You may have heard of Debbie Rickards, our April 2014 Member of the Month. This Louisiana teacher is the Local Arrangements Committee (LAC) Chair for the IRA 59th Annual Conference in New Orleans. She also wrote an article about Common Core-related sessions for the Conference Issue of Reading Today. In this interview, she shares inspirational stories of motivating students and following Donald Graves’ maxim: “The teacher is the most important learner in the classroom.”
When did you know you wanted to become a teacher?
I chose this career when I was seven years old. I’d sit my two younger sisters, plus a slew of neighborhood kids, on the floor of our garage, in front of the small chalkboard my dad had installed for me. I’d be the teacher and the younger ones my students. I’m not sure how much the other children enjoyed it, but I had a blast! I had a few other career wishes as a pre-teen—at one point I wanted to be a secretary and at another the U.S. President—but I always came back to teaching. And after 38 years, I haven’t regretted it for a second.
Which books influenced your decision to become an educator?
I don’t remember any books that impacted by decision, but I certainly can credit my mom and dad for instilling the reading habit in me. Voracious readers themselves, they bought books and magazines for my sisters and me, took us to the library, and developed the daily habit of reading for enjoyment. How could I not become a reading teacher?!
Which professional development books have you found influential in your education?
Perhaps the book that has had the biggest influence on my professional life was Writing: Teachers and Children at Work by Donald Graves. When the book was first released in 1983, I’d been teaching for eight years, I’d just finished my master’s degree, and I thought I knew pretty much all I needed to know about teaching young children. The book, however, revolutionized the way I taught writing. In turn, it changed the way I thought about learning, which, in turn, changed the way I thought about good instruction. My teaching became much more differentiated, student-directed, and project-based. I also realized then, and it holds true today, I still have a lot to learn!
How did you begin your career, and what led you to your current position?
I began my career in 1975 teaching first grade in a four-room schoolhouse in Kettle River, Minnesota. Since then, I have taught in several districts in Texas and Louisiana, and I have worked on graduate studies and leadership development along the way. I currently am an instructional coordinator at Shreve Island Elementary School in Shreveport, Louisiana, working with teachers on developing effective instruction and curriculum.
What can literacy educators do to motivate kids to want to read?
In the olden days when I was first teaching, it was not unusual for teachers to use worksheet after worksheet after worksheet to develop students’ reading skills. One day, my colleagues and I were complaining about this, and one of us said, “We should have our students just read the damn book!” “Read the damn book!” became our mantra as we began making instructional decisions that would both teach and motivate our students to read. Though we certainly did more than simply place books in the hands of kids, we became much more thoughtful about the reading habits and motivation to read we were developing in our students. Reading great books aloud, having thoughtful discussions together, using well-crafted books as mentor texts, sharing my reading habits, offering a plethora of good book choices, and providing plenty of time to read are all important factors in ensuring that my students want to read avidly on their own.
How long have you been a member of IRA? How has membership influenced your career?
I’ve been a member of the International Reading Association and its state affiliates for over thirty years, and I couldn’t have become a good reading teacher or a good instructional leader without IRA. The Reading Teacheris my go-to guide for improving my instructional practices. My association with the Louisiana Reading Association, in particular, has had a profound influence on my motivation to become a leader. I was proud to serve as the state president in 2011-2012, and I will forever value the close relationships I have developed through LRA and IRA.
What are you looking forward to doing at the Annual Conference in New Orleans?
Learning is always number one on my list, so I can’t wait to attend sessions with presenters I admire and topics I need to study. The exhibit hall is awe-inspiring, with its size and wealth of materials. And who can resist four days of great New Orleans food?
What do you consider to be your proudest career moment?
One proud moment occurred when I was tutoring Delaney, my second grade student struggling with literacy development. I had worked hard to help her become a strategic reader, and when she came to a line in the text we were reading—“Fox was on the phone”—she stopped at the word phone. I thought it would be an easy word for her, especially with the illustration of Fox making a phone call. I was crestfallen when seconds passed and she didn’t attempt the word. Making the most of wait time, I waited. When Delaney finally read the word correctly, I asked her how she had deciphered the word. Imagine my surprise and delight when she responded, “I thought of the word Philistines in the Bible and I knew the ph sound went f. So I tried it on phone and it worked.” Talk about metacognition!
What do you like to do when you’re not wearing your educator hat?
Is it a cliché to say “Reading?” If I have my Kindle app and plenty of books, I’m a happy camper. My five grandkids would be insulted if I didn’t mention them, and of course, “Grandmother” is the best job title in the world.
What’s the best advice you could offer someone new to the profession?
Again, I’m returning to Donald Graves and his most important words: “The teacher is the most important learner in the classroom.” Without a doubt!
Sara Long is a content manager/editor at the International Reading Association.