By LESLIE COLLINS
December 18, 2013
At the age of 23, Hanna Shirrell is already working her dream job – being a teacher.
“I always have loved kids,” Shirrell said. “I’m always so happy when I’m around them. I just think they’re so amazing.”
Shirrell, who’s a first-year teacher at Gladstone Elementary School, went a step further than a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. She also enrolled in the Teach for America program because she wanted to receive additional professional development, along with mentors.
“I think it makes me a better teacher in a lot of ways,” the St. Louis native said. “I was given some unique insight being around teachers who don’t come from a traditional teaching background.”
Asked if she felt nervous on her first day of teaching school, she said, “I was absolutely terrified. We teach the basics in first grade. If I can’t teach them how to read or to add or subtract, then that’s going to set them up for a lot of other years of struggling.”
Beyond the fear, however, was exhilaration. She arrived to school at 6 a.m. the first day and didn’t sit down once or even eat.
“It was a crazy feeling,” she said. “It was a day that was 22 years in the making. Finally being there was so great.”
Her fears have since subsided, and she said her 23 first graders are eager to learn and soak up what she says.
In her colorful classroom, there are no desks, which is common with the lower grades at Gladstone Elementary. It’s not unusual for Shirrell to sit or kneel beside her students as she explains a concept in further detail.
As Shirrell talked about her job, she stressed how supportive the other four first grade teachers are and how they create lesson plans together to avoid gaps in the curriculum.
“I’ve got an awesome team behind me, every step; I couldn’t do it without them,” she said.
During the fall, the first grade teachers taught their students about the life cycle of pumpkins and Shirrell suggested the students create a book about the pumpkin life cycle. In addition to the book, she also taught her students a dance to remember the life cycle.
“The life cycle can seem like a complicated process, but the moment you make it a movement or a dance, then they can remember it,” she said. “They don’t even realize it’s learning; it’s just fun.”
Keeping her students engaged is one of her goals and movement is key, she said.
It was the day after Halloween and Shirrell sported purple pants and a black button down blouse with white accents and bows on the breast pockets. To complete the outfit, she wore purple polka dotted ballet flats and wore her wavy, light blonde hair to the side.
With an endearing and energetic voice, she asked for a student volunteer to be the weatherman/woman. A boy volunteered and determined the weather was partly sunny.
“Show him your unicorn if you agree,” she said.
In a sing-songy voice the students said, “Good job, Jeron. We think you are fantastic!”
Next, Shirrell whipped out a cardboard clock and leaned in toward her students, asking them to raise their hand to tell the time.
“Two claps if you agree,” Shirrell said. “Give him a ten finger-whoo!”
At the next station, the first graders learned about adjectives and were asked to draw their own monster and write a descriptive story about it.
“Close your eyes. Picture your monster. What color is your monster? How many eyes does it have? Is it nice? Is it mean?” she said.
Students then had to describe their monster to a partner.
“You have to be yourself around your kids,” she told Northeast News. “There’s a way to be yourself and manage a room with a smile, being happy and being a quieter person. I could never be okay with yelling at my students or being loud with them. I’m quiet with my students. I’m real with my students.
“I think it’s important for them to think deeply and not just hand them something they can turn in and not think about anymore. I like them to be creative and feel empowered to ask questions.”
One of Shirrell’s favorite lessons involved teaching the first graders about maps.
“It’s difficult to grasp what a map is unless you have a little prior knowledge of it. So, you have to start abstractly,” she said.
So, instead of starting with streets and geographic locations, Shirrell asked her students to create a map of their heart and the things they love.
“You learn a lot about your students that way – all the things they love. You learn anything from their favorite food to how much they love their family to how many brothers and sisters they have. It was just a really sweet project.”
Next, students created a map of their lunch tray, depicting the food items and their locations.
“One little girl came up and she was so scared. I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, what is going on?’ She said, ‘Ms. Shirrell, Ms. Shirrell, hot dogs are not made from tiny wiener dogs, are they!?’ I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, no, honey.’ She thought we were eating really tiny dogs.”
Asked why she wanted to teach elementary, Shirrell said one of the main reasons was reading.
“I myself love to read, so I really wanted to have a hand in the teaching of reading. That was a big thing for me. I really wanted to instill a love of reading with them.”
As Shirrell reflected on her first few months of teaching, she said she has no regrets.
“As I’ve gotten more and more into teaching, especially with my home classroom this year, I have no doubt that this is what I want to do forever.”