Ashtyn Berry – Class of 2009
Third grade teacher, W. R. Odell Elementary School, Concord, NC

“I cannot express enough how much I love my job,” says Ashtyn Berry, who teaches third grade at W. R. Odell Elementary School in Concord. “So far this year,” she explains, “our learning has been 100% remote. Although everyone would much rather attend school in person, I have been pleasantly surprised how well we have made remote learning work. Our virtual curriculum has surpassed my expectations, and I have found the interaction with the students and the parents to be very rewarding.

“Our planned emphasis for this school year has been ‘social-emotional learning,’ emphasizing the social aspect among all the individuals involved in the educational environment. Although we had to change our approach in almost every way, the outcomes have been extremely positive. I try to always keep in mind the wise words I learned in a virtual professional development workshop conducted by educational author Doug Fisher: ‘Setting is not the deciding factor; you are.’

“When teaching eight-year-olds, it is important to communicate with parents. But one interesting positive situation that has come from the virtual learning experience is that I have been more in contact with my students’ parents and other family members than ever before. Since the students are online, I can see into their homes and increase the communication, establishing an even greater trust with the families. One of the challenges is to be sure that each of the students is able to access the lessons, but all of the faculty and administration have made that accessibility a top priority. It takes time and effort, but establishing that connection has been very beneficial to all of us.”

Fortunately, there are many great online resources available for children today, and Ashtyn and her fellow teachers choose the ones that work the best for each of them and their students. “Getting used to a different approach has certainly presented a challenge, but now that we have settled in and gotten comfortable with the tools, we have been very productive. Technology can provide so many great opportunities. We can even have the children go into ‘break out rooms’ online, where they can work in groups and collaborate with one another on tasks. They really enjoy that. I have found, however, that it is best to choose a few resources that work the best for us, so that we use the technology productively and that it doesn’t become overwhelming.”

At the beginning of each school year, Ashtyn’s students participate in a project called “Family Stories.” If the school year involves only in-person learning, the children write stories about their families and share them with their classmates. The stories are bound into a booklet for the class to enjoy together. This year, all of the stories must take video form, and the whole group has made it into a particularly uplifting experience.

“I start out by sharing a family story of my own. I usually tell them about my grandmother, Judy Berry, whose father worked in the mill and would bring home the mill sacks for the family to use to make their clothes. It’s a small look into my family’s past and gives them a taste of history as well as the culture and values of the time when my grandparents grew up.

“The students at my school are very diverse ethnically and culturally, including families of African, Mexican, Indian, and Native American heritage, as well as those whose roots are from the mountains and Piedmont of North Carolina. Consequently, we celebrate family stories from many different cultures. One common theme that I have found is that most families have an agricultural background of some kind. For example, some of the children have families who own rice paddies and sugar cane fields in India. Their classmates whose families grew up locally may have grandparents who raised corn or tobacco. It is only one example of how we find so many similarities in our lives and in our backgrounds, and the result is that we build friendship and trust.

“I plan to continue the Family Stories project because I have discovered so many positives that we can take from the experience. We have all enjoyed recording and posting and sharing together, and we have learned so much about one another’s lives and cultures.”

Another important aspect of education that is important to Ashtyn is the emphasis on teachers in a leadership role. “We need to take on the role of leaders, not only with our students but also with our colleagues. I have really enjoyed being a mentor teacher. So far, I have had three mentees, beginning teachers who are excited to begin their careers and who bring fresh enthusiasm and ideas to the classroom. I have heard so many stories about teacher burnout, and I think one of the reasons that I haven’t experienced it myself is that I get to interact frequently with the excitement and the creative spirit of these new teachers.

“It took a long time for me to decide on education as a career. Both of my parents encouraged me to pursue whatever dreams I chose and provided me with many opportunities to explore my interests. But it was when I witnessed my dad interacting with his band students and saw how my peers learned from him and looked up to him as a father figure that I saw how meaningful teaching could be. At first, I thought I would like to be a music teacher like him, but then I decided that I would rather keep music as an interest rather than make it my livelihood.

“I also had other teachers who inspired me. For example, Mrs. Donna Duncan taught me so much about literature and inspired in me a love for the classics. For example, in her class we read such challenging works as ‘The Scarlet Letter’ and ‘Heart of Darkness.’ We had to work hard, but her instruction made a real impact. Another inspiring teacher was Dr. Robert McAdams. I credit him with the success I had in my undergraduate years because he taught me how to study. His classes were rigorous, but we learned how to apply ourselves in order to succeed. Both of these memorable teachers had high expectations, but working to meet those expectations instilled in us the skills to help us in our future education and in our lives and careers.

“My parents taught my siblings and me that keeping busy would both enrich our lives and keep us out of trouble! I took music classes from the time I was very young, and participating in the marching band and concert band made a big impact on me. Being a part of a such a group with a common purpose provides a shared experience that is larger than oneself. Each person is important and has a responsibility to the other members. Plus, the skills, the precision, and the discipline the student learns lasts a lifetime.

“I was also able to participate in cheerleading, which was not only fun but also built responsibility. These types of group activities help young people learn cooperation and accountability.

“One of my favorite activities has been baton twirling. I not only twirled with the East Burke band, but I also was a feature twirler at Appalachian State for four years. It was just the best time and was so much fun! I realized later that I likely would not have been as successful a student had I not also been feature twirler. It was an excellent creative outlet and a great stress release, and I have come to believe that everyone needs some kind of activity in which to put creative energy. I still work alongside my dad – he’s my colleague now!! – to do choreography for the color guard in the Cavalier band.

Ashtyn graduated summa cum laude from Appalachian State University in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education, and during the last two years has begun pursuing a master’s degree in the curriculum specialist program at ASU. “My master’s program is all done through distance learning, even before the pandemic. I have been surprised and pleased at how well the faculty at ASU does online learning. My classmates and I are building a professional network, and working online with them has helped my remote teaching. Technology for us has meant communication and relationship building.”

Ashtyn began her teaching career at Lincoln Charter School in Lincolnton, where she taught second grade for four years. “I had a wonderful mentor named Teesie Smith, who made a huge difference in my life and in my early career. Our whole team was positive and uplifting; we were all on the same page, and I feel so lucky to have had that experience to give me a great start.”

She has taught third grade at W.R. Odell for four years. “I am truly fortunate. Both my students and my colleagues are an inspiration to me, and I find it a real privilege to have the opportunity to shape the future. These parents have trusted me with their most precious treasures, and I accept that responsibility with both excitement and joy.”

She has a deep interest and a passion for curriculum development and plans to continue her education by pursuing a doctorate degree. “I do not know what the future may hold, but I am certainly open to the opportunities that may lie ahead. One short term goal is to publish a curriculum proposal that I am working on now, and I hope that there will be more publishing ahead. I am especially interested in developing programs that promote equity in education to all students regardless of background or status, and the possibilities are endless. Regardless of where I go or what I may do, I will always enjoy working with other educators to put students first and to help improve their lives and guide them to a better tomorrow.”

Published October 2020

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