By LESLIE COLLINS
December 19, 2012
As the James Elementary third graders sat at their stations working as a team, Taylor Swift played in the background and an online timer silently counted down the time remaining. Soon the buzzer sounded and Grace Whiting announced over the microphone to move to the next station.
Today, the students’ task was to determine whether a shape was a polygon or quadrilateral.
As the youngsters keenly studied their shapes, Whiting periodically visited each station, sometimes sitting on the floor with students or crouching down beside them.
It was clear this 5’1″ teacher was in control.
For Whiting, teaching is a lifestyle, she said.
“Once a teacher, you’re always a teacher,” she said.
Growing up, however, becoming a teacher was far from her mind. She admired her aunt, who studied mass communications and became a news anchor.
As the eldest of four children, Whiting was expected to accept the Filipino tradition and follow in her mother’s footsteps, carrying on the family business of running a private Catholic school.
“It took me two years to accept that I was going to be a teacher,” Whiting said. “It never really hit me until I actually got in the classroom. My first year of teaching, that’s when it totally hit me, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m loving this.’”
Whiting grew up in the Philippines and graduated from one of the top teaching universities there, Philippine Normal University, earning a Bachelor of Science in elementary and secondary education. For eight years she taught at Colegio San Agustin Makati, an international school in Manila, and also taught for two years at her mother’s Catholic school located in Sultan Kudarat.
Philippines’ schools differ vastly from those in the U.S., she said.
“(Many) schools in the Philippines don’t even have computers,” she said. “In the Philippines a book will be used for about six or eight years and you’re lucky to keep the pages together.”
In a private school, the average class size is 45 and for a public school, that number can grow to 100, she said.
“I show my children here pictures and clips from the Philippines,” she said of her students. “I tell them, ‘You guys are so lucky,’ because they tend to complain, ‘Oh, I don’t have this…’”
Whiting moved to the U.S. in 2001 and still assists with her mother’s school weekly by collaborating with teachers online and visiting the school during the summer.
“When I do go home, I take that as an opportunity to share professional development with the staff at my mom’s school. I learn from them and they learn from me,” she said. “It’s a good exchange of ideas.”
Working at an inner city school presents challenges, she said. Some of her students walk into class hungry and others deal with ongoing family issues, which affects their school work. A number of her students are English as a Second Language (ESL) learners or have parents who speak limited English.
“I come to work everyday prepared for what is on the first scene for that day, so nothing surprises me. Every day is a different challenge,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll ever want to go back to a private school system because I feel like this is where I’m needed most.”
During class, she encourages her students to dream bigger, to dream bolder. At James, teachers promote furthering education and Whiting ensures her students know from day one the year they will graduate high school, which then leads to college.
When she asked her students what they wanted to be when they grew up, some of them said they wanted to work at McDonald’s or QuikTrip.
“It’s sad, but you can’t blame them; that’s the environment they grew up in,” Whiting said. “I say, ‘You know what? That’s really great. You can do that, but you know when you go to school, there’s better jobs out there waiting for you called careers where you actually get paid to be a professional, and you can only do that if you go to college.”
Most of her students say they want a job so they can “make a lot of money,” and Whiting quickly points out there’s more to life than money. She tells them working as a teacher won’t make you rich.
“But do you know what the greatest pay for me is?” she told her students. “It’s you guys, when I see you going to college, going somewhere and making a name for yourselves… I say, “Think about who you will influence when you grow up.”
A common theme in Whiting’s class is “We Have High Expectations,” which is also a poster that hangs on the wall. Coming to school ready to learn is a job, she tells her students. Like a real job, her students earn money for performing well. Each morning before class starts, a student banker opens the bank, placing $3 of pretend money in envelopes for each student. Hanging on the wall is a behavior chart filled with clothespins bearing each student’s name. All the students start at the color green, which means “It’s a good day.” If a student makes a poor choice, he or she lands on the color yellow, which means, “Strike 1. Oops.” Further poor choices cause the clothespin to move further down the chart and each new color means a dollar lost. If a student fails to complete his or her homework, that’s an automatic trip to the red zone and zero pay.
“It’s really cut down on people who don’t bring their homework back to zero,” she said. “You don’t know how seriously they take that.”
If a student makes it to the color pink, he or she loses all of his or her money and must fill out a “Think Sheet,” listing the rules that he or she broke that day and how he or she can improve the situation. The student must then sign the sheet, promising to do better next time.
“I tell them, ‘This is a contract. Sometimes adults go to jail for breaking a contract,’” she said.
At the end of the quarter, students will be able to use their money to redeem rewards like eating lunch with a teacher or a no homework pass for the day.
For class assignments, students must ask themselves two questions – does their work look like Whiting’s model or better than her model?
“On the first two writing project’s, a lot of them tried to get away with saying, ‘Yes.’ But, they figured out they have to do it again,” she said. “Now, I think they’ve learned their lesson. They won’t even try to give me something that’s not on par with the model.”
Asked what she likes about teaching, Whiting said, “The best part of teaching for me is when my students come up and say, ‘Oh, now I get it.’ To me, that’s like, ‘Whew, finally,’ because each student learns at a different time frame…
“My main goal is for them to be lifelong learners. Their learning should not stop in the third grade.”
As Whiting talked about James, she stressed that every teacher deserves to be featured in the media.
“I admire every single one,” she said of the teachers at James Elementary. “The chemistry of the teachers in this building is just wonderful. We have great teachers in this building.”
Teachers at James collaborate on a regular basis and Whiting called the other third grade teacher her co-teacher. They compliment each other’s strengths and weaknesses, she said.
Asked if she’ll return to
the Philippines, Whiting said, “It’s not time for me
yet. I like what I’m doing here. Since I’ve been here (at James) I’ve never felt the need to move anywhere else.
“I remember the first day I stepped into this building. I thought, ‘Oh, this is my school.’ I just knew it.”