Playing a role in fostering young citizens is elementary for Herrod

December 11, 2019

It is a phrase you often hear: at the very heart of what makes for a successful teacher is the relationship they are able to establish with their students.

Saskatoon elementary teacher Jennifer Herrod embodies that to the fullest and then some.

A Grade 3 teacher at Silverwood Heights School, Herrod is impassioned about the values of democracy and citizenship whether that involves visiting the legislature in Regina or Parliament Hill in Ottawa in the company of like-minded educators.

Those same values are just as much in evidence in her own classroom, which is strewn with examples of precisely that sort of pedagogy. She lives it to the max and through her example, the students emulate her. And while instilling those values in her students is integral to her approach, that is just an example of what she wants to share.

“I think we need to get to know our kids. That’s our first job as a teacher. Make them feel safe and confident in their abilities and to let them know it’s OK to make mistakes because that helps you learn.

“I so value what children have to offer, whether it’s their positivity, their curiosity or their laughter. It’s powerful what they have to say, and we need to nurture that by just letting them be kids,” Herrod said.

Grade Three teacher Jennifer Herrod is all about sharing her passion for democracy and citizenship with her young students. One of the many techniques she incorporates in getting to establish the sort of inclusive classroom she strives for is to include Calvin, the corn snake who is always happy to come out for a visit.

At this point in her young life, Herrod doesn’t have children of her own but don’t tell her that.

“These are my kids. We’re a classroom family and we care about each other. I call them my little birdies. You get so attached to them and that’s the way of being a teacher I guess. You’re always trying to keep that relationship building going because you could be that adult that makes a difference in their lives.”

If you haven’t already deduced it, Herrod is a firm believer in the fact that school is far more than just the academic aspect. She talks more about the holistic side of things and how by practising democracy on a daily basis, the young students are reassured that their voices are heard and respected.

“We have an opportunity as teachers to help grow both their brains and their hearts. My passion comes from seeing how the kids feel unconditionally loved and supported. That extends to how they treat their classmates as well,” Herrod added.

Befitting an elementary teacher, Herrod is firmly of the mindset that by getting to know your students, you will find there is ample evidence that they aren’t too young to understand some of the life lessons they experience as a class–even if sometimes it might be done subtly.

“You can see it every day how they have empathy and respect for each other. Knowledge is powerful. If you have the right chemistry and you love yourself, and as the teacher you praise their uniqueness and affirm that they are all valued, then you can see the results,” Herrod observed.

She applies a myriad of techniques to help foster the sort of rapport she strives for. It can be the weekly sharing circle, the Lego treaty, or the unique relationship students feel to Calvin (the corn snake who lives in the corner just inside the door), who Herrod said “is a huge part of our family.” Another technique is having students nominate their classmates for the People’s Champion medal, which is drawn from a bowl (yes, it can include Calvin).

“When you read the comments, it just re-enforces what we do in our class. Recognizing kindness, empathy, leadership, making others happy–it’s all part of helping them become confident and seeing themselves as leaders,” their teacher noted, while adding that she is always mindful of being as authentic as possible.

The whole focus on government, democracy and citizenship was brought more sharply into focus with the recent federal election. The students were involved in a major way as they participated with the older classes at the school in the mock election. Their teacher proudly recalls how well-behaved and respectful they were throughout.

Certainly of equal importance was the lead up to the election in which they were involved in tackling such heady topics as environmental issues and immigration.

“It all helps foster critical thinkers. We talked about how it’s OK if we have different opinions on certain issues and party platforms, but it’s important that you can back it up. It definitely takes you out of your comfort zone and it instils the power of choice you have. They were so excited to participate in the conversations and for the opportunity to vote. They felt very empowered.

“As the teacher, I kind of stepped back and watched. You give them the tools and they run with it. Some of the conversations were amazing, and these kids are really concerned about social issues and the connections they made. They are going to be the ones looking after us down the road, so they have got to be ready,” Herrod smiled.

An integral part of Herrod’s journey as an educator is her own thirst for learning and personal experience. That includes having participated in the Teachers Institute on Canadian Parliamentary Democracy, a five-day excursion to Ottawa in 2017 which immersed Herrod and 80 educators from across the country in how government functions.

This  included sitting next to Senator Pamela Wallin at one of the events, which overall Herrod summed up as super, and at the same time occasionally intimidating.

“I would recommend it to any teacher. It was a great learning experience, both professionally and personally. It opens your eyes and after it’s over you sit back and think about how it all works,” she reflected.

However, would she choose to expose her own students to the occasional histrionics at that level (provincially or federally)? The answer is unequivocally no. “They don’t need to see that yet,” she said diplomatically.

Another area that has taken on greater significance in her own learning–and by extension that of her class–is how to be better informed about First Nations and Indigenous ways of learning.

“We need to know why we have treaties and to respect the land. For me it’s important to know and then to be able to better share with the students,” she said, referring specifically to how they are following the Seven Grandfathers Teachings as a way to further build trust and relationships. “I need to feel safe on the subject matter because it was something I didn’t learn about while going to school.”

Herrod marveled at how the students are able to make connections she might not have thought of herself. Specifically, she cited how an Ojibwa teaching was linked to an animal and the students linked those teachings to leadership, which she said was very powerful and one that she had not readily seen for herself.

In a moment of self-reflection, Herrod allowed that even for a person with her infectious personality, there can be days when she might come to school below her best. She noted that “we all come with our backpack of issues, but you have to work around that sometimes because these kids are like sponges. They pick up on something like that right away.

“Yes, there are some long days and evenings in terms of planning and maybe you wind up spending some of your own money to have some of what you need in the classroom. But when you see what you get back from the students, you have the little conversation with yourself and you realize it’s all worth it. Our Lego builders are going to be architects, but we also have kids who are going to be hockey stars and ballerinas. More than anything they are going to be good, kind people, and it’s wonderful to be part of that and to witness it every day,” she added.