reads students a book and then asks them to write down what they learned and what they liked about the book. This activity helps students with writing and spelling.

Tasks such as when to capitalize a letter and how to properly write the letter “w” are not so easy for first graders. Simple grammatical uses and writing your name may seem natural to adults, but to a first grader, these are tough skills to learn. Taff must check each student’s work and coach them through their mistakes. Creativity is also encouraged as they draw a picture to accompany the text.

9:20 – 10:05 a.m.

From 9:20 to 10:05 a.m., students attend classes outside the classroom, such as physical education or library time. Taff uses this time to review student progress with other first grade teachers and create plans to improve student performance.

10:10 – 11:10 a.m.

From 10:10 to 11:10 a.m. students work through reading rotations, where they practice their skills by reading aloud.

She even has her own private library set up in the room with a variety of fun fiction and non-fiction books the students can choose from.

Elementary students require a lot of guidance and specific instructions. Taff said her kids want to get up and move around, but they need to be reigned in from time to time. She helps them expel some of that energy through interactive activities.

She also uses “centers” the students visit to work on different activities, such as puzzles, blocks and drawing pictures. This allows students to work individually and in groups and allows Taff to work with a smaller group of students.

When students need to use the bathroom, a restroom is located between her room and the room next door in a hallway. Each student in her class has a card that they put on their desk when they need to use the bathroom. When Taff sees the card, she will allow the student to leave during a time that won’t disrupt the other students.

11:20 a.m. – 12:20 p.m.

Math, which is next, requires more concentration and patience and is the hardest part of the day, Taff said. On this day, she showed a video with music, and the students danced while they counted to 100.

12:20 – 1 p.m.

Right before lunch, the students switch classes – they either visit another classroom for intervention to work on trouble areas, or go for enrichment to enhance their skills in an area. Before they leave the room, they form a single file line while singing a song about keeping their hands and feet quiet and being respectful in the hallway.

1 – 1:30 p.m.

From 1 to 1:30 p.m. Taff’s students have lunch. The sounds of laughter and loud voices can be heard down the hall. Taff joins other teachers in a classroom for a quick lunch.

After retrieving the students from the cafeteria, she has the students grab their jackets for recess.

1:40 – 2 p.m.

At 1:40 p.m. students have some time to play outdoors when the weather cooperates. But even recess requires constant supervision of the students. Taff and the other first grade teachers stand guard outside while the students run around the playground.

If the weather is bad, students have recess inside the classrooms.

2 – 2:30 p.m

Social studies is on the teacher’s schedule after recess. She teaches important historical events and people who helped shape the world. Taff spoke about the contributions made by famous American leaders, such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt and Benjamin Franklin.

2:30 – 2:50 p.m.

Next is reading aloud until dismissal at 2:50 p.m., when the students pack up to leave.

Taff has to make sure the students are getting home safely and sometimes has to call parents to double check that students are taking the correct transportation home.

After school work

While students are on their way home or to after-school care, the day is not over for Taff.  She begins planning another day of learning and activities for her away-from-home family before tidying or decorating her room so that it’s ready for the next day.

Contact staff writer Kaley Toy at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or ktoy@nvdaily.com