photographs by Dena L. Owens
Teaching may be a job for some, but for Allyson Chick, it is her life.
Living just one mile from Richland Elementary School, Chick’s students are also her neighbors. The 36-year-old considers the children and their parents her extended family, and she goes out of her way to work with them every day.
“She stays late with her students when the parents are running behind or takes them home when needed; she attends her students’ after school and weekend activities to show her support,” says Richland Elementary Principal Sharon McNary, where Chick has taught for the past five years. “She can [even] be found enjoying a picnic on the weekend with all of her students and family members.”
Chick’s dedication earned her the 2013 Tennessee Teacher of the Year, an honor that hasn’t been awarded to a Memphis City Schools teacher in 30 years. Chick doesn’t view it as a personal accomplishment; however, but as an achievement for her school and district.
“This showcases that, in Memphis, we have highly effective teachers,” she says.
Finding Good Role Models
In grade school, Chick was fascinated with teaching. In fifth grade, she would ask her teachers for their leftover worksheets so she could have material to use in her make-believe classroom. One who inspired Chick to become the instructor she is today was her seventh-grade teacher, Mrs. Rich.
“She loved us,” Chick says. “She would talk about us in a way, in front of our classmates, to spotlight our strengths and our abilities. It taught me how important it was for teachers to look for those strengths and abilities in our students and really spotlight our children and show them that we care.”
Her philosophy is that the best lessons are taught outside of textbooks. “Textbooks are a good resource, but gone are the days of ‘open up your textbook and turn to page 45,’” she says. “And I’m not a textbook teacher — I’m just not. I like to bring the world inside my classroom. If I’m having fun, then I know they’re having fun, and there’s nothing fun about ‘turn to page 45.’”
When Chick teaches geography, she could show her students a map or a globe, but instead uses technology to give her curious third-graders a better sense of what other places are truly like. To learn about tornadoes, Chick partnered with a class in Kansas, using Skype to allow her students to speak with children who attend school there.
“They got to talk to kids who actually lived in Tornado Alley and [learn] what it would be like,” she says. “I think being able to bring that inside your classroom is the most meaningful thing you can do.”
“They know I’m not the be-all, end-all on knowledge,” says Chick. “We learn together.”
Second-grade students are given the SAT-10 to prepare them for their first attempt at the TCAP test the next year. Chick wanted to continue preparing her second-grade students by being their teacher for two consecutive years, a process known as looping.
“I wanted to loop because I wanted to see what I did in second grade that was going to prepare them for third grade,” she says. “I’m seeing now that when I go back to second grade, I’ll already make changes, but to me that’s a characteristic of a highly effective teacher. You reflect on your practices. Then you make changes and you grow.”
Chick even plans and attends summer activities with her students; she attributes that bond as the number one factor in her students’ success. “The community that I built inside my classroom is all about ownership, and they own the environment, and they are bonded with each other, not just me. They stick up for each other like a family would.”
The children in Chick’s class often come to school with ideas they’ve found through research and knowledge they’ve collected in their free time because they want to contribute to the learning experience. “They know I’m not the be-all, end-all on knowledge,” says Chick. “We learn together.”
“When you have a platform set up where we’re all working together, and what you bring to the table is worth something, you’ve got a group of kids that want to learn and take initiative.”
Last year, each student set his or her own goal for reading points, and could pick the prize they wanted if they reached their goal. Camille set and achieved an ambitious goal of 100 points. Her prize was a date with Chick. “We got manicures and ate Muddy’s cupcakes,” Camille says, proudly.
Her mother, Hope Clippinger, says she sometimes catches Camille doodling in her coloring books, writing in the margins ‘I love Ms. Chick.’ Camille aspires to one day be a teacher, and Hope thinks Chick is not only a good role model for her daughter, but for the nation, too, as a prime example of what a teacher should be.
“There are plenty of classrooms and teachers who hold the children to very high expectations, but Chick holds herself just as high-up there with them,” Clippinger says. “If they have to be held responsible for something, she feels she has to be held responsible too.”
Winning Tennessee Teacher of the Year automatically qualifies Chick for the National Teacher of the Year award. She will compete against other state winners. But in her principal’s eyes, she’s already a winner.
“Her mind is ever-going. I can call her at 11 o’clock at night and she has an idea for me,” McNary says. “It’s always working — it’s not stressing, but it’s always working.” And with a nation striving to move forward, the National Teacher of the Year has to be someone like Chick who is also constantly growing.
Four finalists will be selected this month, and in February, those teachers will fly to Washington, D.C., for interviews. In April, the National Teacher of the Year will be announced on the White House lawn. Early in the application process, Chick told her class if she got the chance to go to the White House and meet President Obama, she would try to set up a Skype session, so they could meet him too.
“That would be important to me, to find a way that they could experience this too, because honestly, I wouldn’t be where I am today without my kids,” she says.