Name: Kimberly Oliver Burnim Distinctions: 2006 National Teacher of the Year, 2006 Maryland Teacher of the Year School type: Elementary School Subject: All Subjects (Grade K-1) School: Broad Acres Elementary School (Silver Spring, MD) Website: Huffington Post Blog
Kimberly Oliver Burnim began her career teaching Kindergarten at Broad Acres Elementary, a culturally and linguistically diverse school, where she was determined to help at-risk children succeed. When she started, the school was being considered for reconstitution by the state due to many years of declining test scores. She immediately began working with other teachers and administrators to restructure Broad Acres from the inside out. Burnim promptly became a teacher leader and is recognized as having played a major role in the educational restructuring of the school. Since her arrival, Broad Acres has had numerous successes, including having met Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) every year and either meeting or exceeding all requirements for No Child Left Behind.
Burnim has played many roles at Broad Acres and in the Montgomery County School system, including becoming a member of the Teachers Leaders Network, becoming a teacher trainer, a mentor teacher, and the Chairperson for both the Learning Walk and Staff Development committee. Always striving to improve her professional development, after only four years of teaching, Burnim earned National Board Certification as an Early Childhood Generalist. She has since helped many of her colleagues begin to achieve certification as well.
Aside from being named National Teacher of the Year, Burnim was also honored with, among many other distinguished awards, the Marion Greenblatt Excellence in Teaching Award. After completing her official term as National Teacher and educational spokesperson, Burnim returned to the classroom at Broad Acres where she now teaches first grade. She received her Bachelor’s of Art in English Arts from Hampton University and her Master’s of Education in Elementary Education from Wilmington College in Delaware. She currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, with her husband, Adrian.
Interview with Kimberly Oliver-Burnim
This interview was conducted in 2009 for the book Conversations with America’s Best Teachers.
You’ve been a big proponent of things like publicly funded 3 year-old, Pre-K, and full day Kindergarten programs. Can you talk a little bit about why these are so important?
It’s important that we support our youngest learners. Research shows that most of the learning that occurs in our entire lives happens between birth and the age of five years old. So public education is missing a huge opportunity to engage children when they are most receptive for learning. It’s also important because of the achievement gap, which is clearly evident even on a child’s very first day of Kindergarten. I can see clearly, even on that very first day of school, that it’s really a story of the have and have-nots. The haves are those who are either “poor” enough to qualify for a quality federally funded Pre-K program or those who have parents that can afford to send them to a quality, private Pre-Kindergarten program that adequately prepares them for Kindergarten. The have-nots are all of the children who cannot afford to attend a private Pre-K program or do not qualify to enter into federally funded program. So as a Kindergarten teacher for many years, I have always faced this challenge where some students are already reading, maybe even on a second grade level and some students don’t even know which way a book is held or that you’re supposed to read the words and not the pictures. If that achievement gap is ever going to decrease, then we’re going to have to start reaching kids at a younger age and even up the opportunities for them to be prepared for school.
Is the gap that obvious to teachers so early on?
Most definitely. A couple of years ago, my entire Kindergarten class was composed of students who were in some type of formal Pre-K or Head Start program taught by excellent teachers, all except for one. That same year, I had a student teacher working with my class and me. I have to tell you, that one child who didn’t have that previous academic instruction and experience stood out like a sore thumb. My student teacher automatically started asking if I thought the child had a learning disability or was having serious problems outside of school. It really was just that the child didn’t have the same opportunities as the other kids in our class.
Doesn’t that achievement gap discrepancy end up lasting their entire educational lives?
Almost always it does, and then we end up investing much more in remedial services. We end up putting students in intervention and special education. We also retain many students. I believe, if we would spend a little more money up front, we wouldn’t need a lot of those things, and it would save us all a ton of money, time and resources. But most important, it will give children a fair opportunity to learn and a positive start in school.
They say that the first few days of school sets the tone for the rest of the year, and to many children, Kindergarten is their first time ever in a classroom. What do you do those first few days of school to ensure year-long success?
It’s critical during those first few days and weeks to establish solid routines and a community atmosphere. Young children thrive on routines and structure. Knowing what’s going to happen next helps them to feel comfortable. It’s important to build a community of learners who all feel comfortable and have that sense of belonging. I engage my students in lessons and activities that help them get to know each other and me as well. It really is about establishing that community as early as possible so that students will enjoy coming to school and become risk takers. The language that I use throughout the day supports this concept “We are all friends. This is a place where we’re all going to learn and grow and even make some mistakes together.” I tend to spend a lot of time on community building in the beginning of the year even though it may not look very “academic” By putting in this time up front in August and September, my students learn the expectations, learn their role in our class, and begin to work effectively, confidently, and independently
The first few days also provide an opportunity to establish relationships with parents. Sending your child off to school for the first time can be very stressful. A lot of Kindergarten programs are full day now, and even if the child had been in a half day Pre-K program, it’s a big change for both them and their parents. I invite parents to stay for a portion of the day. I stay after school and come in early to talk with any parents who have questions or need reassurance. So the idea is to build good parent-teacher relationships during this early period, help them feel comfortable, and let them know essentially that I am going to be taking care of their baby.
What is a typical day like in your classroom?
When my students first come in the classroom, they have some time to get settled. This is just as important for children as it is for adults. For instance, when many adults get to work, They have coffee, clear their minds of anything that may have happened at home or on the way to work, and see what their day is going to look like. I allow my students to do that as well. They eat breakfast, talk to their friends, read a book, and prepare themselves for learning. Then we meet as a whole group where I share the itinerary for the day with them. The key is to let them know exactly what to expect and what is expected of them. This helps them succeed throughout the day.
One of the most important techniques that I use is to constantly break the day up with various groupings, settings, and activities. Because I work with such young children, their attention span is not very long, especially at the beginning of the year. For instance, in my current schedule, after we have our class meeting, I like to do an opening song and dance for my kids to get their bodies moving and their brains working. Then I move right into Writer’s Workshop, starting with a teacher-directed mini-lesson. After this short lesson, the students work in pairs where they talk about their writing ideas with a partner and then work independently for another 20 minutes or so. But even when they’re working independently, they’re still sitting next to someone, which allows them to constantly get feedback from a peer. So during the first 45 minutes of school, my students have worked in large group, small group, and independently. They have moved from being seated on the carpet to dancing around the room to working at a designated writing spot in the classroom. This helps to keep them engaged.
After that, we get back together as a whole class to summarize and celebrate our writing. Next, I read a book with them, and then we’ll have some type of follow up. Then they break up into small groups again and go off to work in literacy centers. This is one of my favorite times of the day when I work with students on guided reading. Finally, after literacy centers and guided reading, we come back together as a whole group to celebrate and summarize our work. This only takes us up to lunch. But the afternoon is very similar with math and science activities. The point is that it’s always a come together, go apart, come together, go apart routine. I have them sitting and doing a lesson for a little while, then follow that up with a movement activity. I really never have them doing one thing for very long, and I try to keep a good healthy balance of activities. For young children I’ve found that breaking up the day like this works well and really helps to keep them focused.
You are involved in a professional learning community as well, right?
One of the things I loved that my school did several years ago was to initiate study groups among the teachers. At Broad Acres, we believe that we, as teachers, owe it to our students to constantly stay up to date on current trends in education. So we are always studying recent education articles and reading various professional texts. Everyone is involved, including the teachers, the principal and even the Para-educators. We read these books and then determine what it means for our students and how we can apply it to what we are doing at our school to improve teaching and learning.
Are these teacher study groups formal or informal?
They started off formal. Broad Acres went through a district restructuring starting in 2001, and part of that included working late on Wednesdays to collaborate with colleagues. So we divided those Wednesdays up in a variety ways. The first part is where we do formal planning and select the objectives that we will teach for the month. We collaboratively decide what the best way to teach a certain concept is, how we’re going to pre-assess it, how we’re going to assess it, what we’re going to do for those students who already know it, and what to do about those students who make it through the unit and still don’t get it. The second part of Wednesdays includes opportunities to plan vertically and to be involved in activities such as the book study group. Over the years they have become less formal, but still have an incredible impact on what we do as educators.
What does educational equity mean to you, and how do you maintain it in your classroom?
Educational equity is about giving every child exactly what he/she needs to be successful and to steadily progress to higher levels. That may mean a child might need intervention to get up to the expected level, or if he or she is already at that expected level, then we want to progress them on to the next level. In my class, I first assess where my students are at the beginning of the year so that I have some baseline data on their academic achievement levels. I do this by talking to the real experts, their parents, about where their children are academically and socially and what their strengths, passions, and needs are. I also use formal assessments, informal assessments, and observations as well. I then determine a plan on how best to use this information to help the student, especially in the areas where growth is needed.
I must always consider the various learning styles my students have so that I can plan my lessons accordingly. It’s also important to find out what each of their interests are in order to keep them motivated. For instance, if they like a certain character or a certain animal, I actively seek to find books that incorporate those things so that I can keep the engagement level high. Finally, it’s important to really differentiate instruction accordingly for each student. That might mean that even though we’re all working on the same project and using the same materials, the kids will be working at different individual skill levels. Kids don’t learn at the same pace, and instruction should reflect their differences.
I definitely agree with that. Frequently, I hear teachers talk about differentiated instruction. Many, however, just seem to break them into groups and that’s not differentiated instruction.
There are various levels of differentiation, but it really is one of the hardest things to do in the classroom. At the very basic level, it is what most people talk about, and that’s breaking them into groups, which I think is the expected and should be the norm with small reading and math groups. But differentiation is also important within the work that they’re doing. We must provide children an opportunity to work at their appropriate individual skill level. For instance, I have a new student right now who is reading at a very early kindergarten level in first grade, yet in the same class I have two kids who are reading at a high second grade level. So the work that they’re doing independently can be quite different than what goes on in the whole class instruction. We all have high expectations for our kids, and that can be difficult, especially for those reading below their required or expected levels. It’s okay to have those high expectations, but the work given to them needs to be skill level appropriate, and it’s best to help them reach those expectations in small increments so that they can experience ongoing success.
You’re a big proponent of reduced class sizes in order for teachers to better focus on individual students. You are in a wonderful position of having only 15 students in your class, but what if you had 30? What would you do to compensate for having so many children and still try to keep that level of individual instruction and close relationships?
I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve had smaller classes because that’s not the reality for most teachers. My school district has taken the idea of equity to heart and really tried to keep the numbers down in its Title 1 schools. But if I were working in my same school district in another school, I would probably have closer to 30 kids per class. In fact, with the economic times that we’re having right now, I could very well have 30 kids in the future anyway.
That being said, even if I do ultimately end up with 30 students, I would still be true to my teaching style, which is heavily centered on relationships. I would still strive to get to know each of my students as individuals. I would still strive to incorporate their families into the learning process and use them as an asset to help me get my job done. It would all certainly take a lot more time, but I don’t think my style of teaching would change much. Things would become a little larger. Instead of having a group of four, I might have a group of six or seven, but I think potentially it’s still the same style that I have grown accustomed to. Although it would definitely be harder, I would keep the same principles that have allowed me to succeed thus far.
Can you talk a little about the formal sessions you and the other teachers had when you got together and examined students’ work?
Keep in mind we started this almost a decade ago and it has really evolved over the years. This is important, in and of itself, because if professional development becomes stagnant, then your teaching and the progress that your students are making will become stagnant as well. We started off with what’s called the Tuning Protocol, which included a detailed outline about what we were to do with clear restrictions on how and when things were supposed to happen. A designated teacher would bring student work and have a certain amount of time to describe the work and pose a guiding question . That teacher would ask about something specific such as, “What can I do to help this student move to the next level in reading?” The group would then review the student’s work and give feedback and/ or advice on whatever the issue was.
That’s how we started, and it provided us with good feedback on helping individual students that a teacher was struggling with. But one of the things we realized was that it was a little too restrictive for us. We didn’t really like being bound by the time restrictions, so we began modifying it a little each year. It eventually moved to the point where we examined student work in various ways, by groupings, grade level, individual students, etc. I think we’ve become much more effective, and it helps us benchmark where we are and where we need to be. It has worked out well and provides excellent feedback from colleagues with whom we otherwise may not have had an opportunity to talk.
You also have learning walks as well, right? What are they like?
When we started the learning walks about eight years ago they were still pretty new. Now they’re much more common, but ours was a bit different as we didn’t want them to be a top-down process and given by the administration. Central office staff and principals coordinate most learning walks. They walk through teacher’s classrooms, observe what’s going on and then come to certain conclusions. We didn’t like that idea and instead wanted the walks to be coordinated and given by teachers in more of a bottom up approach. We wanted teachers to be in complete control of the earning walks, setting them up, implementing them, gathering our own data, and then coming to our own conclusions about where we needed to be. We wanted it to be one of vehicles we used to drive our professional development.
These learning walks turned out to be real enlightening experiences because teaching can be extraordinarily isolating. We as teachers don’t typically have the opportunity to go to other classrooms and see what our peers are doing because we’re too busy teaching our own class. But these learning walks gave every teacher in the building an opportunity to get out of their own classroom and to see what was happening around them. It helped with school culture and helped to build a sense of trust among colleagues. It helped teachers to see how interconnected the work that we do really is. So even though I may be a Kindergarten teacher and don’t give those important state tests in third, fourth, and fifth grade, I can now see my role in that learning continuum that our students progress through in order to be prepared for those tests. Furthermore, it helped us identify some key areas that we had mastered as a staff and some key areas that we needed growth in.
One of the problems that we had with our learning walks when we first started was that we did too much patting ourselves on the back about things that we were doing right. It took us awhile to get to the point where we started to look critically at ourselves and point out things that we weren’t doing so well and needed improvement on. It’s so important to be honest and have those critical conversations.
How long do you typically stay in each classroom?
Less than five minutes. But it’s enough to provide just the snippet we need to really get the feel and general commonalities among the classrooms. It also helps take the pressure off of teachers as well, as they know it’s never just about them, but rather about what we’re doing as a staff collectively.
Classroom management is often a big hurdle for teachers, and one of the biggest worries for young teachers. I’ve talked to a lot of middle and high school teachers about discipline, but it’s different for very young children. How do you handle this issue?
Oh yes, it’s a whole different ballgame at this level. There are several things to keep in mind. First, it’s so important to set and follow routines. Young children thrive on structure and need to know what to expect and what’s expected of them. Building in these routines is one of the most effective ways to help them consistently work to their fullest potential.
Second, it’s important to be extremely prepared before class begins. This will help take away the chance of having those management issues, because for any teacher, whether in their first year or thirtieth year, if you’re not prepared and you’re dealing with five and six year olds, then things can go downhill pretty fast. The minute you turn away from students or go to your desk to get what you need, anything can happen, and the kids will form their own agenda that probably isn’t the same as yours.
It’s also important to keep young children constantly engaged. Find out what they like and put it in the classroom. Technology plays a role for me. I have a Promethean Board in my classroom now, which is an instant attention getter. I also have the companion Activotes, and I allow the kids to give and get immediate feedback by voting. For instance, I can write any question on the Promethean Board with multiple-choice answers. My students will use the Activotes to select one of the answers. With the click of a button, my students and I can see the results and know what percentage of the class gets it and what percentage of the class is not getting the concept being taught. Now my students are always asking if they can vote on things. It’s like they’re begging me to assess them. Sometimes it’s things I am not ready to assess them on, yet they still want to vote on it because they’re so into that process. It’s what they like to do.
Another thing I do is give kids plenty of responsibility, especially those who have a difficult time sitting still or focusing. I give them a job such as sharpening all of the pencils when they first get in the classroom. Then that child doesn’t have time to get off task and has a personal investment in our classroom community. Last, it’s important to make learning purposeful for the students. They don’t like to do things just for the sake of doing it, but if it’s purposeful for them, even at this young age, then they will buy into it a lot more.
How can a Kindergarten or first grade teacher get their students to sit still and pay attention?
Well you don’t expect them to sit still for very long; they’re only five or six years old. Teachers have to be realistic in their expectations and must keep that in mind when planning. Maybe teachers can have a mini-lesson that’s not going to be any longer than ten minutes because the kids need to get up and move after that. If I keep them on a lesson for twenty or thirty minutes and then expect them to sit down and be quiet, then shame on me. That’s not going to happen. Also, as I mentioned, it’s important to mix the day up. At the beginning of the year in Kindergarten, a typical lesson might be only five minutes, but then you gradually increase the time, so that by the end of the year a single lesson can maybe be fifteen minutes long. That’s my suggestion. But if you think they are going to sit still and be quiet for an hour, then you’re kidding yourself. It’s not age appropriate, and it’s not realistic.
Since becoming National Board Certified yourself, you have helped many of your colleagues also start on that path. How much of a difference did board certification make on your abilities as a teacher?
I started National Board Certification when I was in my fourth year of teaching, so I was still a relatively new teacher. But it really helped me become a better teacher and refined my practice. One of the things that it did was help me reflect on precisely what it was that my kids needed and what they did not need. Sometimes that meant questioning the curriculum that I had been given to work with, and that’s not an easy thing to do, especially for a new teacher. But if the curriculum is not relevant or ineffective, then I realized that I am wasting valuable teaching and learning time. Likewise, the process made me analyze my teaching and the lessons and activities that I created for my students. It forced me to cut out the “fluff.” The National Board certification process helped give me the confidence to become an advocate for my students, both inside the classroom and outside of the classroom . I would encourage any teacher who is ready and willing to take an in-depth look at his/her practice to try National Board. It is a very rigorous process but one of the best forms of professional development that one can find. Students reap all the benefits.
And your district actually aligned its teacher evaluation system with the five core propositions of the National Board, right?
Yes it did. Our school district is a big proponent of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and believes that the five core propositions are essential for every teacher. So by having that outlined and knowing that our evaluation system is based on that, it really takes out the guesswork for teachers about what’s important and what they should be focusing on, as well as how they should be developing as professionals. It promotes a common baseline for all teachers, and I think it works great, especially in large school systems like ours.
Mrs. Chandler, your daycare teacher, has always had a huge influence on you. What was it about her that stayed with you all of these years and made you want to emulate her as a teacher?
Mrs. Chandler did more than just teach me. It was all about the relationship that she had established with me and with my family. She always took the time to nurture me instead of just trying to fill me up with information. She nurtured me to develop into the person that she felt I was destined to be. So it was really that idea of establishing and maintaining meaningful relationships with students that I took from her and that I try to apply within my own teaching. I constantly strive to build those relationships and continuously nurture my students as much as possible. In fact, I don’t just see them as “students” at all, but as unique individuals and human beings with feelings and valid ideas and thoughts. Ultimately it’s not about them learning one particular piece of information, but it’s about them feeling that sense of belonging and importance, about making them feel like they are part of a community, and being able to learn how to think for themselves. Creating that sense of high self-esteem and confidence in young children is critical to their development later in life.
Being a teacher is so much more than just teaching what the curriculum says you’re supposed to be teaching. This is especially true in this day and age when there is so much focus on teaching to “the test” and accumulating “the data” and what it shows. Sometime, I think we might be missing the boat here as there is so much more to these children that we don’t see reflected in “the data.” These children are human beings, not bits of data. I worry that we’re starting to forget that and not realizing how important it is to really take the time to nurture these kids. That’s what Mrs. Chandler did for me, and that’s what I always strive to do with every child in my classroom.