Faculty Profile: Erika Thomas, 1st Grade Head Teacher
October 25, 2019
Please tell us about your path to Léman.
We always tell the kids that they are a sum of all of their parts, and I feel like that’s true for me as well. I grew up in the Midwest and I started teaching at the campus right outside of where I went to school in Indiana. I started as an art teacher but also earned my degree in primary education. Two years after teaching art, I moved into the first-grade classroom where I stayed for three years. What I discovered is that while I’m still an artist and love children’s art, is that it’s second to my love for the elementary classroom. I also love incorporating art into my curriculum.
Then I relocated to Cincinnati and it was my art position that got me in the door. I taught Kindergarten and 7th graders and I would flip flop between the two. They were similar in a lot of ways. At that time, I had met one of the schools that I visited when I was traveling, and he remembered that I had taught primary and hired me for a first-grade position. I taught first grade in Cincinnati for quite some time and it really solidified my love for first grade. Then I moved to Florida and taught first and second grade there for four years, and then moved to Columbus and taught second grade, then third grade and back to first. First was really my passion because students enter at so many different levels. In no other year do you see such a difference between the beginning of the year and the end of the year. I’ve been teaching for a long time and in the spring, I am still overwhelmed and get goosebumps seeing how much the students have changed. I find this grade to be amazing.
I thought I was done moving and I met my husband on the very last day before he moved to New York. I eventually moved to New York to be with him and his two boys and I’ve been here ever since. I’ve found that the Léman administration and the staff and the students and the families are very similar to my prior schools. It’s such a community feel. They help me feel like a real New Yorker!
You are celebrating 25 years of teaching this year! Congratulations! How do you think you’ve grown as an educator over that time?
I think there’s an interesting cycle in teaching in that at first you don’t know what you don’t know. It’s a beautiful thing because you would be intimidated if you realized how much you didn’t know. I’ve been very lucky in each of the places that I’ve gone to come across professional development that helps me to grow and change, just like we ask the kids to do each year. Each place that I was in provided different opportunities. In my first school, they were working a lot on Teachers College Reading and Writing Workshop and the units of study and we had different people who would come do professional development that helped me to grow and change as an instructor of reading. And when I was down in Florida, their focus was in writing so that helped me to stretch and grow. And it just so happens that where I was before here in Columbus, Ohio, they were focusing on reading and writing but then they shifted their focus to emphasize math. So, it was kind of like the world knew what it was doing even though I’ve gone place to place I’ve been able to stretch and grow in each area. And then somewhere in the middle, I started to realize how much I didn’t know, which is unsettling but also exciting. In 25 years of teaching, I’ve always made sure to never be complacent. I was told by a mentor once that if you think you’re doing it right, then you’ve got it exactly wrong.
What is your educational philosophy?
My philosophy is that a teacher is a facilitator. As we get to know a student, we build a relationship with them as a person and as a learner and we meet them where they are. However, we have the background knowledge of where that lands them on the continuum, so we know what their next steps are and how to nudge them along so that they’re growing and changing. My philosophy is that if you get to know that student and you know where they are on the various continuums, that no matter where they start, they are going develop their skills over time and you can celebrate all the amazing work that they can do.
What does personalized learning mean to you and how do you implement it in your classroom?
I think it looks a lot of different ways. Knowing where students are on a developmental continuum and all the skill continuums is part of differentiating between each child. However, you can’t forget that they’re not just learners but that they are people who have preferences just like we have. Prior to Léman, I was in another International Baccalaureate school and that also added to my experience in working with inquiry-based learning. I think that also helps us differentiate between each student. We always have those standards in place of where we want students to be throughout the year, but we work hard throughout the year so that the students have as much choice and input along the way as they can.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I don’t live in New York City, but an hour away and that helps a lot with my work/life balance. My family and I are hikers and travelers and photographers. I have two boys in 6th and 7th grade and they are both on baseball teams, so we watch a lot of baseball! I was always a tomboy and so I love being a part of sports. I’m also an artist and so I try to work on that as much as I can in my free time.