Jill Meyers (foreground) and Deb Henderson on Monday, June 7, physically distancing while reviewing reading materials.
Deb Henderson has had a long career in the South Lane School District, 35 years and still going.
“Actually I had stopped counting and had to figure it out lately. It surprised me when I did,” Henderson mused.
In that time she has seen much change. Three district schools – Delight Valley, Culp Creek, and Latham – have closed. Al Kennedy High School and A Child’s Way occupy the first two buildings, and a YMCA might take over Latham.
Teaching the parade of new students while feeling blessed to have spent all her teaching life in the bubble of London School is the track record of the SLSD’s longest-serving teacher.
Some changes haven’t been pleasant.
In the early days of her teaching it was common that teachers propped their doors open to allow circulation. “One day I noticed that kindergarten teacher Rose Mootz had left her keys on the car’s front seat and brought them in to her. She looked bemused and said ‘Thank you, but that’s where I leave them so I will know where they are.’ Things have sure changed since those carefree days. One of the saddest things in my career has been having to teach kids lock-down drills and practice hiding from active shooters. It is depressing to think of the reality of what security means nowadays,” Henderson said.
Education is known for coming up with new ideas regularly. One that was tried through a grant at London was turning it into an ungraded primary school. Teachers had groups of students that ranged from K-2nd grade or 3rd-5th grade. It was found to be a lot of work for one person but it was a part of the learning experience of never being content with the status quo as a teacher.
Henderson learned that lesson as she was preparing to enter the profession. She was asked to substitute for her old middle school math teacher and was shocked to learn that she still was following the exact same lesson plan Henderson had been taught years ago.
“While it was easy to follow because that was how she taught me, I vowed to never become that teacher who got stuck in their ways. I always am aiming to try new things and keep growing as a teacher,” Henderson said.
The Teachers Book Club is one of the things Henderson found differentiating. When assistant superintendent Julie DePauw was retiring she wanted to find stewards for the professional development group she had founded, known as the “Teachers Book Club.” DePauw figured that Henderson and Jill Meyers, librarian at Lincoln Middle School, would make a good team and talked them into leading it.
“It was a great marriage! I am thankful Julie paired us up; we each have our own viewpoints so it really works to have different perspectives looking over literature. We keep each other from getting stuck in our own favorite genre ruts,” Meyers laughed.
Henderson agreed. “It is such a shot of adrenaline to get to work on such a project that enhances my career and with someone of the caliber of Jill. ‘Jill & Deb’ is a thing, we are like alter-egos, parts of both.”
They have a system for rating books, giving each book a number value, with the highest being a five. “Each of us feels pretty passionate if we give a book a five and feel that we would go to the mat with the other on it. But I wouldn’t feel right if Deb didn’t agree on one of my fives,” Meyers said.
The way the Teachers Book Club works is that about 27 teachers (slots fill up fast) from all grade levels and SLSD schools meet and discuss literature and study one professional book as well during the process. “This year we read a book that focused on teaching kids to ask great questions. The district provides some funds so that Jill and I can preview books to find ones that we can bring to the club. We each spend the summer reviewing the 100 or so titles. When the box of books comes it’s like Christmas. Jill has pressed her children into reviewing some titles as well so we get a real-kid perspective,” Henderson said.
The Teachers Book Club meets over the fall and the winter (first and second trimesters) and is a mix of brand-new teachers and veterans from every grade level and school in the district. They gather and discuss the books that Jill & Deb have selected. It is much more than a club, it is a community that supports each other and builds literacy in all of the schools. “There are all sorts of cross-pollination of ages, ideas, experiences, and buildings that goes on besides the literacy exchanges,” Henderson said.
“It is a double path, on one hand it is professional development and support, on the other hand it is a way to get great books into hands of kids. Teachers can receive credit through Western University to count toward their professional record. We help teachers build their class libraries and get them excited about the newest books. We always review the latest copyright dates. “One of our passions is to try and pick the Newbery Medal winners before they are chosen. I personally feel I am a better person from reading all those books, they help me change my view points and grow understanding.
“Gail Hoelzle, down at The Bookmine, says the best way to teach kids empathy is to have them read fiction. Authors today realize kids can handle serious topics, so there are books that deal with grief, loss, and other experiences kids are going through. There are people that are like them, some overweight, some with a single parent, different cultures, and races,” Henderson reflected.
Guiding Meyers and Henderson are some metaphors authored by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop that describes the role books play in broadening’ understanding.
Covid had a huge effect on the life of school-age children last April. No one seemed to know what the coming year would bring. Meyers and Henderson met and decided to make a pre-emptive decision and planned to do the Book Club online. As it turns out that was a prescient decision when schools opted to not have in-person school starting last fall.
The pandemic also brought a change to Henderson’s teaching trajectory. “When school abruptly ended last year it was devastating to both students and staff. We didn’t get any closure,” Henderson said. “It was very hard to have to pack up the students’ things in the classroom. It was like a scene frozen in time and I had to gather it all together for each student.
“It was so sad I could only do it at night. One good thing I was able to do was knowing each student I picked out 10 titles from my class library that I thought they would enjoy and sent those along with their things,” she said.
After spending most of her career in the 2nd- and 3rd-grade level in what she calls “my sweet spot,” Henderson has come to know this age level well. “I honestly believe that a class meeting of 2nd- and 3rd-graders could solve the problems that our political leaders can’t seem to do. They have so much honesty, empathy, and true desire to want to help everyone feel good and they really listen. I have also been blessed to be at a wonderful school, London, the community there really takes pride in their school.”
That happy relationship took a year off when Henderson agreed to accept a “solo” teaching position for the 2020-21 school year. That meant she would be providing support to the students and parents who had opted for the year-long online program, called Accelerate. She checks with families to see how they are doing and offers support, grades their work, and tries to help them navigate online learning.
“Working online has really pushed my tech learning curve. I am not naturally a super-techy person so normally I leaned on colleagues. When we were all at home there was no one to help me so I would text two or three people at a time and still be trying to figure it out while waiting for their answer. I got better at it as the year went along and learned a lot. Now I have a lot more understanding for kids when they say something is hard and know what it feels like for that kid that has to work harder to get stuff,” Henderson said.
Another challenge has been trying to connect with kids online. It is harder to build relationships in online mode. One strategy that Henderson discovered was to open her portal early or stay on after for students who wanted to talk and visit, which she couldn’t do in person.
As this year winds down Henderson isn’t 100% clear where she will be next year, but knows where her heart is. One thing is for sure that Deb Henderson will touch lives and continue her long record of service to the students of SLSD.
Her work with Meyers in the Teacher’s Book Club will continue as they inspire teachers to instill the love of reading in our students and get great books into their hands, heads, and hearts.
Thank you Deb and all the teachers, staff, and administration who tackled a school year like none other and made it work!