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Grand Island, NE 68802
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Student growth reflects Sheeks’ lifelong learning

Teachers in Action: Bess Sheeks

This is a weekly series of stories  focusing on ways GIPS teachers are putting new skills in action to grow student achievement.

“Great job,” Lincoln Elementary kindergarten teacher Bess Sheeks says, sending a student back to his partner, who in turn makes the trip to the teacher’s desk.

The 26-year veteran teacher is having each student answer a math question to complete a quick teacher verification. The first student answered right away (“he’s a high flyer,” Sheeks says), while his partner is struggling.

Without committing to an answer to the question (3+2), he looks to his teacher for assistance.

She gives him no response, other than a slight tilt of the head and an encouraging raised eyebrow.

The student looks at his hand, holds up three fingers, then four, then finally his thumb.

Again, he looks to his teacher for confirmation.

Again, Sheeks stares him down.

“5?” His answer is half statement, half question.

“Correct!” Sheeks tells him. “You got it.”

As he heads back to his partner, Sheeks makes note of the student’s ability to answer the question with a checkmark on a class roster and a mental note of his progress.

“He’s struggled. A week ago, he couldn’t get that answer. This is big.”

Bess Sheeks works with a student to verify his understanding of a math problem.

Sheeks says she has taken some big steps herself this year.

“I’ve grown the most this year with students working in teams,” she said. Specifically, she has focused on teacher verification of student learning.

“In the beginning I was ‘you can’t do this in kindergarten’,” Sheeks said. “Well, you can.”

Getting there was a learning process, with help from a “great leader,” a strong team and colleagues across the district.

Sheeks took a trip to Jefferson Elementary to see how staff there handled teacher verify while students worked in teams.

“She came back excited,” said Maureen Oman, Lincoln principal. “Bess wants good feedback. If you give her a tweak, she will work on it until it is just right. She came back from her trip to Jefferson to tweak her success criteria and targets because of what she knows about her students.”

Sheeks said what she saw at Jefferson caused her to change some processes she had in place. As in the situation with the math question, she continues to see success.

“It’s a gradual release,” she said. “The more you are ok with letting them fail, the better they do.”

Things You Need To Know sign in Bess Sheeks' classroom.

Letting kids fail may seem counterintuitive to those who teach, especially those who have taught for two and a half decades. She also realized she, too, may fail. After her trip to Jefferson, she thought she should try something new to her.

“But I’d have to change my format,” she said. “You have to have the spirit that it’s going to break, but you’re going to fix it. Kids need to see that.”

If the students see it is ok for a teacher to learn from her mistakes, it is ok for them to learn from their mistakes, too.

“Her kids are doing so well,” Oman said. “Kindergarteners can do it. They are inquisitive. Kindergarteners feel comfortable taking risks and are accepting of whether they get it right or wrong.”

Bess Sheeks works with her kindergarten students in a small group.

Sheeks credits the culture Oman has cultivated at Lincoln for life-long learners to continue trying new techniques.

“Mrs. Oman is willing to embrace change,” she said. “She’s always been that way. She’s a great leader.”

In her PLC (what Oman calls a “very strong kindergarten team”), Sheeks said they have been building processes, targets and standards-based planning. But they were missing teacher verify. That’s what pushed her to visit Jefferson.

“She spent time with the verify piece,” Oman said. “You cannot verify student learning up in front of the class. Working in teams, she is working to verify within groups.”

As students are working in teams, Sheeks can monitor how well they are actually understanding the content. When a student is clearly struggling, she knows “waiting to reteach doesn’t work. It needs to be done right away.”

Bess Sheeks stops to check on a group of students working during a math lesson.

It has worked similarly for her own learning. Both Oman and Sheeks spoke of the ability for side-by-side coaching to be effective for teachers when students are working in teams.

“It’s reflection in the moment,” Oman said. “We have a conversation on the spot, because she is available. As the kids are working in teams, she can check on groups and we can talk about what is working and what isn’t. It shows we really do mean it when we say we want to support teachers in their journey.”

Oman said it is the philosophy of the district leadership, principals and instructional coaches. “Any of the Leading for Learning team are available to help problem solve and to support positive change.”

Sheeks recalled a time when she shared with Oman a success story of pairing students together based on ability - a stronger student able to help a struggling student. She said Oman challenged her to pair students of similar ability, “two high-flyers together, two struggling learners together.” Sheeks didn’t know how it would turn out, but she tried it.

“We found even in like-ability pairs someone is going to take the lead,” she said. “One of the high-flyers had to fly higher.”

The students pushed themselves to another level. In the other groups, one of the struggling students had to be the leader. They struggled through but found the answer.

“Students who aren’t always confident found a way,” Sheeks said. The students, when pushed out of their comfort zone “were able to be successful.”

A student works in Bess Sheeks' kindergarten class.

Oman beams as she speaks of correlation of the kindergarten learners and the teacher learner.

“Bess has been teaching a long time,” Oman said. “To see someone get that excited about her craft and continue improving her pedagogy … it’s inspiring. It can be done. She can try and fail. She’s not afraid. No one should be. Just keep building on that.”

Sheeks considers it part of who she is, no matter the difficulty of the task.

“I’m always trying to drive to solutions,” Sheeks said. “It is making an impact. It’s hard work, a slow process. It’s time consuming. But these are hard problems to solve. We are working to do better.”

She points to the success criteria and learning target for math she has displayed that day: “We can use multiple strategies to solve problems.”

“In kindergarten, I still have some direct instruction” Sheeks says. “You have have to adapt and change to what students need. I keep trying things. If it helps my students, I’m willing to try it.”

A sign lets visitors know they are in Mrs. Sheeks' class.

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