King Elementary School, 2nd grade, Teacher for 30 years
Helen Opiyo, King Elementary School, 2nd grade | Photo by Marie Pasquel
Why did you become a teacher?
My first-grade teacher inspired me. I loved teaching even then, when I was growing up. I never played housekeeping like girls did. I used to play teaching. To set up the classroom, we put stones under the trees where my “students” would sit and I portrayed myself as a teacher and just started teaching. I have been doing it ever since.
Who was your favorite teacher (by name) and why?
Mrs. Okemo, my first-grade teacher, who always spoke to me in English. Since I only knew my mother’s language, Luo, and the national language Kiswahili, it was very strange for me to hear another language. Whenever I went to school, she would say “Come here, come here young girl.” That inspired me and made me want to learn a new language. She was always there to help. Her method of teaching was through singing, which made learning easy and more interesting.
Three adjectives that describe your job:
Interesting, challenging, inspiring.
What is one thing that you wish someone had told you when you were a first-year teacher?
If I would have known how challenging the job was and the impact that I was going to have on the children, I would have changed my approach to teaching. Now I am happy with what I am doing, because I see the change and the smiles of the children I teach, which makes me happy.
I have learned to be more patient with my students and listen to them more than to myself. I always give them the opportunity to express themselves without fear. I have learned to base my teaching styles on inquiry and differentiated learning, which was not there when I taught in Kenya. The students are learning critical thinking here, which I like more.
What's one thing your students have taught you about being a better teacher?
I had students last year in grade one who looped over with me to second grade this year, so I have been with them for two years. They are wonderful and welcoming. I was out for two days this week, and when I came back, they were screaming and jumping with joy when they saw me. Now since I have taught them in first and second grades, they are asking me if I am going to teach them in third grade. I have also seen how most of my students are motivated and like to come to school more often.
The students I have currently are very competitive and demanding. They are especially competitive on their tests. They missed their spelling test this week and didn’t want to miss it again. That motivates me as well. They have taught me to be well prepared always.
Answer one or the other:
Tell a little about a time when a student's accomplishments completely exceeded your expectations. Or, tell a little about a time when you were inspired by a student.
I had one student who couldn’t read. He was retained in the second grade, so he came to my room feeling he didn’t want to be there. You know how children intimidate others: they would say, “You stayed back, because you couldn’t do it…” I had to put myself in this student’s situation to make him feel comfortable.
What I did—which probably I wasn’t supposed to do but I did it—is that I specifically told the other students that it was not his fault that he stayed back, but it might have been the teacher’s fault who did not teach him well. I said I would try and keep working with him, which I did, and he learned to read. This brought tears of joy at the last parent-teacher conference. The student’s mother could see that her son could now read fluently, and she began to cry.
I asked her “Why are you crying?”
Her answer was that it was a cry of happiness. She said, “I’m just happy,” that now he can read.
All my students inspire me. I have given them freedom of belonging and we all work critically and constructively. If I give them an answer which they do not agree with and they want to disagree with me, I have them stand up and say “I am challenging that.”
I will then ask “Why?” and they have to show practically and visually the reasons why they do not agree with my answer and give a back-up for the challenge. For example, with math they have to explain why they think the answer given is wrong and they show the reason why they think their answer is correct. If someone makes a mistake, they collaborate and help each other to arrive at the best answer. I like when they use the phrases like “I’ll challenge your answer” and when they continue to question.
My students are also great writers. Today we had a test in math and 90 percent were on the proficient level. I am so proud of them.
[To interviewer]: You should come see them. Nobody believes the kinds of things they can write. They wrote a speech they are presenting tomorrow at the Phillips Collection Museum and I can’t wait for everyone to listen to the speech. Oh! I love my students.
Why is teaching an incredibly important job?
It is an ongoing process in life. You never stop learning. At this age, these second graders are still teaching me. They sometimes will tell me things I never knew.
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