Cultivating the next generation

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Whenever I speak with a dedicated teacher I remember something Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”

Truer words were never spoken because educators are responsible for cultivating the human harvest that will produce the next generation of scientists, engineers, physicians, economists and teachers, among hundreds of other professionals that contribute greatly to society.

Most of us can remember at least one teacher who made a significant impact on our lives. Perhaps you had an antipathy toward math until a concerned teacher found a way to make it interesting to you. You may have thought history was boring before a creative teacher captivated your attention with exciting stories of legendary figures. Sadly, we can never pay teachers what they’re really worth. Thankfully, a good teacher doesn’t do it for the money.

The foregoing leads me to my introduction of Tim Greenwell, principal of Liberty Elementary on Quail Run in Flower Mound, a kindergarten through 5th grade school. His career includes 17 years teaching high school social studies, world history and world geography in Kansas City, Missouri and Flower Mound before becoming the assistant principal at Degan Elementary School in Lewisville.

Born in Mississippi, Greenwell lived for a while in Virginia, Alaska and Missouri before coming to Texas. He has a bachelor’s degree from University of Kansas and a master’s degree from Avila University in Kansas. The Carrollton resident has been in his present position for 3 years. “Now, more than ever, teaching is about engagement, so if you approach the kids in a way that is meaningful for them, rather than a regurgitation of dates, facts and events, they’re more likely to learn,” he said.

“When I was growing up it was very much a facts and events approach to history with books containing questions. Now there is much more to it. This is why you take the approach of your adult experiences and your appreciation of it and you impart that to the kids,” he added.

There are 655 students in Liberty Elementary and the average classroom size is 20. The school staff numbers 55, including teachers, support personnel, counselors and administrators. “Teaching and support staff have an 8-hour work day. The kids have a 7-hour day. In Texas, we have to become recertified every 5 years, during which you earn a certain number of credits. For me as an administrator it is 50 hours a year. In LISD we have a full time learning department at the Bolin Center and they are always scheduling to have professional learning. 

“The training consists of updates in the law, health issues and special needs issues. We have required health update issues where we have to learn about the EpiPen (a device containing a spring-loaded needle that exits the tip of the device and penetrates the recipient’s skin to deliver the medication via subcutaneous or intramuscular injection), the Heimlich maneuver as well as CPR training. We also learn about counseling needs like suicide prevention, dating abuse, sexual abuse and bullying. We have bullying programs on our campuses to thwart such behavior before it gets started.”

I asked how he made the transition from high school to elementary. “When I taught high school I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, who taught you this way?’ And my thought was to fix how they wrote essays or how they did papers. I always taught freshmen, so when they entered high school I always made use of the opportunity to transition them into the higher grades. 

“For example, they may have written a three paragraph essay before, but it’s going to be much more now, maybe five, and they’d just look at me like they never expected that and they hate writing. And I’d say, ‘This is how it’s going to be.’ So now, at the elementary level, it is flipped for me. My take on it now is to help educate these kids at this level to be more forewarned, if you will, and be ready for success at the upper levels, because I’ve already been there and I know what it’s like to teach the kids,” he said proudly.

Greenwell said kindergartners begin learning letters and words and how to put the words together in a structured sentence. “Some children may have gone to pre-K and have a head start. We work with kids at where they are to get them up to the level they need to be.  Every 4 ½ weeks there are progress reports and every nine weeks report cards, so parents and teachers can see either growth or non-growth.”  

There is an opportunity to do one-on-one teaching for children that may need additional help. They measure their progress through speed of reading, correct pronunciation of a word and their understanding of the meaning. “We have a reading assessment program, DRA, and we also have a reading inventory program. It’s nice because one can sit and listen and comprehend a sentence as the student is reading. Another one is a computer based program that gives them an opportunity to answer questions to see if they know what they are reading and understand the meaning of the words in the sentence. We form small reading comprehension groups consisting of fast readers and slower readers, so we can help those who need it.”

Greenwell says a typical day for a principal is very fluid. “A wall of water flows over you. I have scheduled meetings and scheduled observations of classrooms. Things can change each moment. I meet every first Wednesday of the month where we do a leadership team meeting and there are 15 people representing all the different grade levels. Second Wednesday, we meet with full staff for additional campus learning or trainings and usually have some type of guest learner, like a technical person that comes in and tells us more about technology changes. Third Wednesday, the campus design team meets where we talk about what programs and projects we are going to work on. Fourth Wednesday, we have student council meetings.”

The school is creating a new project called Outdoor Learning Environment (OLE). Basically, it’s a 100-foot by 50-foot garden on the school grounds, just outside a side door. It’s a learning project for the kids and it teaches them about the environment they are part of.  “When they are out in this garden there’s an emphasis on science, in particular the growth cycle, the planting, the nurturing, the water cycle, animal intrusion. There’s also math and English studies involved in the garden.

“The idea is to have a growing space outside the building on campus where all the kids will have access. The teachers will then plan lessons off the garden where the kids will do hands on planting, weeding and watering.  Other times will be observation based to see how the plants have grown and what kind of weather or animal damage has happened to the plants. If they grow to fruition, whether they will be plants or flowers, they can see what the results have become. The idea is for the students to go through an entire life cycle. 

“Math comes in by learning how much cubic yardage of soil was required for the planter boxes, so they can measure the actual plants, the volume or rate of the soil and how much space they need. It teaches sustainable community, sustainable environment and being self-sufficient for yourself or your family. It also incorporates nutrition,” Greenwell added. Their projected cost to complete the project is $25,000. They need planter boxes. paver stones and gravel. They’ve asked families to donate $40 per student towards the project.

“We are working on a paver-stone-bricks campaign, where we are proposing to sell bricks engraved with family names, sentiments, to be part of the legacy of the garden,” he said. Checks can be made out to Liberty Elementary and should be noted in memo line that it is for the OLE. “We have a line item set aside so that those funds can only be spent on the garden.”

One more item I must mention is the ceremony the school holds during September 11 each year. “It is our Patriot Day Ceremony because the school was renamed Liberty Elementary after 9/11. The board had actually named it Quail Run, then the events of 9/11 took place and the board reconsidered and decided to rename it Liberty. In our main hallway, when you enter the building, above the hall is a collage of 9/11 like first responders. It doesn’t illustrate anything graphic, but it is more like a depiction of first responders in action. And what we do to honor our namesake and the events is that we have a ceremony each year.

“The past few years we had a gentleman, who is a parent, John Scully, who runs with the American flag, throughout the Flower Mound community, in honor of the victims of 9/11.  He was on a plane that day on his way to Washington I believe, and of course his plane was grounded just like all the folks that were going through that process. So, for him, (he is from the Northeast), he has these tie-ins as to why that date is meaningful to him.”

Yes, and so it is to every American. We should be extremely proud of Greenwell for so many reasons, not the least of which is that he helps children to become better stewards of the environment and teaches them respect for their country.

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