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Vickroy: Why 6-year-olds, and their teachers, are so special

Jeanne Walker Newtown walks through an overflowing memorial shooting victims Sandy Hook village Newtown Conn. Thursday Dec. 20 2012. Adam

Jeanne Walker of Newtown walks through an overflowing memorial to the shooting victims in the Sandy Hook village of Newtown, Conn., Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012. Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Dec. 14 and opened fire, killing 26 people including 20 children before killing himself. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

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Updated: January 24, 2013 6:09AM



Because we are hurting. Because this is Christmastime.

Because we need something joyful, uplifting and healing to cling to in the wake of the Dec. 14 horror at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

Because of this, today’s column is dedicated to all the 6-year-olds of the world, as well as to the teachers who love, guide and protect them.

I asked local first-grade teachers to tell me about their students, to describe what 6-year-olds are like, to explain in their words what makes first-graders so special. Not just to give us a sense of what was lost that day but also to remind us to take the time to celebrate what we still have.

I also asked local elementary school principals to tell me about their first-grade teachers, about their dedication to the little lives who depend on them for so much. Here’s what they had to say.

First, from the teachers:

“After teaching first-grade students for 20 years, nothing has changed when thinking of the innocence of a 6-year-old. They have the biggest hearts and always find the love for learning. Every morning I walk into my classroom, I see the tenderness and curiosity in their eyes, ready to do their very best. They are fun-loving, kind, energetic, funny, giggling little people that can put a smile on anyone’s face.”

Amy Abbott, Sward School, Oak Lawn

“I set my sights on teaching kindergarten, first or second grade because of how these kids are. I love how excited they are to come to school. I love hearing their silly stories. First grade is a year of enthusiasm and tremendous growth. They become very independent over the course of the year. And they grow. They look totally different at the end of first grade.”

Katie March, Fernway Elementary School, Orland Park

“First-grade students arrive at school each day with big smiles, stories to tell their teachers and enthusiasm to learn new things. They feel proud when they learn to read a book by themselves, lose their first tooth, tie their own shoes and help a friend. First-grade students enjoy writing their own stories, reciting poems, singing songs and making pictures for their teachers. It is a privilege to teach first grade.”

Sharon Holland, Palos West Elementary School, Palos Park

“First-graders are full of energy and life. They are innocent and curious. They are always looking to the adults in their life for support and guidance to help them understand wrong and right. First-graders are kind, funny, silly at times and love unconditionally. They can say some of the smartest and silliest things. A first-grader will always put a smile on my face and hold a special place in my heart long after they have grown.”

Abigail Derus, Sward School and mother of a 6-year-old, Oak Lawn

“They have so much energy. They’re very inquisitive. They’re like sponges, they learn so much throughout the year. It’s just mind-blowing. One of my favorite times of year is right after Christmas break. You haven’t seen them for two weeks and they come back and they’re taller and toothless. It’s amazing. They mature so much and gain so much independence over the year.”

Sandy Forlenza, Fernway Elementary School, Orland Park

“Every single student in my classroom has a character of their own. However, they all possess similar qualities. They are all very bubbly and eager to learn. They walk into school every day with smiles on their faces and new stories to share about life. They are interested in everything and anything I have to say. The words that come out of my mouth are always so golden to them. They strive to do their best on a daily basis and never want to disappoint their parents, peers and teachers.”

Lisa Resner, Millennium Elementary School, Tinley Park

“First-graders: Always try their best; Are the smartest students in the world; Are brutally honest; Have a positive attitude; Tell the truth; Want to learn; Treat others with respect; Are spontaneous; Are extremely loving; Tell you exactly what they think; Are trusting; Keep their friends and family safe; Are impressionable, imaginative, unique and role models; Are authors and illustrators, mathematicians, scientists and explorers; Like to be silly, make you smile and make you laugh; Like to dance; Aim to please; Are helpful; Have big dreams and high expectations for themselves; Want to be challenged; Ask a lot of questions; Want to share their thoughts; Want to know why; Want structure and routines; Love learning from the computer. First-graders are incredible. They are amazing. They brighten up a room. I am one lucky teacher. When we were completing this activity my students wanted to tell me all the reasons they were lucky to have me. I had to remind them this was about me being the luckiest teacher in the world.”

Meg Carlson, Sward School, Oak Lawn

Now, principals describe first-grade teachers:

“They’re very calm, very patient, but have a firmness that is carefully balanced with kindness. They are able to earn the respect and trust of the children. The children know the teacher truly has their best interest at heart. They’re very organized and aware of what kids are capable of both as a group and as individuals. They often refer to their students as ‘my kids.’ There is a fierce protectiveness, they take their students’ safety very seriously. All of my teachers are special, but first-grade teachers are special in their own right.”

Debbie Broadwell, Fernway Elementary School, Orland Park

“It is typical of good teachers to protect and care for their students. When we have fire, severe weather and lockdown drills, it is the teachers who notice the little things and problem-solve ways to make the process safer. One of the teachers interviewed in Connecticut told her class that she loved them very much. It might be taboo in normal circumstances to say this, but I am confident that good teachers do care deeply about their students.

“What struck me about Sandy Hook when I heard the individual teacher stories and saw their pictures is that they are so similar to teachers I know. I have interviewed and hired exuberant, fresh-faced young teachers like Victoria Soto and have worked alongside seasoned teachers who have dedicated a lifetime to their students. I have no doubt that our teachers would protect their students in the same way. Teachers often say ‘my kids’ or ‘our students.’ I have seen teachers cry with concern for individual students. And I know there is somewhat of a mourning process at the end of the year as they say goodbye and move them up a grade.”

Mary Jo Werbiansky, Millennium Elementary School, Tinley Park

“First-grade teachers are passionate, caring, kind-hearted gentle souls. They are smart, mothering, nurturing, humorous and have eyes in the back of their heads.”

Christine Baldwin, Lyle School, Bridgeview



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