Emily Williams was absolutely certain 12 years ago when she got her first job as a teacher that she was prepared for the classroom.

Gennifer Dyer felt the same way four years ago.

Neither was really ready, they said.

Williams and Dyer were presenters Thursday in Decatur City Schools’ first “teacher boot camp,” during which Austinville Elementary took teachers from 12 school systems and provided them professional development from teachers still in the classroom.

“We could have brought in a reading coach or some other kind of expert, but the best training comes from teachers, boots that are on the ground,” said Austinville Principal Tony Willis.

The camp focused on areas such as reaching the whole student, teaching students who think they already know everything and building positive connections with students.

Everything presenters and the more than 100 teachers talked about came from their classroom experiences.

“This is really what teachers, new and experienced, need to hear,” Decatur Superintendent Michael Douglas said, adding that school systems don’t do enough sharing across district lines. “We’re all in the business of helping students.”

In its survival guide for new teachers, the U.S. Department of Education recommends professional development sessions like the one Decatur held Thursday. Officials cited the “sink or swim” approach and lack of support as reasons 22% of new teachers nationally are leaving education.

Dalia Gerardo, a second-year elementary teacher in Decatur, participated in the boot camp and shared her experience about the move from college to the classroom. She graduated from the University of North Alabama in 2017.

Gerardo said she was not prepared for “all the extra stuff” teachers have to do and a boot camp like Thursday’s would have helped.

“We do a lot of teaching in small groups, and I didn’t have my class set up to do this,” she said.

One of the most engaging sessions was the one Williams led that focused on educating the whole child. A lot of the teachers — such as Holly Hargrove and Marlee Pope of Athens City — were from Title I schools, which are schools with a significant number of students who reside in poverty and are most often from single-parent homes.

On a lot of days before they think about meeting the academic needs, teachers said they have to focus on the physical and emotional well-being of students.

Sometimes this means making sure students are not hungry, and this is why Hargrove said she has a parent-supported snack basket in her classroom.

“It makes a huge difference in the learning process when students are fed,” she said.

Williams said students bring other issues to schools, and she shared a story that happened in her classroom. She said one of her students was always sleepy. Williams reached out to the mother and learned that she worked until 9 p.m. When the mother got home, she cooked for the family and they spent time together as a family.

This meant the student in her classroom was up late every night.

Williams said her training in college didn’t teach her to deal with a situation like this, but part of teaching means getting to know students and she encouraged attendees to do this by having a one-on-one conversation with each student.

“The first two weeks of school are crucial moments,” Williams said.

Dyer, who teaches pre-kindergarten at Falkville Elementary, said so many teachers are probably like her when she walked in the classroom four years ago.

“I had no social and emotional training,” she said.

Dyer said the first time a student broke down in her class because they were struggling she didn’t know how to handle the situation.

“This wasn’t something they could teach me in college,” she said.

Willis said teachers — regardless of where they are — struggle with the same issues and the best medicine is for them to come together and talk about how they handle them.

“A lot of good will come out of this,” he said.

— deangelo@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2469. Twitter @DD_Deangelo.

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