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SD Department of Education
Dec. 2017  

  Image of Mercia Schroeder. TEACHER FEATURE: ‘Kids never cease to amaze me’

Beginning in January, the South Dakota Department of Education will facilitate a cohort for teachers seeking National Board Certification. This month we put the spotlight on Jodi Neugebauer, a National Board Certified 2nd grade teacher at Garretson Elementary.

“Kids never ever cease to amaze me,” says Jodi Neugebauer.

Most recently it was a student inspired by classroom projects on Christmas around the world. The student’s mom emailed Neugebauer to tell her the family made julekurvers, or paper basket ornaments, one weekend because they learned that in Norway, where their ancestors came from, it’s a Christmas tradition for kids to make them.

Get out of the way
Neugebauer likes to empower students, and she’s found one highly effective method is to get out of their way: “I’ve always said I don’t want to be the teacher standing in front of the classroom.”

In this case, she didn’t want to just tell students what people in Norway traditionally do for Christmas. Instead, she says, “I want to empower students by saying, ‘You’ve learned what your family heritage is. Now, what do they do in that country? Can you find out?’”

This school year, Garretson Elementary has been implementing Habits of Mind, which Neugebauer has found to be transformative in helping her students take responsibility for their own learning: “Those seven- and eight-year-olds get it. As soon as they know I trust them and that I believe they can and will learn, they go above and beyond. If I’m excited and passionate and show them I care about them, they conquer the world.”

student standing standing around table stirring beaker
Neugebauer’s students learn about precision and thinking flexibly by making slime as part of a Habits of Mind team-building activity

Neugebauer also credits the National Board Certification process with helping her to release this power of learning to her students.

A good lesson becomes great
As part of National Board Certification, teachers submit video of a lesson. Neugebauer was eager to highlight her favorite unit: a dinosaur-themed cross-curricular unit combining math and science.

Then she started talking it over with her principal, colleagues and the teacher who was mentoring her through the NBC process. The more people she talked to, the more her plans changed, and the better the unit became: “I loved that unit, but I’ll tell you, it’s 10 times better after putting so much thought into it.”

The conversations led Neugebauer to ask deeper questions: What exactly are students learning? Why are they learning it? Are they doing the learning, or am I just telling them what to learn?

Ultimately, she recorded a lesson in which she brings bones into the classroom and challenges students to identify them: “I had done a lot of pre-teaching, but on that day, those students were completely engaged and empowered. I told them, ‘Here are your animal bones. Where are they from? Why?’ I was truly just listening to them and letting them figure it out. So part of it is just removing yourself. You’re the teacher, but you’re guiding their learning.”

That deeper reflective questioning has now become more of a reflex, Neugebauer says. And she’s passing the skill on to her students, encouraging them to think to themselves, Here’s what I’ve learned, but do I need to learn more in that area? Or am I ready to move on?

Just keep learning
Neugebauer’s desire for continuous learning led her to pursue National Board Certification, and it’s what drives her every day.

“I think the more you’re involved in your profession, the more you’re willing to learn and step out and try new things, the better you become,” Neugebauer says. “That directly affects both students and teachers and the community as a whole.”

And she’s as eager to empower other teachers as she is students, so last year when Neugebauer learned of the statewide mentoring program that was getting started, she jumped at the chance to be a mentor.

Not surprisingly, she’s finding mentoring to be just one more opportunity to keep on learning.

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