When Curiosity Leads to Change

I shared my story of curiosity in my previous post, but now I am sharing pieces of my mom’s story (the inspiration for this topic). My mom is one of my biggest supporters. I would never be where I am today without her. From a very young age, she taught me the importance of being kind to others, to lend a helping hand, persistence and to never give up on my dreams. About six years ago I had the pleasure of working at my mom’s school as a Reading Corps Tutor. Not only was this an eye opening experience for me, but I also got to see the impact my mom has on the students and staff at her school. Keep reading for a little insight on what she has done for her school.

“When a curvy path in your life leads you to become the principal of an elementary school for which the status quo isn’t working, curiosity leads you to change. In 2009, I became the Sumner Elementary School principal, charged with creating an environment to meet student needs for a diverse, low socio-economic population in rural Minnesota.

My schooling experience as a child was in a rural setting, with very little diversity and relative poverty.  I was totally unaware that the rest of the world didn’t look exactly like my hometown and that all children didn’t grow up in a home with all of their needs met.  I went into the field of education based on the urging of my oldest sister, a 35+ year kindergarten teacher.  She recognized that I had a passion for helping and it would be a great match for becoming a teacher. 

Early in my career I assumed that this helping of students would be only related to students learning how to be successful readers, mathematicians, and learning content in Social Studies and Science.  I believe that this philosophy served me well for the 1990’s and even the beginning of the 2000’s.  Then, I began to become curious as to why my old systems didn’t seem to be getting myself or my students the same expected results.  I recall the day as a teacher, when I left Sumner Elementary exhausted and cried all the way home (a 45-minute commute).  I knew my old ways were not going to work in my classroom. 

When I first became the principal in 2009, we had a very challenging group of students.  Our typical teacher lecture/students complete a worksheet system was only causing a great deal of behavioral headaches for staff.  Trying our usual behavior responses, like keeping a student in for recess, holding a student after school, taking away special privileges, etc… didn’t lessen the number of students in my office every day.  I was frustrated, staff were frustrated and so were the kids!

I knew something had to change in the way we were doing business, but as I explored other schools across the nation it seemed we were all faced with the challenge of providing an education that really was meaningful for students and not totally overwhelming for staff. This was going to be no easy task.

Enter the realization that many of our students come to us with ACES. ACES are Adverse Childhood Experiences which are obstacles that children may encounter such as divorced parents, incarcerated parent, family member’s death, family member with addiction issues, etc… I attended a training in which the guest speaker introduced me to the notion that these experiences in childhood result in a change in brain development. It was like light bulbs went off in my head! I quickly began researching what we as a school could do to help our students overcome their ACES.

We taught students and staff about how their brains respond when they encounter a triggering event.  We all have a reaction of either freeze, fight, or flight! Our students know that their amygdala is the feelings part of their brain and when they are in the feelings part, they may make poor decisions.  

The key is to take three deep breaths and attempt to get their upstairs brain or the thinking brain back in control, where we make more rational decisions.  Each school day begins with all of us taking three deep breaths together during our morning announcements.  Throughout the day teachers have students respond to a chime and take three deep breaths before beginning a new subject, returning from recess, before taking a test, etc…  We have calming corners in each classroom and a calming room that students may use to help them gain control of their brain and focus on learning once again. 

I am blessed to work with a great group of people that strive every day to serve our students with love and compassion. My dream is to continue finding ways to use my curious nature to spark the love of learning for our Sumner Stars!”

Sheila Berger

I am so proud of my mom for letting her curiosity steer the way. She is always looking for new ways to inspire and care for her staff and students. I have been able to lead this amazing staff through two different trainings now. I’ll share more on this in next week’s post! Stay tuned…

3 thoughts on “When Curiosity Leads to Change

  1. Sheila mentioned her older sister, a 35 year kindergarten teacher, who could see that her sister had the qualities to be a wonderful educator. As her friend for 45 + years, I was there when she was so proud of you for following your call into education. Through the years I have heard much about your accomplishments. I know how proud she is now of both her sister and of her niece for writing about her.

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