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Teaching moments are for more than just students, principal says

Joan Atwood works with students at Creekview Elementary.

Sun Advocate Reporter

In the computer classroom at Creekview Elementary School in Price, row after row of young students plug away at their keyboards and monitors, trying to master the intricacies of converting inches to centimeters. Principal Joan Atwood pauses a moment to watch one youngster who is staring at his screen and looking a little perplexed. She leans over and, in a few short sentences, explains how the metric and English rulers on the screen line up, making it easier to see the principle involved.

Call it a teaching moment, and not just for the student. Someone who watched Ms. Atwood at work would learn that, although she is now in her sixth year in administration, Ms. Atwood is always a teacher at heart. It's a daily reward, she says.

"Seeing the light bulb come on, hearing someone say, 'Now I get it!' We really do change lives."

Sometimes, she explains, the changes are not instantly apparent. One time, a mother told her how a young fourth grader had begun to enjoy school at last. This was a boy who had been put down by his peers because of learning difficulties caused by dyslexia. After a few weeks of encouragement from Ms. Atwood, the youngster gradually convinced himself he could do it.

Joan Atwood herself had no lack of role models during her youth.

"My mother was a teacher, and both her her sisters were teachers, too," she recalls.

The earliest of her youthful experiences was not exactly auspicious.

"It was mainly custodial," she chuckles.

That was because her mother taught Kindergarten at home, which meant that young Joan not only got to see what teaching was about, but also did a lot of cleaning and reordering around the house when the little kids went home.

It was not until her adulthood that those early ideas began to blossom into a profession. She had worked as a teacher's aide at Reeves School, and remembers thinking to herself as she watched the teachers, "Hey, I can do this." So when Utah State University announced that it would offer a teaching degree track in Price, she followed her husband's advice and plunged into the program. This was back in the days before college courses moved at light speed over distance learning television, so the professors had to drive from Logan to Price. It would take a dozen students in the class to cover the travel expense so the courses could be held.

"I was the twelfth one," she explains. So the program got under way. Ms. Atwood, a full-time mother, became a full-time student as well and earned her teaching degree.

She later earned her Master's in Education at Utah State, and remembers how much she enjoyed being immersed in the intellectual forefront of teaching.

"The professors were on the cutting edge of the advances," she says.

Her first teaching job was as a half-time teacher at Sally Mauro School in Helper. Then she transferred to Creekview, a brand-new school in the district, where she taught fourth and fifth grades until she moved into the Gifted and Talented Program in 1998, where she worked until becoming a principal.

During her years in the profession, teaching has undergone many changes. Perhaps most important is the impact of technology. Computers are in classrooms, as are SmartBoards, PowerPoint presentations and education Web sites.

"We are teaching them the way they learn these days," she explains, noting that when kids go home from school, they are likely to turn to their home computers and video games for entertainment.

Culture has also changed, and not always for the better. Constant media bombardment has altered youthful perceptions of what is acceptable behavior and what is not. Teachers have always been conscious of the need to model good manners, but now the challenge is intensified.

Ms. Atwood says parents can and do help in meeting that challenge.

"Collaboration is a good thing," she states. That's why she and her colleagues invest so much "after hours" time in cultivating parent involvement through PTA meetings and personal contact. In fact, she says, the most important advice she could give to a new teacher is "to listen to parents, seek the advice of your peers. Just understand that you don't have to do this all on your own."

There are changes that the educational system can make to enhance its own impact on society, she says. She would like to see more "differentiation" in math and science instruction. This is already taking place in language arts, but she says that greater emphasis on customizing instruction to match each student's aptitude or background would boost achievement levels across the board.

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