PEKIN — As the bell rings at Wilson Intermediate School in Pekin, fifth-grade teacher Annie Smith checks to make sure everyone sees the directions for morning work on the board. This May was the end of her ninth year of teaching in Pekin Public Schools District 108.

While she has a daily schedule with her students, her day can change without warning. Sometimes another teacher asks her to switch something around or allow his or her class to come in to present a project. Their morning work helps get them engaged and focused for the day when the 7:55 a.m. bell allows them to come up to their classroom. The next bell rings at 8:10 to signal the start of the school day.

Smith’s class then has specials which consists of music, art or physical education. They have a rotating schedule having music twice a week for 30 minutes each time, art once a week for an hour and physical education twice a week for 30 minutes each session. 

This is the time Smith has for planning. It is nearly impossible to get all planning period tasks done in that time. She said she uses the bathroom, gets a drink, makes a quick phone call or two to parents and makes sure she has everything copied for the day and supplies are ready.

Her class then has a morning meeting for 20 to 30 minutes. Smith said it gives everyone a chance to start out on the right foot. There’s an activity with movement in each morning meeting. It also includes an academic question. She said that in May they were learning about the Civil War and the Underground Railroad. One of the questions asked students to put themselves in the shoes of someone who housed people on the Underground Railroad. They discuss whether or not they would have been brave enough to help, knowing they would be in trouble if they were caught.

The last part of their morning meeting is usually a social discussion. Smith said one lesson was about peer pressure. She drew two lines on the board and then asked two students to run an errand. While they were gone she told the class she was going to ask which line is shorter and instructed them to all say the longer line was shorter because she wanted to see what the two students who were gone would say after they heard everyone else’s answers.

She said, sure enough, the whole class said the longer line was shorter and then when she asked the students who ran an errand which line was shorter they both said the longer line because everyone else said the same thing. 

This exercise lead into daily discussions for two weeks about peer pressure and how to confront it.

“I can gauge how they’re doing that day during morning meetings,” said Smith. “I know who’s having a bad day, who is focused.”

After that her fifth graders have science or social studies, as they alter. Following that they have reading then math before they head to lunch and recess. Once they return from that, her class has writing before their busy day is over and they pack up to be dismissed at 2:40 p.m.

This is Smith’s third year at Wilson Intermediate School. Prior to that she was at Washington Intermediate School, also in Pekin. Alissa Schwermin is a parent of a former student of Smith’s when Smith was at Washington. Schwermin is also a teacher at Broadmoor Junior High School in the same district. She said her son, Gavin, had a great school year when he was in fifth grade.

“Annie did a wonderful job implementing hands-on activities to create a fun and challenging learning environment,” Schwermin said. “She also did a great job bringing the arts in the classroom when it was applicable and I know that the students always enjoyed being about to participate in those activities. As a parent, I appreciated how well she communicated with us on a weekly basis and her willingness to talk about any concerns we had during the school year. Her hard work and dedication to her craft and to her students was obvious and we felt very fortunate that our son had her for a teacher. Since that school year, I have continued to be inspired by her as she keeps pushing herself to learn more and to challenge herself to find new ways to inspire and teach. What else could you ask of someone in any profession? We will be forever grateful for the impact she had on our son.”

One of the ways Smith learns more about teaching is by attending professional development conferences. In the fall of 2017, she spent a three-day weekend at a conference called “Get Your Teach On.” Smith said it when she left, she felt energized and excited to get back to her classroom and try what she learned.

“It was about pulling in fun and engagement without losing the academics,” said Smith. “They taught us like we were the students. We walked away with so much to use right away. It felt like a big celebration of learning. It was so inspiring. I felt empowered. Teaching has to be a culture of lifting each other up.”

Smith meets with her co-teacher of the same grade level multiple times a week. She said she feels they do a good job of lifting each other up. They have a mobile wall between their classrooms that they open up for various subjects and team teach a lesson or a whole unit on a subject.

She has other regularly scheduled meetings within the district. Once a month after school she has a staff meeting at Wilson. The School Instructional Leadership Team (SILT) meets once a month. This is a committee that Smith volunteered to be part of and she is a facilitator so she meets with Josh Norman, the Wilson Intermediate School principal, separately before they meet with the staff. 

Smith said teachers also meet once each nine-weeks for Curriculum, Planning and Reflection (CP & R). Grade level teachers across the district get together for these meetings. Anytime a student is in need of an Individualized Education Program (IEP), the team, including the classroom teacher, typically meets after school hours. Grade level meetings within the school also take place after school, as needed. 

The district also has School-Wide Improvement Planning (SWIP) days. These are done when students have a half-day on Fridays. Smith said professional development is part of their afternoon. The topics for professional development vary from month to month. Sometimes it is about literacy. Other times it is about math or a topic teachers feel they need support with.

Summer is another time district teachers have the chance for professional development. Smith said there is always something offered that runs four to five days over the summer and it is optional. They meet an additional three days for teachers to design curriculum over the summer.  

Planning for teachers is a big component of their time. Smith said it is complicated.

“I reflect on the previous week — how did it go; did I get it all done; what would I change; what would I do again,” she said. “I plan for this week and I project for the following week or longer. At the same time I have to be flexible because things come up. I never use a pen in my lesson plan book.”

One of the challenges to teaching is meeting all needs of all students. Smith said the needs of students are growing which means teachers wear more hats than only that of an educator.

“We take care of their overall well-being,” she said. “We are counselors, triage nurses, an advocate for their needs. We sit and listen so they know someone is in their corner. We teach them manners. It’s really all-encompassing.”

Smith goes above and beyond to let her students know that she cares. She has always gone to student events outside of school. She has been to dance recitals, baseball games, football games, band and choir performances.

“It allows me to see the kids through a different lens and cheer them on,” Smith said. “I get to see their talents outside the school day. It sends the message that I care about more than just their grades and it gives me a chance to connect with parents.”

Smith is open to new ideas. This year she wanted to try flexible seating for her fifth graders. The cost was a factor. Smith took a chance and decided to try for a grant through Donors Choose, an online organization the public can sign-in to and make a donation. Donors were Smith’s family members, friends, parents of students and strangers.  

“My project was funded in one day,” she said. “I could get a futon, tall tables with stools, yoga balls and wobble stools. I kept four traditional seats with desks for kids who do better that way. They can even sit on the floor with lap desks. I talk to them a lot at the beginning of the year about how to pick a good spot. Students with sensory needs tend to pick the non-traditional seating that allows movement.”

Smith was not used to all the movement at first. She said her students really tried out all seating options and do not sit in the same place from one day to the next.

“I had to re-train my brain to handle the movement,” said Smith. “They can even use the flexible seating during testing. I don’t have assigned seats and kids have the chance to sit with other students. It’s helped build camaraderie. It is very team oriented because I have tables and not desks. I’ve got alternative lighting like a home away from home for them. I kept my color palette pretty neutral. I follow a lot of teachers on social media and did a lot of research when I did my grant. I saw the success of teachers I respect and wanted to try it. It was silly not to try. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it’d get funded like that.”

Smith has her own family and interests outside of school. Her school and family balance is a challenge, at times. In addition to making sure she meets the needs of her students, she also needs to meet the needs of her two daughters.

Smith has family obligations such as taking her daughter to dance class, events at church, leading an adult ministry class with her husband, Ryan, and she is in the church choir. 

“Being on top of everything all at once can be overwhelming,” she said. “I spend more time with my class than their parents or even with my own children. I want to make sure I’m a good steward of their time.”

Smith’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. Brian and Melissa Berndt have a daughter, Kaelyn, who was in Smith’s class this school year.

“Kaelyn has had a great fifth-grade year with Mrs. Smith,” Melissa Berndt said. “She was always excited to go to school. Mrs. Smith has had great communication with parents through notes, email and the Remind app. She shared information and pictures of in-class activities with us frequently. Kaelyn enjoyed the flexible seating. She liked being able to choose her seating and that her type of seating changed from day to day. One of Kaelyn’s favorite activities that they did this year was the Wax Museum project. They had to research a person and create an exhibit and speech to share with the class and visitors. Mrs. Smith did many hands-on projects throughout the school year including STEM instant challenges, a Revolutionary War re-enactment, how-to demonstrations and the Olympic Games. These projects encouraged higher level thinking and team work. Kaelyn has learned a lot this school year and has had fun in the process.”