It’s Teacher Appreciation Week! Today’s highlight features Brenda Kaufmann, second grade teacher at North Tama County Community Elementary School. Kaufmann is a veteran teacher with 32 years of experience and was recently celebrated as a finalist for both the 2024 Iowa Teacher of the Year award and 2024 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

Kaufmann fully believes in inspiring her students by having fun while learning. She has noted that having fun can help children immerse in learning and develop a deeper understanding.

For Teacher Appreciation Week, Kaufmann shared her ideas on teaching in today’s world and what things she loves about working with young students.

Who was your favorite teacher and why?
My favorite teacher was my own second grade teacher, Mrs. Ulvestad, from Northwood Elementary School in Ames. She always made me feel welcome and important. Her consistent morning calendar routines were comforting and helped us know what was happening that day. I incorporate morning routines with my students as well and learned years ago that consistency in routines is a practice that supports all students. I remember the hands-on experiences that we engaged in during math in second grade and how that helped me learn. Mrs. Ulvestad was always calm and positive, and I looked forward to seeing her every day.

Why are you passionate about teaching? What things do you love about working with students?
Of course, I always love the “aha moments” when students gain deep understanding. This is our goal, after all! But I also absolutely love moments when I see my students gain confidence and come to realize their own strength and courage. If I see a student struggling with a math or an engineering problem, I will approach that student and gently ask them questions to assist them in figuring out the solution for themselves. When they are able to do this and build not only the academic skills needed but the resilience, confidence, communication, language and self-regulation that come with it along the way – it is amazing.

Making sure my students recognize these same things is just as important – celebrating not only successes but overcoming these struggles. Recognizing that they CAN do hard things. Teaching them to believe in the Power of Yet along the way. Maybe they are not able to solve the problem YET, but they are working toward it! I want to teach them to never give up. They may make slight adjustments in how they’re doing something, but they don’t give up. I am passionate about my students because I believe in them. I want them to believe in themselves. Always.

What do I enjoy about working with students? I love the way they make me smile with the funny things they say. Second graders are really funny and tell great jokes! They make great observations. They are really enthusiastic about a lot of things. The growth in academic and social skills second graders show from the beginning of the year to end is spectacular. I love to see that growth and the confidence that comes with it. I love watching students learn how to solve problems for themselves and become more independent. I love it when a student finds a book they really enjoy and can’t put it down. I love it when a child finds a topic that they are curious about.  Seeing students grow in resilience and perseverance in reading, math, STEM and everything they do. It is wonderful and will serve them well in the future.  

What do you think are the keys to a student’s success and how do you help foster that?
Keys to student success mean that I, as their teacher, not only understand the content being taught, but also the most effective instructional practices as well. Fostering this includes use of assessments for monitoring and improving student learning, reflective practice and continuing to learn myself. For example, I have attended Iowa Governor STEM Scale-Up Programs and will be attending the Joint Literacy Conference of the Iowa Reading Association and Iowa Association of School Librarians this summer. Teachers can learn a great deal from each other and collaborating with my colleagues at North Tama always helps me think of new ideas.    

Over the years, how have you grown as an educator? What opportunities do you see in the next few years in education?
I have been teaching for many years and have grown in many ways. One of the impacts that helped me grow as an educator was being trained in the Slingerland Approach of literacy instruction. This is a method of multisensory, structured literacy instruction used for interventions that is particularly helpful for struggling readers. I believe this training has enabled me to help many children in reading instruction over the years. Earning my master’s degree in early childhood education from the University of Northern Iowa helped me grow enormously. Writing my final paper on the impact of the physical classroom on learning of young children helped me transform my classroom into what it is today.

Dr. Mark McDermott from the University of Iowa and Dr. Mason Kuhn from the University of Northern Iowa trained several North Tama teachers, including me, on the ASSIST approach to teaching science. This helped me grow as a science educator. Working with Dr. Beth VanMeeteren from the University of Northern Iowa for the past 10 years has had a huge impact on me as an early childhood educator. She helped me learn how to integrate STEM and literacy and has sparked a passion for this in me that still burns bright today. In the future, I see partnerships between communities and schools continuing and expanding. For example, opportunities for partnerships between classes/students and universities, museums, businesses, among others.  

What advice would you give to a new teacher starting out in the field?
Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. Be flexible and really listen to your students. Find a mentor in an experienced teacher, they will be an invaluable support for you. Be generous not only with your time and energy but with your grace and ideas. Have fun with your students. Keep learning. Remember that your students value and need you. You are important!

You are an outstanding veteran elementary teacher who is also recognized as a lifelong learner and excellent motivator for students. What are some details of your success in your classroom and how do you inspire students to dig deeper into a subject while having fun?
A success I’d like to share is a unit about habitats. I had a unit all planned and ready to go one morning, when one of my students walked in with her mother. The two were carrying logs of all sizes and bags of wood chips. The logs had been chewed by beavers on their farm! Well, needless to say, this was very exciting! I made the decision there and then to go with it. I changed my plans for the day and converted one of our centers into the study of beaver logs. We put out the logs with magnifying glasses, observational drawing recording sheets and writing utensils. Students were so excited!

They wrote down what they noticed and any questions they had. Eventually, I was able to bring in several other beaver artifacts to investigate (fur, skull, tail, etc.) and an expert (a Tama County Conservation Officer). We learned that beavers use the logs to alter ponds/streams, and this was our entry into the habitat unit. We made a bulletin board display with documentation of our learning, including photos and artifacts. Of course, we ended the unit with letters to the conservation officer.  

It was learning that just kept going at the insistence of the class and fit in beautifully with our standards in science, writing, listening and literacy. And boy, did the students have fun! I still have some of the small logs and wood chips for students to investigate. The learning was not only fun and the understanding deep, but it was meaningful and relevant. I learned right along with them about some things. For instance, I had never seen a beaver tail up close like that, either. It is good for students to see their teacher excited to learn as well.