Featured Teacher of the month Sheri Finklea

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These articles are meant to spotlight excellent teachers with whom I've had the good fortune to discuss education and their unique perspectives, and yet I so often commit the sin of talking about myself. So here we go again...

On the path to career piloting many spend time as an FAA Certified Flight Instructor. To earn that certificate you have to learn to teach after having learned everything related to aviation, and to land the airplane of course. Two four-hour tests, one oral and one practical, must be found satisfactory. Prior to those, two written tests must be passed, one of which is called the FOI (Fundamentals of Instruction). This was the first time I spent any effort to study how the human brain perceives information and groups those perceptions into correlating categories to affect "learned behavior". Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, the Domains of Learning, common Defense Mechanisms, Cognitive Theory and about twenty other things that I struggled to understand strictly through memorization were introduced. But as I started teaching people those little tidbits came back to me experientally and I began to see how different each person's learning process can be. It was totally fascinating and still is.

With luck, Sheri Finklea was my fourth student, an eager learner, a tenured elementary educator and a newly appointed teacher trainer. She, too, was fascinated with teaching and learning and had ten years more experience than me. I think it's important to immediately reiterate that she is a committed learner for life as are all the good teachers I have met.

We spent as much time discussing weather and aerodynamics as we did discussing teaching in schools and family. She deserves credit for some of my learning curve as I worked to find my teaching voice at that moment, and because she's an outstanding mom and teacher. She is preparing to become a CFI herself in two weeks.

Sheri has been with the same large district in Oregon for sixteen years. With fluency in Spanish she gravitated toward ESL. After just one question I needed clarity on the terms EL (English Learner), ELA (English Language Arts), ESL (English as a Second Language) and ELD (English Language Development). Regardless, when asked she told me "my favorite part of my job is working with students who are new to English. I love figuring out how to transfer what they already know in their own language to English and putting scaffolds in place for what they need to acquire." All of you know the all-encompassing joy avialable when your student has a breakthrough. The harder you've worked for it the better it feels, and not in a sigh-of-relief-because-frustration-is-over kind of way. After twenty years as a teacher Sheri still feels that.

As an ELD specialist for her district Sheri works side-by-side with classroom teachers on sheltering instruction for English learners. She explained to me that sheltered instruction aims to avoid watered down curriculum for LEP (Limited English Proficient) students, allowing them to move on pace toward higher education while learning English. That's code for learning Science and History and everything else in a foreign language while learning the language. Brutal. But apparently there's a developed methodology for this that requires a lot of thought, practice and planning and Sheri teaches the other teachers how to do that.

She's well-practiced at and a strong advocator for co-teaching. Co-teaching is at the heart of her effort as she trains teachers in their own classroom environment with their English learners. Not only is it helpful to have support and backup but integral in offering perpetual collaboration for the improvement of instructional strategies.

Since she's a team leader working with newer members I asked if she had any advice for incoming teachers. Actually she had two suggestions:

  1. You can be the best teacher in the world but if a student is not emotionally available to learn, s/he will not learn.
  2. Professionally, choose 1-2 things to work on every year and ask for help if you need it.

Yes, we are all catching on to the implications of emotion on learning. In fact (me again) it's really hard to teach someone to fly when they are deadly afraid of heights! And the second part reinforces the point - a great teacher is a learner first and always.

We talked about what she's working on this year. One thing was too complex for me and had something to do with ELPA21 and goals and data, which only served to remind me there is a technical side to teaching that I'll be unlikely ever to understand. Then she said she is developing a Language Passport for every student (they are in elementary school) that they carry around to practice target language with classmates. So they create their own quick reference guide to daily conversation and use it everywhere, not just in English class. She told me it's experimental but results appear positive. What a simple idea.

She says it's more important now than ever for students to take ownership of their own learning. I keep hearing that. On the one hand it seems so obvious, but then I recognize that it wasn't a focus for such a long time. Why is it so important now? Is it because there are devices and applications that will answer any question without teaching someone to learn? I still feel fairly young, but it baffled me that student pilots (I know....sorry) of the newer generation would answer "if you get lost in-flight how will you find your way?" with "I'd use Google maps." I could slide right off the edge of focus here into a chasm of tangential bickering, but I won't. I'm just suggesting that "owning your learning" also means learning to learn versus absorbing oration. It's the most vital skill a teacher can endow, I'd say.

My good friend Sheri is so good at it that she teaches all the teachers in her district how to improve at it themselves. That's pretty spectacular.


Ike Martinson
Ike is addicted to life in the Pacific Northwest. He enjoys the mountains, the lakes, the food, the people and all the seasons. He is an amateur chef, a commercial pilot and our Northwest sales director.