Shelli Lee, Lafayette C-1

Shelli Lee, a preschool teacher in the Lafayette County C-1 school district and a finalist for Missouri Teacher of the Year in 2009, has some advice for other educators involved in early learning: be flexible enough to go with children’s interests from day to day, but also be intentional in directing their learning.

“You caDSC_0505n have the best lesson plan in the world,” Shelli said. “And it can go out the window if a child brings in a cicada shell. All of a sudden, you’re teaching about cicadas.”

Shelli believes it is not her job to impart knowledge to her students, but to give them the freedom to direct their own learning and to help them learn. She says children will make mistakes in the way they think. Their teachers should help them in discovering new ways of thinking. For instance, one of her preschoolers was trying to glue two pieces of paper together so that they would be perpendicular – not easy to do without some modifications. Shelli worked with him to find ways to solve the problem.

Shelli says she is fortunate to be in Lafayette County, which has embraced early childhood education, but she says the vital relationships between her school and community can be replicated elsewhere.

“Teachers can use wood scraps from a lumber company in their lessons. They can have their students create a sign to hang on the dumpster to thank the trash guys or invite the fire department to bring one of its trucks to the school,” she said.

Shelli says the key is to find common ground with parents and community members, both one-on-one and in groups. She encourages teachers to engage with people both inside and outside the school to advocate for the education profession. Those relationships can translate into a greater appreciation for local schools and, ultimately, improved student achievement.