VT teacher of the year from Burlington

By:  Molly Walsh

A Burlington teacher claimed one of the state's highest honors for the profession Tuesday.

Rebecca Haslam, a teacher at Champlain School in Burlington's South End, is Vermont's 2015 teacher of the year.

The Education Department announced the selection Tuesday morning and by noon Haslam's classroom had filled with flowers and an air of celebration. "It's just such an honor to be able to represent so many teachers in Vermont who are doing such phenomenal work," Haslam said. "It's just incredibly humbling to be chosen."

The 33-year-old graduate of St. Michael's College spends half her day teaching reading to first-graders and the other half working as a district social studies and equity curriculum coach for grades kindergarten to five.

She was recognized for her work in both areas. Each job has its rewards, Haslam said.

First-graders often make big academic leaps. They may shift from being early readers or non-readers to readers of fairly complex text by year's end. "It's so rewarding. ... It's just amazing to watch that progression over the year," Haslam said.

There is something bewitching about 6 year olds. "They have such a love of learning and they are joyful when they come to school. ... They are all hugs and smiles," Haslam said.

Her work to improve the racial and cultural climate in Burlington schools is equally important to her, partly because of her own life experience as an Asian woman who attended schools in Duxbury, Mass., where the student body was overwhelmingly white.

Early on, other students let her know she was different. "It was like here's the norm, and here's you."

The sentiment was communicated clearly, "in the way that children often do, in innocent but pretty impactful ways," Haslam continued.

Looking back, Haslam said she was never empowered with the language or the space to talk about her experience as a minority until she grew up.

Her coaching work around equity is designed to reduce stereotyping and bias with curricular innovations and with conversations. Teachers in the Burlington school system complete approximately ten trainings a year to promote equity and cultural competence.

Haslam leads discussion around topics such as white privilege, the concept that white people have built-in advantages in society that non-whites don't have. Most of the teachers in the Burlington schools are white, middle class women, Haslam said.

Their pupils are more diverse. About 30 percent of Burlington public school students are non-white, and 14 percent are English language learners from Africa, Asia and other parts of the world, according to a 2013 district report. Around fifty percent of the students in the district come from low-income families and qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program. And half the students are male.

The equity conversations examine perspective, demographics. "It's important that we give people the opportunity to consider the role that privilege plays in our own lives and in how we interact with people," Haslam said.

Matters of race are sensitive and that includes the term white privilege, which critics say perpetuates stereotyping based on race, rather than helping to reduce it.

Haslam believes it's important to discuss the topic and other issues around race.

"The goal of it is never, ever to shame and blame," she said. "The goal is really to build our capacity to be anti-racist educators, all of us."

Discussing race is necessary to bring about equity, Haslam said. She praised the Burlington school system for investing in the conversation.

"Talking about race is hard and is uncomfortable so it should not feel easy," Haslam said.

In Haslam's classroom and in her work with colleagues, diversity is an asset that she leverages to enrich the learning of children and adults, said Vermont Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe in a statement.

"We all can learn from this work as Vermont becomes a more diverse state and a member of a more global society. In addition, Rebecca embodies what we know is a hallmark of an outstanding teacher: collaboration to build the collective efficacy of other educators with whom he or she works. Good teaching is very complex, and educators like Rebecca, who share what they have learned and work closely with others to develop and try new practices, challenge all of us to expand what we think is possible for our students and to deepen our understanding of how we can better support their learning."

Haslam will officially begin her tenure as teacher of the year in January and visit schools to share her ideas and expertise. She will travel to Washington, D.C. along with winners from other states to meet President Obama and be in the running for the national teacher of the year award.

In addition to announcing Haslam's selection, the Education Department honored two finishers in the competition who were close behind her: alternate Christina Norlandan elementary school music teacher and positive behavior coach at Edmunds Elementary School in Burlington; and finalist Alan Crowley, a high school English teacher at Mississquoi Valley Union High School in Swanton.

In a statement, Haslam said she is grateful for the opportunity to represent all of the outstanding work thousands of teachers across the state are doing on behalf of children and families.

"Public education is the foundation of democracy, and as educators, it is our moral imperative and professional responsibility to prepare our nation's children to be active, engaged participants in our democratic society," Haslam said. "For me as a first-grade teacher, this starts with teaching children to read and write, and is then sustained by our collective commitment to bringing culturally responsive pedagogy into our classrooms through curriculum and practice. I celebrate this honor as a reflection of Vermont's commitment to diversity and equity in education, and I sincerely thank my colleagues and administrators for their support, professionalism, and dedication to children."

Haslam, a mother of two, lives with her family in Burlington. She was a studio art and elementary education major at St. Michael's college, and returned to earn a master's in education, with a concentration in the arts, about three years ago.

For now she's not making much art of her own, but hopes to return to that. "I'm a mom of a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old so our house is very busy and very active, so finding time for my own art-making is really hard. It's something that I love but is something that I've had to put on the backburner."