Teacher works with two students in class

When you walk into Abby Smith’s first-grade classroom at Lebanon Elementary School, it’s easy to recognize a sense of independence as students busy themselves in groups spread throughout the classroom. There’s a small platform at the front of the room with the words “Be Brave” painted on it, and as students work collaboratively in clusters, it’s obvious students feel empowered. Although the students may be separated into smaller groups while Smith makes her rounds, that’s not to say students are ever without a teacher.

“When you enter my classroom, I hope -- no matter if you’re a student, or a staff member, or someone from the community -- I hope you don’t see it as ‘a teacher and students’ because all of my students are teachers and leaders,” Smith said.

In fact, student leadership has become the hallmark of Smith’s class this year as she and her students have experienced an improved, if not fully normal, school year.

“It really hits hard as a teacher to think about six and seven year olds -- they don’t know what a normal school year looks like,” Smith said reflecting on the effects of the pandemic. “School is a special place full of experiences and friendships. It’s important for us, as teachers, to not only love them and teach them, but to teach them the skills they need to be successful when they are out in our community and the world.”

Among the skills she emphasizes are communication, collaboration, and perhaps most importantly, leadership.

Smith designs her class so there are a multitude of leadership jobs for students -- messenger, a member of the clean-up crew, or simply a group leader, to name a few. 

“It’s a very open and fluid classroom -- truly like a classroom family. So I have lots of opportunities for students to be leaders.”

As Smith explains, those jobs aren’t just titles; instead they are opportunities for students to feel empowered. When students are in groups, (which Smith says is almost always the case) she tells them if they have a question to ask the group leader first.

“It gives that child an opportunity to teach and to learn from others. As teachers that’s what we need to give: the opportunities. Our kids are so talented and they have so many gifts we need to show to the world,” she said.

And while Smith has become a pro at providing opportunities for students in her classroom, she also recognizes the importance of experiential learning beyond the classroom.

For example, earlier this school year, LES students took a field trip to a pumpkin patch. Elements of that trip were especially surprising as Smith realized some students had never been on a bus, and many perhaps had rarely left their hometown.

“It was an eye-opening, humbling experience for me just to see that,” she said.

While this year has been somewhat of a reprieve from the previous year’s stretches with students learning from home, there are still academic concerns lingering from so much time spent operating on Distance-Learning. Smith says the way to deal with those issues is simple: she continues to believe in her students and celebrate their successes.

“Yes, we’re still learning some letters and sounds, but we celebrate that every day,” she said. “We believe in our kids and we’re going to do whatever they need to get them back to where they feel like they’re successful. Whether they’re on grade level or not, we want them to feel successful.”

Perhaps the best way for her students to experience that success is through student leadership, which extends beyond just Smith’s classroom. Schoolwide, Lebanon Elementary uses Leader in Me, a student leadership program, which Smith calls “a wonderful, wonderful program” that students are quick to embrace.

Recently, because of interruptions caused by weather, her class wasn’t always able to participate in its typical calendar time. When the class was able to have its regular whole-class calendar time, Smith said she had several excited students volunteering to be leaders.

“Whenever kids are coming to you, reaching out for opportunities, that’s when you know you’re doing something right.”