Five years after graduating from The King’s College, Lizzie Dunn (MCA ’14) now teaches in her own miniature King’s. But this “King’s” is a class of kindergarteners at Success Academy Charter Schools, a network of schools where every classroom is named for the teacher’s alma mater. At Success Academy, Lizzie has been learning that the joint cultivation of intellect, character, and spirit so important to her as a recent graduate are just as important to impart to her students.
Lizzie began working as an associate kindergarten teacher for Success Academy in the South Bronx in the autumn after graduation. In her second year, she became a first grade lead teacher. She earned her master’s in general and special education from Touro College during those first two years. In the fall of 2016, she helped found a new Success Academy branch in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and has worked there as a kindergarten lead teacher since its opening.
Since beginning at Flatbush, Lizzie has also been a grade team lead, which means that she oversees the kindergarten teaching team. Aside from classroom instruction, her job involves leading team meetings and holding her fellow kindergarten teachers accountable for their development. She seeks to set an example of steadfastness both within her own “King’s” classroom and as a leader among the faculty.
Originally from the Pittsburgh area, Lizzie was attracted to the Success Academy model because both students and faculty are always striving to improve. “The reason I’ve stayed for five years at Success Academy is that the mission behind the schools is so real. There is no limit to what the kiddos in my class can do, and SA gives every kid, no matter their location or background, access to quality education,” she says.
In Success Academy’s professional development model, leadership staff frequently come into classrooms to observe and give feedback. “I have become a better teacher because of this, but it can still be nerve-wracking.” Particularly as a new teacher, Lizzie says,
I had to have some very real conversations with God about who I wanted to be as a person and where I was seeking my identity. It took a while to figure out that work wasn’t—and still isn’t—my entire identity. I prayed, every day, about a lot of things. I asked to constantly be reminded of where my identity lies. That reminder, that my identity lies with God, is what helped me keep coming back to work. Praying lifted such a weight off my shoulders. Knowing that I am defined by God, not by what others think, has helped me be more self-reflective and humble when it comes to my performance as a teacher. That makes it easier to accept and ask for feedback.
Lizzie’s work as a teacher builds upon lessons she learned during her sophomore year at King’s, during which she served as Helmsman for the House of Clara Barton. She says the Helmsman position “is all about fostering community and loving on people. That is exactly what I do in my classroom, too. I’m responsible for building authentic relationships with 32 kiddos, as well as their parents. It’s not my only job to teach my kids the curriculum well: it’s also my job to teach them how to interact with those around them. My classroom had three rules this year: be kind to others, be kind to yourself, and be kind to the materials. I want my kids to value education and value people.”
“Affection is one way we can encourage others,” Lizzie continues. “I want my kids to be able to accept encouragement but also extend it.” To this end, she leads her students in a compliment circle and a hug train, which teaches them appropriate ways to show care and friendship. In the compliment circle, students turn to the person next to them and say, “I think you’re a really kind friend because you. . .” In the hug train, one student will choose a person to hug, and that person chooses another, and the train continues (students are always welcome to say no to a hug). These exercises help to build a class community like the one Lizzie sought to build as a Helmsman.
Part of cultivating a thriving classroom involves communicating with parents about their children’s academics and behavior in the classroom. These parent-teacher meetings matter to Lizzie because she wants to build deep relationships with parents. She has had parents tell her, “I appreciate your persistence. A teacher’s job isn’t easy, and I would trust you with any of my children.”
“My kids are intelligent. That isn’t all that matters, though,” Lizzie reflects. After all, success is not found merely in achievement, but in the character they develop along the way. “The fact that I get to be a small part of something so important is humbling.” She adds, “Any King’s student who is thinking about a job in education should realize that no matter what your background in education is, you will learn more the minute you step into an actual classroom. It won’t be easy, but the kids are more than worth it.”