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Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Teacher of the year nominee helps kids fall in love with learning

“Mrs. Redfern, what qualifies you as one of the 16 educators nominated for Los Angeles County Teacher of the Year?” I asked.

She was momentarily at a loss for words. After a few moments of reflection, she responded: “I’m overwhelmed, and a bit embarrassed, mostly because I am surrounded by great teachers.”

Mandy Redfern, kindergarten teacher at La Cañada Elementary, made the short list of finalists among the county’s 72,000 teachers for the 2017-18 honors. Those selected by the Los Angeles County Office of Education were judged on their essays, lesson plans, resumes, reference letters and interviews. Five of the 16 finalists will advance to the California Teacher of the Year competition, where one will represent the state for the esteemed honor of National Teacher of the Year.

I was curious to understand the potential impact a teacher might have on a kindergartner. Mrs. Redfern gave a perspective I found poignant: “I am the first person to help a child fall in love with school.”

Her statement defines the potential of the “first cause,” and I understand the impact of the foundation necessary for social, intellectual and spiritual development.

I wanted more; I wanted to understand the methodology that would make a young child fall in love with school.

“I do a lot of singing and dancing,” she commented. “I spend considerable time talking about what the children like; I become familiar with who they are as people.”

Redfern’s theoretical base is predicated on noted educational philosophers, but mostly on her understanding of learning, which evolves from personal experience and the directions that her curiosity has taken her. She explains that the probability of a student not being successful at something offers a teaching moment and that moment must be facilitated.

“The willingness to take a risk is essential to learning,” she says, “however, rewarding the risk is as important.”

I understood from her that teaching at the elementary level entails more than curriculum.

“I work hard at building a learning community, which involves parents, students and myself,” she said. “Trust and acceptance are foundational and perhaps, more importantly, understanding that individually we are different, yet our difference helps us grow.”

She explained that the right environment is critical because “they are so fragile; they are so young. I need to be there to encourage them and catch them when they fall.”

Redfern has a doctorate in education. Her doctoral thesis, “What Importance does Common Core have on Teacher Self-Efficacy?” although theoretically based, speaks to her mastery of educational pedagogy. Her expertise in the classroom and her work as a past president of the La Cañada Teachers Assn., have been instrumental in impacting educational policy at the local, state and national levels.

Part of Redfern’s holistic approach toward teaching is the importance she assigns to inclusivity in the classroom. Students who are not part of the learning community will not flourish; subsequently, she created a haven called a “buddy bench,” where students who feel left out can sit and wait for others to join them and attend to their needs.

“How the children feel about themselves is essential to learning, not only in kindergarten but throughout the remainder of their education,” Redfern said.

My conversation with Redfern revealed a professional who is evolving.

“What has been most influential in your evolution as a teacher?” I asked.

“Becoming a mother,” she said. “I see my students as people; I can look at the whole picture of their development. I understand the importance of the day-to-day subtleties that relate to learning —[enough] sleep and a good breakfast, for example.”

After speaking with Mandy Redfern, I understand philosopher Joseph Campbell’s contention that the vitality of a vitalized person is energizing.

“Mrs. Redfern, where do you get your energy and enthusiasm?” I asked.

She smiled and said, “From my students and my colleagues!”

JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at doctorjoe@ymail.com. Visit his website at doctorjoe.us.

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