“That’s part of the beauty of teaching in one district: they know me and they come back to visit a lot. I try to teach them how to be their own best teacher. Hopefully that will transfer into their daily lives. I have a minister’s license and I can legally marry people, and I’ve had students come back to ask me to officiate their weddings. Now that is a really amazing experience!“
Debra Rose Howell has been teaching for 27 years in the Granite Falls School District of Washington State. She teaches fourth, fifth, and sixth graders in the same classroom through an innovative teaching method called Multiage Education, that allows her to integrate different grade levels and follow students through multiple years of academic development. She team teaches with her younger brother Mike Schireman. In 2011, Debra Howell became the third teacher from Washington State to be inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame. She has also taught middle school, high school driver’s ed, and coached. She became a National Board Certified Teacher in 2000, and renewed in 2009. She also facilitates NBCT groups through local state universities.
On Becoming a Teacher
“I think I was actually born to become a teacher. I’m the oldest of four kids, and I used to pretend to be the teacher. I’d have all our dolls and my brothers and sisters lined up around me like they were my students.”
Teaching certainly ran in Debra’s family. She has eight relatives who are teachers, including her aunt. When Debra was in high school, she invited her to observe her teach a first grade class. “Just observing her and watching the kids felt like this was the place for me, and that’s when I decided to become a teacher.” Debra went to school at Western Washington University in Bellingham, and the education classes she took there reinforced her belief that she belonged in a classroom. “I think every experience along the way was really positive for me.” Debra’s daughter also wants to become a teacher, and is entering her second year in the teaching program at Western Washington University.
“One of the drawbacks, and I shared this with my daughter, is the first year in college, when you’re not really taking actual teacher prep classes. You lose a lot of people because the first year in college is not exactly what they think it’s going to be. Schools should let students dabble more in teacher prep classes from the very beginning. My daughter has become very frustrated having to take the general classes, and I keep telling her to stick it out because it’s definitely worth it.”
As both a teacher and living in the same community, Debra is involved in her students’ lives in more ways than one. Her commitment to students doesn’t stop in the classroom–rather, it carries over into students’ extracurricular activities and into the community as well, and this helps her create stronger and deeper connections to her students. “I think the whole idea of kids seeing the teachers doing things outside of the regular school day like coaching or doing things in the community is really important.”
“I think the whole idea of kids seeing the teachers doing things outside of the regular school day like coaching or doing things in the community is really important.“
Debra’s community is relatively small. She lives and teaches in a small town, and this makes interacting with students outside the classroom not only easier, but also inevitable. However, she uses this to her advantage to build relationships with students and foster a sense of familiarity and comfort between them. She also uses her position as a role model to influence the behavior of students in their community as well.
“It’s very critical in the small community I live in. The kids need to see that you’re actually walking the walk: when you talk about good behavior and responsibility, then they need to see how you conduct yourself in the community, and the role that the school has in the community as a whole. Teachers in a small community really get an opportunity to solidify themselves as a role model. We talk about all these things and give these great examples, and I think when the kids actually see you’re doing those things in the community they really take you seriously and have a much deeper respect for you as well.”
Debra is an especially interesting teacher in that she teaches students over a series of years as opposed to one year, which helps her build strong and lasting relationships with the people she encounters. “I taught middle school, and then I taught fourth grade for a while. Then I started our Intermediate Multiage Program 21 years ago. I teach fourth, fifth, and sixth grade multiage right now, and I have nine new students that join us as 4th graders each year. My team teacher, my brother, also teaches the same age span. He too gets 9 new fourth graders while the others roll up a grade level. Together we teach our curriculum in unique ways.
“If I only had kids for one year I would feel like a failure because there’s so much to do, and it takes so long to get to really know the kids and understand their strengths and weaknesses.“
If I only had kids for one year I would feel like a failure because there’s so much to do, and it takes so long to get to really know the kids and understand their strengths and weaknesses. By the time I got to know them, I’d lose them if I only had them for one year. Now, however, I have them for three full years, and when they come back as a fifth grader or sixth grader I know exactly where they’re at.”
In Washington, according to Debra, some schools have been approaching teaching like this for over 30 years, integrating students at different grade levels to facilitate better social skills and build longer lasting connections between teachers and students. “There are a lot of people that just don’t get it. They think it’s a split class, and it’s not that at all. You don’t have one grade level on one side of the room and another grade level on the other. We’ve been really fortunate to have always had superintendents and principals that have really supported this method of teaching.”
On Technology in the Classroom
Debra is a strong proponent of incorporating the latest developments in technology into the classroom setting. As technology continues to develop at a rapid pace, it is important that students remain up to date and literate with regards to the latest technological advances. Incorporating technology into the classroom can deepen a child’s educational experience, and prepare them for the real world.
“I think [technology] is a real centerpiece to education and people that are not using it are selling themselves and their students short.” She believes teachers have a responsibility to be technologically literate, and more skilled with technology than their students. Technology, she says, is also stimulating to students. “It excites the kids; they like to see new technology being used.”
On Impacting Students
Debra’s small town, close-knit community, and the teaching method that allows her to instruct students across multiple school years all contribute to deep, well-rounded relationships she develops with her students. The involvement she has with them both inside the classroom and in the community, spanning multiple years allows her to leave long-lasting impressions on the students she influences and the lives she touches. When reflecting over the many students on whom she has had an impact, Debra remembers a young man named Bruce:
“I had him in fourth, fifth and six grade. He really had a lot of struggles with his academics but his behavior was just way out there. He didn’t have a lot of faith in himself, but he and I hit it off fairly well. We went ‘toe to toe’ numerous times. He had times when he was physically and verbally destructive and disruptive, but he knew that I had drawn the line in the sand and that was it.
“He comes back a lot to check in with me and see how my students and I are doing.“
It was like I was able to sort of moderate his behavior. I ended up keeping him for an additional year. But he ended up graduating from high school, which was phenomenal because he’s the first one in his family. He had a terrible accident on the job and had to have his leg amputated. I had called the hospital to check on him, but didn’t get to talk with anyone about how he was doing. Somehow he got word of this. He stopped here at school on his way home from the hospital just to check in and tell me he WOULD be walking again. He comes back a lot to check in with me and see how my students and I are doing.”
The relationships Debra fosters with her students carry on to become something much larger than simply that of a student and teacher. “That’s part of the beauty of teaching in one district: they know me and they come back to visit a lot. I try to teach them how to be their own best teacher. Hopefully that will transfer into their daily lives. I have a minister’s license and I can legally marry people, and I’ve had students come back to ask me to officiate their weddings. Now that is a really amazing experience!”