Tuesday, May 14, 2019

TEACHER FEATURE: Bennett County teacher dives into special education alternative certification

When Bennett County School District teacher Sunny Pierson noticed about two years ago that her district had a need for more special education teachers, she wanted to know how she might be able to help.

Pierson likes to gain new perspectives in her teaching, having taught kindergarten, first grade and social studies at the middle school level over the course of her 10-year career.

Her superintendent told her about the special education alternative certification option that had recently become available through South Dakota’s 2017 overhaul of educator certification rules.

Pierson jumped at the opportunity and is wrapping up a year-long practicum facilitated by Deb Zebill with the University of Sioux Falls. The practicum has allowed Pierson to get hands-on special education experience while maintaining her regular full-time responsibilities in the district.

“It [practicum] brings teachers together who are all going through the same process,” Pierson says. “Deb will do observations to give us insight. We look at research to help with curriculum and strategies, work on writing IEPs, make sure we’re meeting all the standards, understanding the legal issues, those day-to-day kinds of things.”

Last summer, Pierson took a course in special education law, and after completing two more courses this summer, she will be ready to take the appropriate exam to earn her certification.

"Special education teachers are hard to find for any district in the state, and being rural, it is even harder,” said Bennett County Junior High Principal Belinda Ready. “Given this opportunity for our own teachers to go through the alternative process enables us to keep good quality teachers in our district to work with students with whom they already have background knowledge, relationships and history. It is positive for everyone."

“I wish I could go back in time because this knowledge is so valuable,” Pierson says. “As a [general education] teacher, you always see some kids who struggle, but I just didn’t really have a great understanding of the different disabilities kids have and how they impact their learning. Even if you are not in a special education position, the perspective is amazing.”

“USF has established criteria allowing for teachers to gain first-hand experiences with the many demands placed upon special education teachers, including paperwork, evaluations, research-aligned practices, identifying students’ individual strengths and needs, and so forth,” says Deb Zebill. “They have the opportunity to feel supported as they learn on the job from the resources through USF, mentors in their schools, and their colleagues taking the class with them.”

Pierson is enjoying adding yet another kind of teaching to her repertoire.

“I love the relationships I get to build with students, because in special education we spend a lot of one-on-one time together,” she says. “At the middle school level, building confidence is a big part, letting them know it’s okay that maybe something is a little harder for you, but you have these other areas that are your strengths—owning that, taking responsibility, and advocating for yourself.”

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Pierre students experience history, a guest blog by teacher Taylor Hamblin

In March 2019, I hosted a regional History Day competition and award ceremony. The competition and the celebration that followed were part of my incorporation of the History Day program into my 8th grade U.S. History curriculum. All of my 8th grade U.S. History students had to complete a project which began in August and ended in March. We started with student identity reflection and skills assessment, and then finished with a project that was meant to show students’ social studies abilities and the other skills they sought to learn.

For a bit of context, when completing History Day projects, students can choose to present their historical work within the media of a documentary, exhibit, paper, performance, or website. These different types of projects give students the chance to explore a variety of sources. More details can be found at the National History Day website.

The competition and award ceremony gave me a chance to behold the power of my students; from the morning of the competition to the award ceremony the next day, I cannot recall how many times I laughed, smiled, cried, and stood in disbelief at the strength, growth, and knowledge of my students. Due to my emotional experience, I thought I would reflect on what I felt.

In the end, three of my students even qualified for the national competition in College Park, Maryland: Emma Reitzel, Kate Mullett, and Dani Devaney.

The students worked harder and were more determined to turn in good work. The project has a minimum that students must reach, but at a certain point the students do not have to work. I had students who stayed after school on several occasions, including weekends, to put more time into their project when they had already met the class standards. Students went above and beyond because of competition, but also because they had some agency in what they could learn. Due to my experience teaching through history projects, I firmly believe young people are not lazy, they are merely bored in classes that do not do anything to connect the material to their interests, especially modern-day issues.

Parents were exuberant and respectful of the History Day program. At the competition and celebration events, and well after, parents expressed happiness with how their students learned, and pride in their students’ work ethic.

Parents must be included in their child’s learning, not held at arm’s length. Teachers have the ability, and the technology, to share with parents what their child is learning and should do so. Parents in turn should make an effort to help teachers with the learning. When I asked for help, parents volunteered often and were consistently in support.

Students wanted to learn from their mistakes and make improvements. The same night of the awards ceremony, a student emailed me to ask how she could make her project better (this was also the night before our spring break). Two days later, a parent emailed me asking about the upcoming state competition for the history projects and informed me that her student worked on their documentary over the last two nights. I had several other emails and stories from parents, and they go to show how much students will put in when they believe in their work. More importantly, teachers should offer chances for students to improve their work and this should be reflected in their grade.

Community support must happen. Especially in the social studies, a teacher needs the support of their community. In our information-rich era, teachers, now more than ever, need community support. The community members I partnered with supplied resources and experience to help my students move forward with their topic selection and research. For example, a judge who was familiar with theater helped direct some of my performance category students. A museum director helped students find primary sources in the museum archives. Support beyond research and project creation was also helpful, like the parents who staffed our concession stand that helped fund our scholarship program. Support is out there, but teachers need to reach out for it.

Students went beyond the textbook and learned to critically analyze history. It is true, my students did not spend a lot of time memorizing facts and dates, and they did not spend their time learning the Declaration of Independence by heart. Instead, we examined important documents, like the Declaration of Independence, challenged commonly-held American myths, and learned a set of skills that will benefit their community and American society into the next generation. We did not remove memorization and learning of historical facts completely, but we did prioritize critical thinking in an American history classroom.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Celebrating Teacher Appreciation Week

A column by Interim Secretary of Education Dr. Ben Jones

In celebration of Teacher Appreciation Week, I want to thank South Dakota teachers for your hard work and devotion to students.

I’ve had the opportunity in recent weeks to visit several schools and classrooms across our state.

In a discussion with Mitchell students, a fifth grader defined leadership as “when you make the people around you better.

If that doesn’t define teaching, I don’t know what does. With our school system producing insightful fifth graders like that, you’re doing great things.

In South Dakota teachers, I see dedicated professionals pushing their students to achieve high standards in reading, writing, and math, so that they will learn how to think, not what to think.

You know that students must graduate from the K-12 system ready for college, career, and life. You know that a career is the means to a good life, but it won’t teach what a good life means, so you push your students to achieve high standards in civics, literature, fine arts, athletics, and in appreciating our environment.

You recognize that your students have different talents and skills and seek to develop all of them in the way they should go for South Dakota’s common good.

You value students’ many cultures and shared future.

I also had the opportunity recently to attend the first Educators Rising conference in South Dakota. Educators Rising is an organization for students interested in pursuing teaching careers.

The students in attendance got to hear from several speakers about the education field, and their enthusiasm was palpable.

Your profession is honorable, and the next generation of educators comes into your classroom every day. Encourage them to follow in your footsteps.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Gov. Noem proclaims Teacher Appreciation Week 2019

Executive Proclamation
Office of the Governor
State of South Dakota

Whereas, South Dakotans believe in the importance of education for our students; and

Whereas, South Dakota teachers are our state’s greatest assets for ensuring student success; and

Whereas, teachers are at the forefront of the effort to prepare South Dakota students to graduate from the K-12 system ready for college, careers, and life; and

Whereas, highly qualified teachers are trained professionals deserving of the utmost respect for the work they do, which often extends well beyond the regular school day, week, and year; and

Whereas, our state is dedicated to supporting new and current teachers as well as recruiting future teachers from among the ranks of today’s students by elevating the teaching profession:

Now, Therefore, I, Kristi Noem, Governor of the state of South Dakota, do hereby proclaim May 6-10, 2019, as


in South Dakota, and encourage school leaders, parents, students, and communities to take time to thank teachers who have made an impact in their lives and the lives of their children.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

TEACHER FEATURE: Mentoring program pair reflects on two years of professional growth

Andrea Harstad (left) and Courtney Hentges

“As part of my job interview, my superintendent [Lonny Johnson] informed me that if I took the position, I would be participating in the statewide mentoring program,” says Courtney Hentges, band and choir teacher in the Montrose School District. “I didn’t even know what it was.”

How does she feel now, as her second year of teaching comes to a close, and she approaches the end of her time in the mentoring program?

“Without the mentoring program, I think I would be more burnt out than I could handle at this point,” she said.

Instead, she feels optimistic about her career choice. She is building stronger relationships with her students, colleagues and community.

Hentges’ mentor is Andrea Harstad, fifth and sixth grade band director and assistant high school band director in the Canton School District.

“In the band world, we talk about retaining students,” Harstad said. “We put so much time and energy into that little 10-year-old. What’s going to make that 10-year-old become an 18-year-old in our program? How do we retain them? Keep them motivated? Well, it’s the same thing with teachers.”

Harstad wants all new teachers to know, “Everybody’s got your back. Everybody wants you to succeed. Everybody wants you to do well and be happy and do good things with your students.”

Striking a balance
Early in the mentoring relationship, Harstad sought to strike a balance between giving Hentges a detailed rundown of what she sees as a band director’s roles and responsibilities versus letting the new teacher feel things out on her own before requesting Harstad’s input.

Now that the pair has been meeting for over a year, Hentges likes that they’re past what she describes as the “awkward new relationship” phase. “We know each other a little deeper,” she says. “It’s easier for me to say, ‘I’m really struggling with this. I need help.’ Whereas last year, I think I would have been a little slower to come to Andrea with a problem. I’m a little more vulnerable with her this year.”

Expectations vs. reality
Hentges remembers as she was completing her teaching degree, she was most concerned about pedagogy—knowing instrument fingerings, how to do minor instrument repairs and run rehearsals. Looking back, she feels her worries were a bit na├»ve. During her first week of school, she quickly realized her biggest challenge would be classroom management.

Harstad has been a great help. After observing one of Hentges’ rehearsals, she cheerfully said, “Oh, you’ve got some performers in the classroom!” in reference to some students playing their instruments when Hentges was trying to provide instruction.

While Hentges had been getting frustrated with the students, Harstad suggested a strategy—let those enthusiastic students demonstrate what Hentges is trying to explain, thereby indulging their impulse to play, while also helping Hentges get her point across.

Harstad has also helped Hentges change her perspective in other ways. “I kind of go into robot mode when we’re preparing for a performance,” Hentges says. “Andrea helps me remember: They are human. They are children. They are my students. At the end of the day, it’s about relationships. It’s about making your students better people, not just better musicians.”

Keeping that in mind, Hentges has noticed her relationships with students have felt more easygoing this year.

Other things are getting easier too. Hentges remembers being so nervous her voice shook as she spoke at her first Christmas concert in Montrose. Whereas she says, “This year at the Christmas concert, it was like getting in front of a whole bunch of friends and making music.”

Building a network
Harstad has made a priority of helping Hentges build her support network, by introducing her to colleagues at professional development events and other gatherings so that she always has someone to reach out to and bounce around ideas.

Hentges also appreciates the networking made possible with other new teachers of all kinds through the mentoring program: “It doesn’t matter what your content area is when you’re trying to navigate those classroom management challenges.”

As she looks ahead to completing the mentoring program at the annual Mentoring Summer Academy this June 5-6, in Sioux Falls, she says it’s a bittersweet milestone. She and Harstad will stay in touch, but she knows their contact won’t be as frequent as life moves on for both of them. But she is grateful for the resources she’s gotten through the program, as well as the professional development. And she hopes to become a mentor herself someday.

Try it
As for Harstad, she plans to continue mentoring. “A lot of thought has gone into this program,” she says. “The speakers, professional development and resources are all well done. If you’re even thinking about becoming a mentor, go for it. It’s only a two-year commitment. If it’s not for you, that’s okay—at least you’ve helped one person stay in the profession.”

Monday, February 4, 2019

Celebrating CTE Month

A column by Laura Scheibe, director of career and technical education for the South Dakota Department of Education

February is Career and Technical Education (CTE) Month. In South Dakota, we have much to celebrate and even more to look forward to. Throughout the month on our website we’ll be featuring students and educators from across our state talking about their best new CTE ideas.

Last year in our state, more students than ever took CTE coursework. More students also focused on a particular career cluster and graduated in higher numbers than their peers. We launched a newly redesigned SDMyLife website to help students find their paths. But we are celebrating even more than this.

In summer 2018, the state Board of Education Standards adopted new high school graduation requirements that acknowledge success looks different for every student. We are hearing from administrators and teachers across the state that they are excited about the new structure and optional advanced endorsements now available to students.

One of these endorsements is the Advanced Career Endorsement, which will signal that a student has focused preparation in a particular career area, thus placing additional value on career coursework and work-based learning. Additionally, by providing more room for elective credit within required academic credits, schools can design rigorous courses that infuse both CTE and core content together. For example, a course could be designed that incorporates geometry and construction skills.

Additionally, the Department of Education recently entered into a unique partnership with the Department of Labor and Regulation to put career advisors in several school districts. And this summer, the scope of this project was broadened so that local DLR offices across the state are more empowered to work with the schools in their area.

We are also celebrating the recent reauthorization of the federal CTE law, known as Perkins V. This law will help us take a modernized approach to CTE in middle school, high school and at the college level.

At the state level, we’ve been busy on the career readiness front, and now it’s your turn to help shape the future of CTE. We are asking schools, businesses, students and parents for your best ideas about what can be done to better prepare students for pathways to careers after graduation.

Be bold. Be creative. Let us know how to make the next generation of CTE even better.

Send your ideas to DOECTE@state.sd.us.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Celebrating American Education Week

A column by Interim Secretary of Education Mary Stadick Smith

November 12-16 is American Education Week, a time to celebrate our nation’s public schools.

In South Dakota, we all have reason to be proud of the good work our schools do to serve students. A lot is asked of our state’s educators, and they routinely step up to the challenge, supporting students of all abilities and backgrounds.

When you consider some of the common metrics used to measure school success – things like attendance rates, graduation rates, test scores – South Dakota typically stacks up well compared to other states. But our schools are so much more than a set of metrics. They are a place where young minds are challenged and nurtured, a place where personalities are formed, character is developed, and future citizens and leaders begin to find their voices. These intangibles can be difficult to measure, but in the end, they are just as valuable as the academic content we want our students to master.

Like so many parents, I know that my child’s educators are a trusted source for helping me understand her academic progress and social development. They are the experts who have devoted their lives to kids, and they constantly strive to hone their craft.

It’s not only teachers and administrators who make up the fabric of a school. Librarians, paraprofessionals, coaches, office and school lunch staff, bus drivers, custodians, and others play vital roles as well. And in many of our state’s small schools, some employees wear several of these hats all at once.

Of course, parents and families are their children’s first teachers, and they have an integral role in the formal education process as well. A student does best when he or she has a strong support system both inside and outside the school walls.

During American Education Week, let’s take time to celebrate the successes of our public school system and to recognize the individuals who have made it their life’s work to help students build a solid foundation of knowledge, skills and experiences that will serve them well in postsecondary, careers and life.