Classroom Caffeine

A Conversation with Margaret Robertson

May 24, 2022 Lindsay Persohn Season 3 Episode 1
Classroom Caffeine
A Conversation with Margaret Robertson
Show Notes Transcript

Margaret Robertson talks to us about teachers as learners and the power of language. She also shares a message for decision makers in education. Maggie is a kindergarten teacher at a small elementary school in central Florida. She has 8 years experience teaching kindergarten. Ms. Robertson is known for her focus on Conscious Discipline and social-emotional teaching. Maggie has been recognized by her peers and her mentors as an outstanding teacher and teacher-researcher. She was named her school’s Teacher of the Year in 2021.

To cite this episode:
Persohn, L. (Host). (2022, May 24). A conversation with Margaret Robertson. (Season 3, No. 1) [Audio podcast episode]. In Classroom Caffeine Podcast series. https://www.classroomcaffeine.com/guests. DOI: 10.5240/84E4-7690-D4EA-72E3-9853-S

Lindsay Persohn:

Education research has a problem. The work of brilliant education researchers often doesn't reach the practice of brilliant teachers. Classroom Caffeine is here to help. In each episode, I talk with a top education researcher or an expert educator about what they have learned from years of research and experiences. In this episode, Margaret Robertson talks to us about teachers as learners and the power of language in the classroom. She also shares a message for decision makers in education. Maggie is a kindergarten teacher at a small elementary school in Central Florida. She has eight years experience teaching kindergarten. Miss Robertson is known for her focus on Conscious Discipline and social emotional teaching. Maggie has been recognized by her peers and her mentors as an outstanding teacher and teacher researcher. She was named her school's Teacher of the Year in 2021. For more information about our guest, stay tuned to the end of this episode. So pour a cup of your favorite drink. And join me your host, Lindsay Persohn for Classroom Caffeine research to energize your teaching practice. Maggie, thank you for joining me. Welcome to the show.

Margaret Robertson:

Thank you so much for having me.

Lindsay Persohn:

So from your own experiences in education, will you share with us one or two moments that inform your thinking now?

Margaret Robertson:

Sure. So it was definitely hard for me to just pick one or two because there are so many moments that have happened to me in my career thus far. But I'm going to start back to a little before my career started with the program in college that I came from, because the program I learned from and grew up from completely shaped the teacher who I am now. I graduated from a program as you very well know, UTRIPP, the University Teacher Residency Partnership Program. And I learned so much from that program, from the professor's to the schools to the coursework that we were assigned. But I want to hone in on a couple of the life skills which have been teachers skills that I learned from that program that have been incredibly, incredibly eye opening for me as I've progressed into my career. So Dr. Burns was one of the fantastic professors that, as you know, ran our program. And one of the skills that she instilled in us from the get go, was learning to be a reflective, accountable teacher. And I have been a reflective person probably my whole life. I overthink things all the time. But I'm also a person who does not see things in black and white. I see all of the shades of gray in between and Dr. Burns, required us to write reflections all the time, which I felt was so unnatural at first having to write down the things that I thought about myself. But becoming a teacher, you are constantly having to reflect on what you are doing and why children are reacting to things that you do or why they're not reacting to things that you do and the skills that Dr. Burns taught us about being reflective and accountable for yourself as an educator has taken me so far. She never gave us the answers for anything. She always made sure that we asked our own questions. And she challenged me all the time, she challenged my own thinking she challenged me to think about other perspectives. And I will forever be grateful for her pushing me to be the best pre educator that I could be because those skills have never left and they've just gotten stronger. I also had a professor in our program, Dr. Riley, and he played a small role in our program. But there was a situation that he talked about in our class that I'll never forget. And it has shaped the way I view behavior in children, which is something I feel very passionately about in my career. He was telling us a story about a student that he had. And I don't remember if it was upper elementary or middle school students that he was servicing. But it was a child who was, who was very frustrated and was lashing out physically and then Dr. Riley had gotten in the way and got hit by this child. And I remember thinking oh my gosh, that's so scary. I can't believe that that would happen to a teacher. And he said, but I got to close. And I have stuck with me from from that moment. I think about that all the time. As the adult in the classroom, it's my responsibility to know what triggers students and how to help them deal with triggers. And if I get too close, physically or emotionally, that's on me because I have to know better. And that's really hard to say that to know, oh, like I pushed that child too far. Or I am the one who is responsible for helping that child figure out their trigger, because I'm the adult. And I'll never forget that story that he told us. But I think about it all the time. And that was nine years ago, 10 years ago now. I think about the way that he told it, and how impactful that was for me, and thinking about how I think about behaviors. So thank you, Dr. Riley and Dr. Burns, because you have forever shaped me in the way that I think about myself and I do a lot of thinking about how I influenced my children. Another experience that has shaped my thinking is reading the book Choice Words by Peter Johnston. This was influencing some of the very early research that I started to do as an undergrad and then my first couple of years of teaching. I was very interested in the way that specific language fostered my inquiry and children's inquiry. And I feel very strongly and passionately about the way educators handle behaviors in their classroom. And before he was even in the classroom, I remember struggling with the idea of using a color system for young children. It never made sense to me, I didn't know why it was being used but that was all that there was. And reading choice words allowed me to have power in how I deal with children, because it puts skills into my hands that I can give to my kids. I firmly believe that if you want a child to learn any kind of a skill, academic or social or verbal, you have to take the skill that they already have, and replace it with something that that you think is better, or that you know, as the adult is going to work more. And Peter Johnston's book Choice Words, opened my eyes to the power of language, and how important it is to give children the tools that language can can help them with. So those are definitely two things that I have found are incredibly important in the way that I speak to and interact with children on an everyday basis, no matter their age.

Lindsay Persohn:

Well, Maggie, you've said several things that I want to tie back into. And probably for the for listeners benefit, I should mention that I was also one of your teachers and your undergraduate program, particularly for your literacy courses. But there's someone else who had a large hand in the program that you are a product of, of Daniel Denis, who has, she's a former Classroom Caffeine guest. And she really does talk about teacher autonomy. And I hear that in everything you're saying. I hear you talking about how teachers really have more power than sometimes they think they do. And I think that leads very naturally into this idea of the power of language, right, and the power of how we empower kids to make positive choices to interact with each other in positive ways. And you may or may not be aware it Peter Johnston also has an episode of Classroom Caffeine, if you haven't heard that one yet. So that's I think, another good connection as well. But this idea of looking at situations from multiple perspectives, and helping I think, not only as you said, as the teacher, but helping kids do that as well. I hear that through everything you're sharing with us too, about decision making problem solving. In fact, before we before we turned on the recording, we were talking about how in younger grades, kids have got to have that rehearsal for making decisions and for working together so that when they are in intermediate grades, middle school, high school, or as adults, they have rehearsed that. They have that power to know that their actions influence others, not only does it have, of course great influence on their own lives, but it influences their relationships and how they interact with people around them.

Margaret Robertson:

Absolutely. I know when you had your episode with Renee Dinnerstein, she talked a lot about play-based learning. And that plays a huge role in that practice of decision making and problem solving. And like we said before the recording if you can't play Legos with someone if you can't build with magnet tiles, if you can't make a fake pizza at the house center with two friends, you are going to have a very difficult time doing a group project with someone and trying to decide who's going to write, who's going to draw, who's going to type, who's going to be the leader. And it's really easy to overlook how important those conversations are for five year olds and six year olds and four year olds and all of the early childhood years because if they can't do it in a play based situation with with nurturing and someone to say, oh, let's just try this again, you asked for that toy this way, let's try it in this voice and see if your friend wants to give it to you now, because this is the time to do that this is the time to do that now, while while we still can, so that they can be productive learners as they get older.

Lindsay Persohn:

I couldn't agree more. Those early years certainly shaped the rest of what happens in life. And again, I hear everything you're saying, I hear you talking about autonomy, choices, decision making, social interactions, and that's the stuff that drives our adult lives. So when we don't have a basis for practicing that, as children, we are setting kids up on a really difficult road for the future.

Margaret Robertson:

Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.

Lindsay Persohn:

So Maggie, what do you want listeners to know about your work?

Margaret Robertson:

Oh, boy. So I'm gonna start with a couple of things that I think people have been talking about, especially for the last couple of years with COVID, opening people's eyes to what teaching is like right now. Right now, teachers are desperate and exhausted. And this is a word that might be a little triggering. But teachers are unequipped right now. We are unequipped to teach with a trauma perspective. None of us have learned how to do that, unless we ourselves have gone through similar types of trauma. We are unequipped with the resources that we need to truly give children the skills to be productive members of society. We, in Hillsborough County are about to adopt a new reading curriculum, and we are about to adopt a new math curriculum, and we have new standards. And there's all these new things that are coming at us. And it's easy to say, here's this box set. And here's all the things that you need, you are equipped you have all the materials that you need to be successful. And I have found that the most equipped I can be is the knowledge that I have to find myself. Teachers don't have the time. And if you have families, you definitely don't have the time to do extra research and extra things to equip yourself. And it's really challenging to think about teachers as learners, because we're supposed to be people who know everything, and are supposed to be imparting the wisdom. But we are unequipped with the right materials for social learning and I know that's a trigger right now, for a lot of people. They think that social emotional learning shouldn't happen in schools, because it takes away from academics. But if we don't handle the social and emotional things, we can't do the academic things. And I think it needs to be said over and over again, because teachers know it but everybody else needs to know that too. It's just as important. Right now my work is in kindergarten. And I even though I have elementary K six degree, I view myself as an early childhood teacher, because that's the lens that I see through. And early childhood right now is a myth in public education, and especially in Florida. I know I'm one of the few teachers in my county, who has been lucky enough to be with an administrator who trusts my professional judgment and believes that if I show her research about play based learning, and how important it is that she says, Okay, I trust you, and having administrators that trust you and support you, because they know that you have professional autonomy is really, really important. I think it's important if you are an administrator, or someone who has any leeway to make policy or decisions, I beg you to give your teachers the autonomy that they professionally have earned, because giving your teachers autonomy to make the decisions that they have been trained to make, will create not only happier teachers, but teachers who are willing to work for you. And I think it's really important to remember that when you have teachers who are not necessarily happy, but are feeling fulfilled, you're going to have students who benefit from that. So, to circle back to what I was saying earlier, teachers are unequipped, but when we are given the autonomy and the trust from administrators, and if we are given the right equipment, we can make a world of difference. So I think it's really important for people to realize how unequipped teachers are and how powerful we couldn't be if we weren't given the right equipment.

Lindsay Persohn:

I certainly hear what you're saying. And I think there is this tension between knowing that you're a professional teacher, understanding what kind of knowledge you still want to acquire, and then actually having the leeway to go out and get that knowledge and apply it to your practice. Right? I mean, to me, that is the big disconnect, is that as a professional teacher, no, you don't know everything. We can't possibly know everything. And we particularly don't know how to navigate this I don't think we can quite call it a post COVID world, but certainly COVID has changed things about education. But without that trust from administration and from policymakers to go out and seek out the knowledge we know we need, there's this huge gap, right? There's there's a gap between what teachers need and what they are able to do or what they're given. And I know you mentioned that in your district, you are getting a new curriculum, and in our state, we're getting new standards, and we know that teachers deal with change all the time. If there's one thing that's for sure, it's change. But I think this is, this is a huge change, right? And even if you do get a box curriculum set, where you think, oh, it's all inside there, that's all you need. There's such a steep learning curve, in navigating what all does that box contain? How do the pieces fit together? And you know, at least in my experience in the classroom, I wasn't able to utilize that kit successfully until at least the second, maybe the third year, right? That's when you finally know what all is in there, how the pieces and parts work together, which parts you want to keep because they work really well, which parts you maybe substitute something else for, because it kind of flopped for you. But you know, it takes experience to understand all of those things, and then layer on to that new standards as well. It's, it's a, it's a very, it's a sharp incline when it comes to professional learning, I think over the next year or so in our area.

Margaret Robertson:

Yeah. And I think that it's easy for people to look at that box set of whatever curriculum like you said, and assume that everything that you need is in there. We need to be equipped with the knowledge without that box set. And we especially like if I come from an early childhood perspective, I need to understand the scope and sequence of teaching phonics and phonological awareness skills. If I don't understand that, and why there is scope and sequence for those skills, it doesn't matter what curriculum set I've been given, I won't understand why I'm doing things. And that's been the huge piece I've been able to finally start putting together in my puzzle, because you can only learn so much in university and you don't know what grade you're going to teach and what you're going to feel passionate about. And that could change. And so I was lucky enough to know what my passion was from the beginning, and realize, okay, I don't really know how to do this. But because of the skills that I learned at university, I know that I can do research to learn more.

Lindsay Persohn:

So thinking about boxed curriculum. I remember that that gigantic, shiny new package that came and quite often I think those are just sort of, they're just sort of dropped off to teachers. They might come with a little bit of training here and there. But you mentioned scope and sequence, and particularly when it comes to phonics or phonological awareness skills that brought to my mind, the idea of even if you are following the box curriculum to a tee, if you don't have that overarching understanding of what it is that you're doing, what is the ultimate goal here? What is it that my students already know? What did they what did they come with? And what do they need to know in order to get to the next step in their lives of learning? How do we get them there? And like you said, without understanding scope and sequence without understanding the end result, or the ultimate goal of those standards, or the curricula that teachers are handed, It is like feeling your way around in the dark.

Margaret Robertson:

Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. It's scary. But I think equipping teachers with the knowledge and autonomy to find the knowledge that they don't have, because you can't know what you don't know, unless you truly ask yourself and be reflective about that. Yeah, I think that's the only way that we can equip ourselves is to take it into our own hands.

Lindsay Persohn:

So Maggie, given the challenges of today's educational climate, what message do you want teachers to hear?

Margaret Robertson:

So I'm going to come at this from two perspectives, because I have some words from my fellow teacher peeps and I also have some words for anyone who is in the position of power to make decisions. So I'm gonna start with my my teacher friends. We have never worked harder than we have in the last two years. You mentioned change earlier, Lindsay, and how change is the only constant that we have. And I don't know if I have ever changed as a teacher as much as I have in the last couple of years. This job is really hard. And it's really, really, really hard right now. And all I have to say, for anyone who is a teacher or working in education is, it's got to be worth it. And I know it, I know it is for us. And some days I come home, and I question why I am still in this field. And that's really hard to say out loud, because I know I was born to do this job. And a lot of teachers are like me, we were born to teach. We were born to stand in front of that classroom and put on a show and impart knowledge. And we're really good at it. And we love it. And that doesn't make it less hard. And so if you are a teacher out there, who feels like this is the hardest year you've ever taught, it probably is. And we are going to make it through this. And it's going to take some really challenging reflection time for some of us. And it's going to take a village. And I'm hoping that our teacher villages are strong right now, because I know we need it. Yeah, teachers. I know, I know, it's hard and it's worth it. And I know that we can make it through this this time, because the pendulum is always going to keep swinging. Whatever side it's swinging, now, it's going to have to start going back the other direction. And I have to believe that pendulum is starting to change soon. Because, yeah, it's really hard right now. So that's, that's my message for anyone who is a teacher or working with children. But this is my message for people who are administrators or policymakers. And I'm going to start with my early childhood lens. So we need play in early childhood right now. And I know some of the struggles that teachers in general are having are social, emotional, and behavioral challenges with students. They were out of school for so long, and we have children who did not have early intervention, when it comes to any kind of special needs. We can't go back in time to re identify them or to make up any of the time that they lost from elearning. Or if they just didn't go to school, if they were homeschooled by parents, we can't we can't take that time back. So we have to meet the kids where they are. Right now, children are dealing with trauma and we can't ignore that. We can't ignore that. We are and we're going through it pandemic. Children have seen loss and have heard compounding negative news the last two years. And we still put tests in front of them and expect them to achieve. And we as educators owe it to the children and their futures to allow them some time to be a child. Even if it's at school, they need to play they need, they need to build Legos before they can do group projects. So please, please give your fifth graders recess. Please give them music class, please give them our class. It's necessary, it's necessary for all of us. I also want to put out to administrators and policymakers that I know especially in Florida, and I feel pretty comfortable saying nationwide, we are obsessed with testing children. And we have a reading dilemma in the United States. Children are not able to read by the age that they technically should be able to read at because we don't have teachers who are equipped with the right materials. And we are too focused on testing. Testing can only tell us so much. And I know everyone keeps saying that. And we know that. So if we're going to continue to over test children, because I have no say in that, we need to give support before it becomes a crisis. We need not only early intervention and early diagnoses, but we need support for typical kids when they're in k, one, and two, because we wouldn't be scrambling with testing and panicking about school grades when children are in third, fourth, and fifth grade. If we have the support before it becomes a crisis. Administrators and policymakers please do what you have the capacity to do to help your primary teachers because that's the foundation and if you don't have a foundation, the house is going to crumble and the house is already starting to crumble.

Lindsay Persohn:

What you say Maggie reminds me of my own experience teaching kindergarten and one of the reasons why I stopped teaching kindergarten. It was because the expert quotations for kindergarteners just became way too unrealistic. We were taking, as you said, kids need time, right? They need time to just be kids. But I think once we started to see this compression of curriculum, where kindergarten became first grade, first grade became second grade. And I think that that really hasn't changed since I stopped teaching kindergarten. And my former kindergarten students are graduating from college right now, if that tells you how long ago that was. And, you know, I think that we've only continued down that path, unfortunately. And as you said, it does not exactly lay a solid foundation for kids to become engaged and interested in the world around them, engaged and interested in reading, and even understanding that reading is part of what really, I would say it is the thing that unlocks our opportunities in the world. Right? And so when you don't have that, it really is, it's a major challenge.

Margaret Robertson:

Yeah. And I think, from my perspective, like I said, before, you know, my degree is K to six. So all of my courses were Elementary, and I could even teach middle school if I wanted to, which sounds very scary. And when I was going through my internship, I was in mostly kindergarten classes. And it was instruction from the moment they walked in to the moment they left. And when I got hired. That's what I saw as kindergarten, I remember what my kindergarten was like. Hi, Miss Reagan. I told her about this podcast, I hope she listens. And I have wonderful memories of my kindergarten. And so when I saw what kindergarten was like, as an intern, I was like, Okay, this is this is what kindergarten is like now. And when I first got my first teaching job, that was a perspective I came with. I didn't know any different, I'd never seen a teacher teach with any kind of play-based perspective. And when I got my first teaching job, where there are these two teachers on my grade level team that had play centers, and I remember going into their room and thinking, Oh, my gosh, is this preschool? And then I remember as the year went on, and I learned more about them and their philosophies, because they came from a preschool perspective and they had moved up in their grade levels as the years had progressed. And I was like, there's got to be something to this because their kids can read and they also get to play every day. Why can't we have both? And I remember fighting, fighting this internal struggle that they can learn to read, and learn how to play at the same time, because it should happen at the same time, especially when they're five years old. And so the first couple of years of teaching, I was doing lots of reading and lots of research. And in my I think it was my fourth year teaching, I finally decided to really incorporate intentional play-based learning into my day and I'll never go back. Oh, my gosh, I couldn't I couldn't live with myself if I didn't teach that way. Because it's what they need. It's what they crave. And there's so many learning opportunities in those moments. Kindergarten has become the new first grade and somehow, there are people like me who have managed to still make it feel like a five year old classroom, when you walk in. Without tables, without desks, without designated places for every single thing to be, there's creativity and space for them to be five, and also read and learn adding and subtracting because they can do all of it. And it takes a lot of thought but they can do all of it. And it's the most exciting thing to see skills and content that you're working on in your small groups or your or your literacy time, and hearing them talk about it while they're playing. And that's how I know that this is how it's supposed to be because I hear it. And I see it connecting all day long, all day long.

Lindsay Persohn:

And to bring that back to your earlier point, you would not be able to do that without the autonomy that thankfully your school administration, the faith they have placed in you to do your job and do it well. I can only imagine if your day was fully dictated to you, you would not have these kinds of opportunities to really shine light on what kids are learning in an authentic way.

Margaret Robertson:

I wouldn't be as good of a teacher as I know that I am becoming if I did not have some of those maybe negative experiences as an early kindergarten teacher to say okay, I know that that was not working. And I'm really grateful that I had those those years because I think learning how to be better when I didn't have the opportunity to try new things has made me grateful for the opportunities that I am entrusted with now because I wasn't always was entrusted with them, especially as a new teacher. I didn't know anything. Who was I to go to my administrators and ask them to try this way of teaching? I didn't know anything. And so I think I'm grateful that I didn't know anything because it forced me to continue learning. And it forced me to rethink my perspective about children and educating. And it has also allowed me to share that with other people and new team members that I've had, or old team members that I was with, thank you so much for showing me that children can do both because I'll never go back. And now I have spent the last five years being intentional about incorporating play and language and all of the crucial life skills that children need into learning to read and learning to write a sentence and learning to put a question mark or an exclamation point at the end. And we can do all of it. And they should, and they need to.

Lindsay Persohn:

Well, Maggie, I have really enjoyed talking with you today, as I have always enjoyed talking with you. Thank you so much for sharing your learning and for sharing your experiences with our listeners. And thank you so much for your contributions to the field of education.

Margaret Robertson:

Lindsay, it was an absolute pleasure. And I am grateful for this opportunity. So thank you again.

Lindsay Persohn:

Thank you. Miss Margaret Robertson is a kindergarten teacher at a small elementary school in Central Florida. She has eight years experience teaching kindergarten. Miss Robertson is known for her focus on Conscious Discipline and social emotional teaching. She has extensive experience supporting young children with special needs in her general education classroom. Maggie has been recognized by her mentors. As an outstanding teacher researcher. Her inquiry is driven by questions around how to foster student independence, student problem solving, and positive classroom culture. She supports her school through their instructional leadership team, collaborative teaching experiences, district level curriculum design, and school budgeting input. In 2021, Miss Robertson was named her school's Teacher of the Year. For the good of all students, Classroom Caffeine aims to energize education research and practice. If this show provides you with things to think about, don't keep it a secret. Subscribe, like, and review this podcast through your preferred podcast provider. I also invite you to connect with the show through our website at www.ClassroomCaffeine.com where you can learn more about each guest, find transcripts for many episodes, explore episode topics using our tagging feature, support podcast research through our survey, request an episode topic or a potential guest, or share your own questions that we might respond to through the show. We would love to hear from you. As always, I raise my mug to you teachers. Thanks for joining me.