Teacher of the Year encourages new educators

By NIKKI SMITH,

The beginning of each school year brings much change, including new students to the district, new classes, new successes and new challenges.

This year, the Petal School District will also welcome several new teachers to the schools. New teacher orientation was held last week to help get these teachers, whether they are beginning their first year of teaching or are seasoned veterans, acclimated to the district and filled in on all things Petal.

Luke Daniels, a teacher at Petal Upper Elementary School and Mississippi’s Teacher of the Year, spoke to the new teachers and encouraged them to start their time at Petal off strong with a few tips.

“This is a day of excitement and renewal and hope for our district,” Daniels said. “It’s one of my favorite days of the year when we get to welcome new teachers to the district.”

Daniels said he realized that not all of the teachers present were first-year teachers, but that his advice was relevant to those who have been in education for years, as well.

“Regardless of where you are in your teaching career, I wanted to speak to you about habits that I encourage in new teachers,” he said.

He told them he encourages all teachers to put three habits to work in their daily lives: connect, expand and reflect.

“First, I encourage you to connect in student relationships,” he said. “I know a lot of people view student relationships as icing on the cake rather than the foundation of teaching. As you start in this school year, whether it’s your first or your 21st, take all the time necessary to build those student relationships.”

“As the old saying goes, students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. I couldn’t agree more strongly with that,” he added.

The second way he suggested that new teachers find a way to connect is to find opportunities for mentorship at their respective schools.

“Don’t just ask questions of the mentor that is assigned to you by the administrator at your school,” he said. “Find someone five, 10, 20 years down the line and attach yourself at the hip to that person. Ask them questions. Find out how they got there.”

“I’ve found that excellence rarely happens incidentally,” Daniels said. “It comes with intentionality. Find those people who are worthy of emulating, whether they are in your department or not.”

Daniels shared how connecting through mentorship has affected him in his career. Before her joined the district, he was working at Clinton High School, which was his first time teaching Algebra I and first time teaching high school.

“I was intimidated teaching alongside those who taught me in high school and was afraid to admit my ignorance, so I didn’t want to ask them,” he said.

So Daniels said his wife suggested that he reach out to her high school math teacher.

“I still believe to this day she is half human, half angel,” he said.

He contacted her to ask how to get started. She gave him all of her resources, quizzes, tests and assignments.

“She had every incentive in the world to not help me,” he said. “Gave me everything she had because that’s who she is. And as I got involved in the district, I’ve learned that’s how Petal is. If a student can be positively impacted, it doesn’t matter those boundaries between school districts. They’re going to do what will help students.”

“Petal School District faculty and staff and administrators love kids,” he said. “That is so refreshing to be in a district where that is the case.”

Daniels also drove home the idea that there is a tie between the schools, churches and businesses within the community. He reflected on the tornado that struck Petal earlier in the year and how the area churches and businesses rallied around the schools to help them get back on their feet.

“It is a motivating and encouraging thing for a teacher to be a part of a community where your efforts are not unnoticed and you are in it with so many others,” he said.

Finding a way to expand in the classroom was the next thing Daniels encouraged the teachers to do. He told them that their education does not end after college, but that they should always find ways to expand and improve.

“Develop a growth plan in those first years,” he said. “Petal School District has some super high expectations of excellence,” he said. “So if you’re in a place that you want to be stretched and you want to be the best that you can be, then I don’t believe there is a better place for you than Petal.”

Last, he told them to reflect on each day and the experiences that it brings.

“Begin a habit and process of reflection each day,” he said. “At the end of each day ask yourself questions. What worked and why or what didn’t work and why.”

“It seems simple, but it works,” he said. “It keeps you from repeating mistakes and allows you to get better each and every day.”

Daniels said the best way for one to pick him or herself up when feeling overwhelmed is to reflect on his or her “why.” This means to remember why he or she is there, why he or she decided to join the district.

“Petal School District’s ‘why’ is crystal clear,” he said as he pointed to the school’s mission statement on the wall behind him.

The Petal mission statement is: “The mission of the Petal School District is to empower all students with the attitudes, knowledge and life-long learning skills essential to thrive as responsible citizens in an ever-changing global society.”

“We are not a place that has achieved success because of (technology, fancy programs, fancy facilities or affluence),” he said. “The success we have achieved in this district comes from the faculty and staff that pours their sweat and tears into their work each and every day.”