Start of a Journey - Brittney Norman 'I'm Zonked, But It's Good'

Just a few minutes before the start of the school day one cold Monday morning, Brittney Norman stood in the hallway outside of her fifth-grade classroom to encourage stragglers still stuffing coats and hats into lockers.

A boy excitedly approached Norman to tell her about the thrilling finish to his weekend basketball game: “There was only two seconds left on the clock, and I was guarding number 12, and he was about to take the shot—“

Norman raised her hand to congratulate the boy as he finished the story: “—so I tackled him!”

They smacked a high-five, and Norman clasped the student’s hand for a moment as surprise registered on her face. “Whoa!” she said. “You know it’s not football season anymore, right?”

“I know; I didn’t mean to!” he said, before rushing into the classroom to share the same tale with his friends – complete with dramatic re-enactment of the events.

Scenes like that would replay throughout this day in the life of Brittney Norman, who’s a third-year teacher reliving her rookie experience after moving to Pine River Area Schools from Cadillac last fall.

It was January, and Norman admitted she was feeling more calm and confident than a few months earlier when pressure and overwork had worn her down. A little shy of midway through the year, she had established relationships – so important to her – and found a rhythm.

“I’m feeling pretty comfortable,” she said. “There’s good days and bad days, but I’m trying not to spend my energy stressing out about things. I talked about it with a friend of mine, and it’s a choice I made. This weekend did I take my work crate home? Yes. Did I get it all done? No.”

Mornings begin with breakfast in the classroom, a grant-funded program for the high-need, rural district. Students grabbed fruit, milk, and breakfast bars on the way in. Norman kept overhead lights off, so the room was bathed in a soft glow from lamps she supplied.

Announcements came over the PA. Bad jokes were told. Norman visited and bantered with kids. After 15 minutes, the students headed to physical education and Norman started her prep hour.

Time flew. Schools had been closed on Friday because of cold, and Norman was adjusting her plans. Watching her simultaneously brew coffee, revise lessons, and choose manipulatives for a hands-on experience was like appreciating a jazz musician improvising from a favorite tune.

Like every talented practitioner, Norman can accomplish much in a short time, often completing two tasks at once, while noticing what’s happening around her, and responding. Another fifth-grade teacher popped in, and Norman worked as they decided on a fundraiser for the next week.

Minutes later, a quick trip to the office involved stops to console and redirect a crying student wandering the hallway, make small talk with a secretary about the weather and the weekend, and consult with a colleague over the important points to cover in a Venn diagram on fractions.

Soon passing time meant more hugs and joking and high-fives with students scattering to class – plus some all-important interaction with adults gathered near an intersection of two hallways.

“Happy birthday—79, right?” Norman shouted at a veteran colleague headed to his room, laughing heartily at his reply: “Well,” he said, “I’m one day closer to retirement or death, whichever comes first!”

Amid the hustle and bustle, Norman spotted two girls eating food out of their lockers. “Girls! Lunch time is not until 12 – go to class!”

Once students settled back into the classroom by 9:10, Norman’s day was non-stop. But she began with taking stock – pausing from the rush with a daily check-in ritual she calls “morning meeting,” when two or three students share some thoughts or experiences.

“Who’s going first?” she asked “Cooper, are you being a leader today?”

Cooper talked about going to Ohio. Two others discussed the new Domino’s Pizza restaurant in town. The conversation was interrupted by a phone call for a student to go to the office, which Norman dispensed with quickly.

She ended with a “precept” from the book, Wonder, by R.J. Palacio: “‘The two most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why.’ Turn and discuss with a neighbor.”

The meat of the day was a math lesson about multiplying fractions, involving the Venn diagram she discussed with a teacher friend earlier, meant to drill home the idea that denominators do not have to be alike when multiplying – a change from the rule in adding and subtracting fractions.

Norman filled out the graphic organizer on the board as students brainstormed similarities and differences between adding and subtracting fractions vs. multiplying them. It was a high-energy act, and she was sweating because the heat was too high. She has no thermostat to adjust it.

After the mini-lesson, most students watched a short video on Chromebooks before starting on a two-sided worksheet. Norman worked with a small group of struggling kids who were able to see what is one-half of one-fourth when a “candy bar” was cut up and shared among friends.

Norman says she’s grateful her district has carved out time for her to attend a Math Recovery training at the Intermediate School District which will take her out of the classroom seven times this year. The course has been invaluable in helping her understand student confusion, she said.

“If I don’t meet them where they’re at and try to get them over those issues, I just get misconceptions built on misconceptions,” she said. “For example, it’s really hard for them to understand that when you multiply fractions, they actually get smaller.”

Norman teaches math to all of the fifth graders at Pine River Middle School. The three grade-level teachers rotate students for some subjects and also keep their “home” group for reading. She rounded out her morning with reading and vocabulary lessons lasting more than an hour.

It was a credit to her constant interaction with students – giving high-fives and teacher looks and one-on-one instruction – that they were sincerely engaged in reading about corn production.

No one missed a beat when one boy asked to leave because his tooth was falling out. In fact, Norman kept classes rolling through many distractions, from office calls, to a teacher coming in to pull students out, to broken Chromebooks and requests for locker or bathroom passes.

The toughest challenge came when electric drilling began on the opposite side of her classroom wall. The loud whine got students laughing and wiggling and talking to their neighbors. “It’s just a new sink in the girls’ bathroom; keep working!” And they did.

Right before lunch was her most difficult class. Same lesson with the Venn diagram and small group instruction. But the noise level was higher, and some kids were off-task. Four kids have only recently been identified as needing special education services, she said.

Later in the staff breakroom, lunch conversation turned to squirrely behavior and how to address it. Staff members compared notes on kids. Side conversations broke out as teachers discussed whether to stop rotating fifth graders. Others discussed their personal lives.

Time for lunch ran out fast. Conversations paused mid-sentence as people rushed back to class. But the fifth grade teachers picked up where they left off following one more afternoon rotation of kids—they met up on the playground to supervise recess, a daily afternoon duty.

“No wonder he comes in cold and soaking wet every day,” Norman said before calling out to the student rolling in a snow bank without snow-pants on.

Another boy, normally chatty and sociable, stood off by himself. Norman wandered over, put her arm around his shoulder, and they talked. “He told me his dog died last night,” she informed the other teachers when she returned.

Needless to say, Norman brewed a cup of coffee before heading out to recess. She had one more class when she came back in. It went well, thanks to her skill in simultaneously reading a book aloud with a small group and watching one off-task boy to send him non-verbal cues.

The bell rang. More hugs. Laughter. Noise. Lockers slamming. Norman finally had time to rush off and use the restroom. “It was a good day,” she said later. “I’m zonked, but it’s good.”

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