This year marks Suzanne Andrews’ 30th year teaching, and all but two of them have been at Mountain Brook Elementary. Ask her about her work in the classroom, and her passion for her fifth-grade students is fervent and the reason for her new title as Mountain Brook Schools’ Elementary Teacher of the Year more than evident. We chatted with her about some highlights from her teaching career and this school year.
How did you decide to become a teacher, and what makes you want to keep teaching fifth grade?
I went to college thinking I wouldn’t be a teacher because mom was an educator and I spent my whole life playing school. I dabbled in different things, but I always gravitated back to education. You can’t escape what you are meant to be. Fifth grade is unique because the students are old enough to have strong opinions and to build deep relationships with their peers and their teachers. At Mountain Brook they come from families who encourage them to love learning, so we are really blessed because the parents play such a vital role in the success we have in the classroom.
What is something that is unique to your classroom?
I teach fifth-grade science, and we study the environment, nature and biology. All the things they find fascinating about the world they bring in and we put them on the wall. In my room my bulletin boards are full of skulls and dehydrated frogs and beehives and starfish. One of my students even brought in the contents of a dove stomach. My husband had a plate taken out of his collar bone, so I asked the doctor for the plate and screws and put it in a bag on the board. The sky is the limit.
What stands out most from this unique pandemic year in the classroom?
Mountain Brook is doing everything they can to make sure we are in the classroom. What I thought would be terrible has turned out to be okay. We have all our desks spread apart versus working with groups, which is where education was heading. Now with Google students can type a writing piece and still share it with other people and work on a team. It just looks a little different, but the learning is deep and valuable. The main thing is students have to have a good relationship with the teacher and other students to want to learn from each other.
Thirty years into teaching, what is most valuable about seeing students after they leave your classroom?
Even though those kids move on to the junior high the year after they leave me, we hear about them running cross country or being in the band. I’ll still have students reach out to me who are a biology major in college or in junior high to tell me about learning about cells again. Having a small tight-knit community you really see the impact kids have on teachers and teachers on kids.
In what ways does your classroom use new technology?
Robotics wasn’t something I was familiar with, but there are opportunities for me to learn how to build and program a robot and teach the kids. With Project Lead the Way in fifth-grade they build a claw bot, a small robot that has claws on the end. It’s almost like glorified Legos where the put the pieces together, and in the end they work with the claw bot to do a task like stacking yellow cubes.. In fifth grade we also have been doing a program called Level UP Village (LUV) where we partner with another school somewhere else in the world, and we have been partnered with a school in Columbia and in several African countries. We have learned from them and talked about water crises and built water filters, and the kids get to post videos for each other.