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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd/ Julie Reyes, a fourth grade teacher at McConnell Elementary is the Time Free Press' very first Teacher of the Month. Ms. Reyes was photographed on October 4, 2019.
 

Multiplying four-digit numbers can be tough.

For Libbie, a fourth grader at McConnell Elementary in Hixson, math class can at times be hard.

She gets frustrated when she gets a problem wrong and even more frustrated when one of her classmates calls her out on it while they are playing a "Jeopardy!"-themed math game in class.

Sometimes when Libbie gets frustrated, she quietly goes up to Julie Reyes, her teacher, and tells her she's angry.

Instead of sending her out of the classroom or just to timeout, Reyes tells Libbie to "get her stuff," then the spunky blonde girl gathers knitting needles and pink yarn and quietly starts in on a work-in-progress scarf.

Reyes, who has taught for more than 16 years, first introduced some of her students to knitting during the 2018-19 school year.

She had an exceptionally large 25-student class that year and about five boys who had some behavioral and learning challenges, in addition to the usual energy of 9-, 10- and 11-year-olds.

So when they got fidgety or needed to take a break, the boys would knit.

They came before school and after school, during lunch and recess to learn and work on their knitting projects. By the end of the school year, at least one of the boys had knitted his mother a scarf for Mother's Day.

TEACHER PROFILE

Name: Julie Reyes

School: McConnell Elementary

Grade Level/Position: Fourth grade teacher

Teaching Philosophy: “I like to tell them at the very beginning of the year that we all have our strengths and weaknesses, but we can work together and make a difference.”

Reyes has three children of her own. She's taught every grade between kindergarten and fourth grade and once ran an at-home daycare for several years.

Her teaching philosophy, she said, is to treat — and teach — her students the way she wants her children to be taught.

"We call this our school family," Reyes said of her classroom. "And so we say, 'How do you treat your family?'"

She likes to encourage them to work together and recognize that everyone might have a struggle.

"I like to tell them at the very beginning of the year that we all have our strengths and weaknesses," she said. "But we can work together and make a difference."

Reyes also gives her students a lot of autonomy. She recognizes that fourth graders are starting to learn how to do things independently — and also won't do well sitting silently in desks all day.

During literacy rotations, her students choose from books for silent reading and spread out on the carpet in her classroom library. They finish work and assignments at their desks or log into their Chromebooks as they sit on the floor in front of a coffee table. When they meet with her, they discuss their reading assignments or, in the case of one of her four groups of students, she lets them lead a "book talk," or a discussion about a book that her higher-level readers are reading independently.

Many of her students say Reyes is their favorite teacher — even though some have only known her for about nine weeks.

"She's nice to us and she understands us and what we are trying to say or what level we are on when we're having trouble," said Hayden, another one of her fourth graders.

THE SERIES

The Teacher of the Month series recognizes a local educator who is making a difference in the classroom everyday. It was launched in September 2019. Nominations are accepted each month from parents, students, community members and even other teachers. The winner is selected by an external committee and is awarded a variety of prizes.

For more information and to nominate a teacher, visit here.

Some of his classmates echo him as they sit together during reading time, leaning up against large stuffed animals and an oversized pillow in the library area.

"She understands us, like she knows we don't need to have silent lunch and then she tells the lunch lady that," said Gage. "Once a week, she lets us eat in the classroom because she knows that's when we get to talk to our friends."

Hailey nods along. She knows she has the best teacher in the school.

"If Ms. Reyes wasn't so fun and if it was boring in Ms. Reyes' class, some kids probably wouldn't come to school," Hailey said.

Ruth Pohlman, the school's principal, said the "old cliche" is true: "Kids don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."

"I believe that, and I think Ms. Reyes really exemplifies that. She loves her students, they know that, she wants to see them succeed and she works hard with them to make sure that happens," Pohlman said.

Last school year, Reyes and the other fourth grade teachers applied for a grant to create an outdoor classroom and a bee garden behind the school.

After a week of benchmark testing, she and a colleague created a lesson that allowed students to go outside and collect leaves, sticks and other materials to use to create their own plaster fossils.

Harper joins her classmate, Libbie, and the girls knit with Reyes sometimes during recess or before school. Harper's mother, Brooke Arnold, nominated Reyes to be recognized as the Times Free Press' first Teacher of the Month.

"Mrs. Reyes is an excellent classroom teacher, but her love for her students and her profession goes beyond that," Arnold said. "[She] is incredible."

Contact Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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