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Golden Apple Finalist In Champaign Reflects On Teaching Amid A Pandemic

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Dominique McCotter, a Kindergarten teacher at Dr. Howard Elementary School, is a finalist for the 2021 Illinois Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching.

CHAMPAIGN – Champaign Unit 4 teacher Dominique McCotter is one of 32 pre-K through third grade finalists for the Illinois Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching this year. McCotter is a Kindergarten teacher at Dr. Howard Elementary School. 

The statewide award honors teachers for their impact on student growth and learning. Recipients of the Golden Apple awards will be notified with surprise announcements in the spring. Winners receive a $5,000 cash award in addition to becoming fellows of the Golden Apple Academy of Educators, a group that helps prepare the next generation of teachers in an effort to mitigate Illinois’ teacher shortage.

McCotter has been an educator for 12 years — and she’s spent that entire time in Unit 4 schools, both as a teacher and more recently as an instructional coordinator, developing and supervising curriculum implementation. This past fall, she came back to the classroom amid a pandemic that had closed school buildings across the country. 

Illinois Newsroom recently spoke with McCotter about what the last year teaching some of the district’s youngest learners has been like, including both the challenges and successes.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Lee Gaines: You’re a finalist for this award in a year that I think many teachers would describe as probably the hardest year of their career. So, I’m curious, what has it been like this past year teaching Kindergarten during a pandemic?

Dominique McCotter: I think it’s been an interesting year for me to choose to come back into the classroom. Initially, when I chose to come back, I didn’t know what the year would bring. We were already on our first shelter-at-home lockdown for the state of Illinois. And so when I decided to come back to the classroom, I thought, oh, well certainly things may not be this way when I come back in August. And they actually turned out to be that way.

But I think the collaboration with my colleagues has been the most critical part of just finding, you know, success and doing what we’ve been doing here in Kindergarten, like trying to make it as natural and as close to a normal experience for kids as possible, given everything that we have to do with social distancing. And we’ve been doing a hybrid model of remote and in-person learning. 

LG: Can you give me an example of like, how do you normalize this situation in the classroom? What does that look like for Kindergarteners?

DM: We really worked hard to try to create a community of learners, even though it’s through a screen. Kids really thrive off of routine. And they thrive off of having consistency. And so our team has worked really diligently at how do we create that in a virtual learning experience.

We really also wanted to incorporate an opportunity for students to engage in social emotional learning, because that’s what we would be doing in person with students. And it is really important; it’s part of their social development to learn how to interact with their peers, whether it be online or in person. And so we’ve really tried to carve out time in our day to really make that a priority.

So we start our days with a morning meeting, or an afternoon meeting. And then we have an opportunity where we have students share something about themselves. We have an opportunity for an activity where students get to get up and move their bodies and think about ways to integrate their learning into an activity. And then we do a message where we’re talking to them about something that, you know, is either coming up in our schedule, or something we’ve done in the past, or just important information we want them to know.

So, realizing that we need that space for community and community building has been a really big part of our time… teaching and learning together with our students.

LG: Could also give me an example of some of the highlights and the lowlights — successes and challenges — you’ve had teaching this year?

DM: I think one of the successes has been that we have  gotten a lot of great parent support. One of the things we really wanted to do in terms of normalizing our kindergarten experience for students was to get materials in their hands. Families are picking up materials every two weeks, and this provides an opportunity for students to have those hands-on activities at home, where there is another opportunity to develop their fine motor skills.

So they’re cutting and they’re coloring, and they’re following multiple-step directions. It really would not be able to happen if we didn’t have the parent support: for parents to come in to pick up those materials — but also for parents to communicate, like, hey, I can’t pick those up. We find a way to get them to [the] students. 

I think a challenge has been just being able to be there to help students when they need the hands-on support and help. For some students who don’t come ready to hold a pair of scissors or they’re still working on their pencil grip, like in a normal school year, I would be over there like holding their hand and showing them how to hold a pair of scissors or hold their pencil.

It’s a very hands-on role that you play as a Kindergarten teacher, really trying to support students in a very kinesthetic and tactile way. And I think the limitations with everything with COVID have really made it challenging to do that.

LG: And I also want to acknowledge that COVID-19 wasn’t the only crisis that you had to educate through or process this year. We had a number of criminal justice related issues with the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and this racial reckoning that was brought to the fore once again. As a human being living through this and working with some of our youngest learners, who are also living through this in their own way, how did you process and work with that? And I also curious if it impacted the way that you thought about your job and the way that you approached your job this year?

DM: I appreciate you bringing that up. Because I think it’s often a subject that people steer clear of. I think, one, as a district, there’s been more of an open acknowledgement and a commitment to doing the work around equity, and around race, which is why our board adopted a resolution around racism, acknowledging that it is a public health crisis. That’s one place to start. 

And then in regards to how it has impacted me as a teacher, I’m not shy about realizing the fact that I represent a small population of Black teachers, not just in our building, but in our community. And so I feel like my presence and just me personally, I have a very big role to fill in the lives of the students that I work with, and in those that I don’t even.

I find it very important to be able to speak my truth as not just a Black educator, but a Black woman living in our mainstream culture, and like what that means and how it feels, and really bringing that into our classroom space to develop an awareness for that for our children. You know, an example of that is just today, we were listening to a story. It was about Bill Bojangles and his time as a performer, and his inability to be able to do his performances for white audiences. Having those conversations with kids and getting their insights and making them aware that it was something that was a reality, I think, is important. 

For me coming back into the classroom, it was really important to be willing to have those conversations, even though they’re tough and they may have raw emotions. But, I’m still growing in that comfort level, too. And really helping to guide kids and families through that, I think, is something that I’ve really been trying to think through. And I really want to find more work around doing that.

Lee Gaines is a reporter for Illinois Public Media.

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Lee V. Gaines

Lee V. Gaines

Lee Gaines covers Education for the Illinois Newsroom. She started at Illinois Public Media in 2017 and her stories have been featured nationally on NPR. Prior to her work at IPM, Lee wrote for newspapers and magazines in Chicago and nationally. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader, Chicago Magazine, and the Marshall Project. She also recently completed a fellowship with the Education Writers Association. ➤ lvgaines@illinois.edu@LeeVGaines

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