Growing up in Reedsport, Oregon, Nicole Butler-Hooton remembers struggling in school. She needed extra help with speech and reading and experienced some cultural barriers as one of the few Native American students in her classes.
But Butler-Hooton remembers how her teachers from kindergarten through high school valued her as a person and respected her cultural identity. So much so that in 2006, Butler-Hooton was inspired to become a second-grade teacher herself. Fourteen years later, she’s still teaching second-graders at Irving elementary school in Eugene and was just recognized as Oregon’s 2021 Teacher of the Year.
Many of the teachers Butler-Hooton looked up to as a student reached out to congratulate her on the award.
“I feel like I’ve taken them along with me,” Butler-Hooton told OPB’s “Think Out Loud” on Oct. 6. “I feel that my teachers were invested, and that, in turn, made me want to be that teacher who really meets the needs of all the students no matter their background, no matter what they’re facing.”
Butler-Hooton on equity, inclusion and relationships in the classroom
Butler-Hooton says she has consciously made equity, cultural inclusion and teacher-family relationships central to her classroom. The kindness and consistency of Butler-Hooton’s own teachers as an elementary school student allowed her a sense of belonging in school that she says is unique for students of color.
She wants all of her second-graders and their families to have the same support and opportunities she did.
“I really want to keep working hard, like my teachers did, to create more equitable outcomes because I may not have ended up here without the early leadership of some of these teachers who believed in me,” Butler-Hooton said.
She values transparency and kindness in her teaching and believes that you have to give respect to students, parents and other educators in order to get it back.
“No matter if it’s a parent, a principal, or a child who would physically walk through my doors or walk into my Zoom classroom, they know what to expect,” Butler-Hooton said. “I am consistent, I’m kind, I’m positive, and so I demand respect. I demand that kids are following along and giving their best effort.”
She says she has a “growth mindset," and believes that allowing students to make mistakes is an important part of being a second-grader.
Teaching in a pandemic
Classroom support looks very different this year as Butler-Hooton and teachers across the country have moved their classrooms online in the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite the extended hours and effort that goes into creating engaging remote lessons for her second-graders, Butler-Hooton has found creative ways to build community through screens. She sets up one-on-one family meetings via Zoom or Facetime and invites students to send her videos of what they do outside of school, like ballet or Taekwondo.
Irving Elementary even had a virtual spirit week.
“Yesterday was Pajama Day, so we came in our PJs on Zoom,” she explained. “Today is Team Day, so we’re wearing our team gear. Tomorrow is Wacky Wednesday. We’re really trying to kind of create this culture with our students.”
On the influence of grandparents
In addition to her school teachers, Butler-Hooton says she has been thinking about her late-grandparents since she received the Teacher of the Year award. Her grandmother grew up on the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona and left at 16 to learn English and work as a nanny. Her grandfather grew up on the Siletz reservation and went to a boarding school.
Butler-Hooton says her grandparents worked hard to preserve their cultural identity, and always preached the value of school and education.
“I think that they would be celebrating with me,” Butler-Hooton said. “I can hear my grandma’s laugh. I think that they would be proud of me.”
To hear more from Think Out Loud’s conversation with Nicole Butler-Hooton, click the “play” button at the top of the page.
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