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Faculty Profile: Nicole Whittier, 2nd Grade Head Teacher

December 06, 2019


Tell us about your path to Léman.

I started in humanitarian development, I got my undergraduate degree in international relations from Simmons College in Boston. I worked in Berlin for a year and a half and then in Pakistan for four years. I came back to the United States to go to Columbia University Teachers College for a master’s in international educational development. And then following that I moved to Bangladesh to consult for Save the Children.

I decided to come back to the US to study for a second master's degree in literacy and general education at Bank Street Graduate School. It was an amazing experience and very challenging and different from the program at Teachers College. The program encouraged reflecting and connecting to yourself and thinking about how children develop and how they learn and how to create an emotionally safe and engaging classroom for everybody. I found it to be intellectually stimulating. At the same time, I was a 4th grade Associate Teacher at Packer Collegiate Institute. I then moved to New Jersey, where I taught third and fourth grade at the Red Oaks School in Morristown. I moved to Dubai for a year to work at the Clarion School, which was a new affiliate of Bank Street and I taught third grade. I decided to come back to New York and went back to Packer where I taught before I had an interim position there in fourth grade and then I started looking around for a permanent position. And I heard about Léman and I felt like it was a nice way to merge my past career in international development with my love of teaching. I love that it's an international school. And I also felt like Léman appreciated that part of me and what I can bring to the classroom. I immediately felt comfortable at Léman because of the value of global citizenship and because of the diverse, international community.  

What do you bring to the classroom from your experience overseas?

Our second-grade social studies unit is on culture and I am working to broaden the definition of culture for my students and think about it beyond just food or clothing, but as a way of life and looking at the deeper values. Something that Maria said during orientation about the importance of being able to accept differences and respect them struck me. We talked about the iceberg model. You can see lots of elements of culture, but there are also elements of culture that are under the surface. I'm able to use examples from my travels in my classroom. Having that experience of living in other cultures and having to adapt myself enables me to lead them towards exploring those themes and different ways that people might be different, because it's easy to say, “I respect that you eat different food than I do,” but it's harder to garner respect when you have a difference in values.

What is your educational philosophy?

I think that second graders have a natural enthusiasm and a love for learning so, as a teacher, I want to harness that energy and direct it rather than squashing that natural curiosity. I think about how can I nurture that curiosity and nurture that love of learning in a way that protects children's self-esteem and helps them build the skills that they need? I love that at Léman you can have fun and rigor coexisting together. We do a lot in this classroom where children are discovering things. For example, in our nonfiction unit, we have them looking at all the different ways that authors use little boxes in non-fiction texts. And then they were able to, by observing those, say, “I know they're using those little boxes for stages” or, “I notice they're using that for different types.” And then we created an anchor chart based on their observations. I could have told them, but it wasn't so for them to discover that. I’m always looking for opportunities for them to explore, discover, make connections and feel independent is the goal and for them to feel confident and independent in their skills.

What do you like about teaching second grade?

I love their unbridled enthusiasm. They still believe in magic and that anything is possible. Also, because of the Léman culture, there a huge emphasis on how students can support each other. And they do that consistently. When one of them gets an answer right the other students are excited for them. If somebody doesn't get an answer right, they wiggle their fingers and they send them energy, they say, "Look, you just grew your brain." It is such a nice way of like kind of perceiving a mistake as an opportunity.

What do you like about teaching in an IB School and at Léman in particular?

I like the IB’s focus on assessment and vocabulary and that it explicitly focuses on teaching big concepts. Kids are often like way more capable than we give them credit for. For example, I've talked to kids about static and dynamic characters and completely can understand that comes up with something I learned about in high school, but some concepts can be introduced earlier on, and I like that IB has high expectations for children.

I see the students at Léman as very happy. It is a very child-centric place. The faculty and staff are so positive, and I think that's important is when we're positive with each other, the students can feel that energy and everybody is open to learning. I appreciate that Dr. Maraia is always pushing teachers to grow in the same way that we're pushing our students to grow. I think that we're seeing ourselves as learners as well.  I'm somebody who partly is attracted to teaching because you're never going to be perfect at it. You're always going to be striving and adapting, learning new techniques, adapting your instruction based on research, and then the kids you have because no class has the same children.

What does personalized learning mean to you and how do you implement it in your classroom?

I see personalized learning as the attitude of “we're all at different places and that's okay.” Every student in my class can express that. And I want to thank the first grade teachers for that because it's not a culture that you can grow in one year or one teacher. It must be a school-wide approach. I can see that they have been nurtured in that way of accepting that.

I think about learning as a series of different steps. My goal is to make sure every child is consistently moving up a step. It's not that every child is going to meet the same standard. Right. For example, in math right now, we're working telling time. I have some students are working on elapsed time because they can already tell time to a minute. I have other students who are working on telling time to the minute because they are only comfortable with half an hour and a quarter-hour. Other students who are still working on realizing that every number in the clock represents an interval of five who were skip counting through one is five minutes and two is ten minutes and so on. They are each getting stretched in their own way. We do a lot of small groups here having a small class and two teachers is fantastic. We can do a lot of things that you wouldn’t be able to do with just one teacher in the classroom.

What do you do like to do in your free time?

To relax I practice yoga, and I've gone to different yoga retreats abroad. I think the philosophy of yoga connects well with progressive education. It's about like self-love and taking care of yourself and nurturing and knowing that it's not about perfection but rather the practice and the knowledge that you are always getting better over time. I love cooking and reading. In the winter I do a lot of ice skating and in the summer, I love to go kayaking.

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