“No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.”
That famous quote by Yale professor Dr. James Comer is the reason why students in Chelsea Campbell’s first grade class could see her on the sidelines of their big soccer game or in the front row at their piano concert.
The teacher at Quarton Elementary School in Birmingham was inspired by the quote when she first heard it in college, and it continues to influence her teaching. She tells parents at the beginning of the year to let her know about special events the kids might want to share with her.
“I want to be there, to be proud,” says Campbell, who was recently named Metro Parent’s Top Teacher for 2017. “I had a student who was very excited about a dance recital. I want to be there to support them.”
Building connections makes kids feel special, and it leads to long-term learning gains in the classroom.
“When I understand them, when I understand their interests and what motivates them, they are more apt and more excited to learn from me,” Campbell says. “They understand that I see them as an individual and I see their strengths and their weaknesses – and I embrace all of it. I love just building those strong relationships. Each of our kids has a unique perspective to bring.”
Parents are noticing the impact it makes, too. Sally Matak, whose 7-year-old son Theodore is in Campbell’s class, says that level of personal attention means a lot to her son.
“She really tries to get to know each child independently so then, whatever interests she can find with each child, she tries to connect education that way,” Matak says.
Theodore, for example, loves Lego Ninjago. Once he finished learning his required sight words, Campbell designed lists of Ninjago-themed words just for him.
“She taps into each child individually, which is amazing,” says Matak, who nominated Campbell for the Metro Parent recognition. “We just think she’s terrific. When we started with Ms. Campbell and it was the first day of school, I had a parent come up and tell me Ms. Campbell would be the best teacher he’d ever have.”
When asked what makes his teacher so special, Theodore knew just the thing: “She’s super kind,” he says.
“Everybody’s a part of the team. Everybody’s part of her class,” Matak adds. “She’s a perfect combination of structured yet nurturing.”
‘A gem in the straw’
Quarton principal Jill Ghiardi-Coignet says she was “not surprised whatsoever” when she found out Campbell was our Top Teacher.
“She’s fantastic,” she says. “She was a gem in the straw that we found two years ago when I was interviewing.”
With Campbell’s calm demeanor, the easygoing atmosphere she fosters and her classroom management skills, her students can “take risks but know they’re cared for, too,” Ghiardi-Coignet says.
“She’s loved by all,” she continues. “She’s a team player and she not only teaches but also volunteers to do extra things, like (run) a math decathlon group. She’s also going back to school and getting her master’s degree, and you wouldn’t be able to tell.”
Getting to know the boys and girls in her class also helps those who are more reserved gain the confidence to come out of their shells.
“I have a handful of really just shy kiddos that are just starting to figure out when a good time to talk is,” so she likes to give them a platform where they feel safe, Campbell says. “Once I know a couple things about them, it’s easier for them to open up.”
Things like specialized sight words help, too – in addition to making lessons more fun. “To get them excited about learning, you have to pull from a lot of different areas.”
Being calm and caring with her students is also a matter of modeling, says Campbell, 28, who grew up in Ohio and started her teaching career in Cincinnati. “The way that I treat my students is the way that other students will treat other students.”
Ditto mistakes. “Kids make mistakes. It happens all the time,” she says. “It’s how we react to the mistakes, how we learn from them.”
The “think spot” in her classroom is a place where kids can go when they’re having a hard time. They sit and think about the situation, problem-solve and turn it into something positive. “I’m trying to lead our students into thinking for themselves,” she says. “They can talk about it, draw a picture. It’s student led.”
Excited to learn
Above all else, Campbell’s goal each day is one parents are sure to appreciate: for her students to be happy and love to learn.
“I want students to wake up every morning and feel excited to come to school in an area where they’re loved, they feel safe and they’re ready to embrace new challenges,” she says.
The end of each day is another chance for students to connect with her. As the kids are dismissed to their parents, they have the option of giving their teacher a hug, high five or a handshake.
“It’s all about choice,” Campbell says. “It’s something they look forward to and it’s something that they can kind of depend on each day.”
But it’s a tough choice for Theodore, says Matak. “My son does all three because he adores her.”
- Hobby: Recreational sports
- Book: Harry Potter
- Restaurant: Oak City Grille in Royal Oak
- Sport: Volleyball
- Place to travel: “Anywhere new!”
- Favorite subject to teach: Reading workshop
Want to read about more fantastic local teachers? Peek at the full list of nominations for Metro Parent’s 2017 Top Teacher Awards.