CONCORD — W.R. Odell Elementary third grade teacher Ashtyn Berry believes she is just one of many great teachers in her grade level at her school, so to be honored as one of six finalists in Cabarrus County Schools for Teacher of the Year definitely came as a surprise.
“I am surrounded by fantastic educators and we work as a team here,” she said. “We support each other and we lift each other up and so I felt that my nomination kind of was shared with my Odell team, my team of 16 third-grade teachers.”
Who her nomination didn’t come as a surprise to was her co-workers who all had glowing things to say about her.
“Ms. Ashtyn Berry is the quintessential teacher,” Principal Dr. Sandy Ward said. “From the first time I met her, I knew that she was the kind of teacher that I wanted on my staff. And four years later, she’s still shining and continues to make me proud.”
“Ms. Berry is an exemplary role model and lifelong learner,” Assistant Principal Danielle Baker said. “Her students gravitate towards this and they want to rise to the example that she sets. She is always looking at the bigger picture and able to find the bright spot in any situation, even the most difficult ones. Ms. Berry goes above and beyond to share best practices and ways to incorporate our diverse student body into everyday teaching.”
Bridging the gap
Jennifer Birkemeier spoke about how much she loved to teach children to read earlier this week in her story with the Independent Tribune. As a kindergarten teacher she often gets to see that light click when a student reads that first word.
Berry loves seeing this as well though she sees it at a bit of a different time in a student’s development. As a third-grade teacher she gets to see a student not just be able to read a word on a page but start to be able to learn new concepts by reading those words.
“In third grade we are the transition from learning to read to reading to learn,” she said. “They’re starting to read for information, to gather information and to comprehend it and use it in certain ways in third grade, whereas in the primary grades they’re really still learning to decode the words and to become more fluent. So I like to help our students through that transition and start using their reading for more critical thinking and problem solving that is really relevant in their lives as well. That’s a really rewarding experience for me. And to see them become so active and engaged readers, that’s my jam. I love it. I don’t think I’ll ever get enough of it.”
What she also gets to see is students start to find the basis for new passions whether that be what they want to do when they grow up or maybe how they might possibly even change the world. Not every child will do that but just to see some of them broach the subject is something very unique to the level Berry teaches.
“To see them become more curious about their world and through our lessons to start actively investigating on their own time into things that matter to them is such a wonderful thing to watch,” she said. “For example, we are finishing up our nonfiction biographies unit right now and so we like to incorporate a lot of choice into that unit, so they are, of course, allowed to choose any game changer or world changer that they’re interested in and a lot of them have taken it to the next level.
“They go home, they want to read more, learn more and they’re making connections across their biographies in their groups together and they’re noticing patterns that different — we call them ‘game changers’ or ‘world changers’ — share and have in common. Like, Jackie Robinson had all of these different obstacles and influences in his life and so did John Lewis, and so did Rosa Parks and so did Malala (Yousafzai). And they’re observing these patterns, making connections with each other and having these really rich conversations about what it takes and what kind of goes into being one of those game changers or world changers and that it doesn’t just happen overnight. So it’s pretty awesome.”
A world of change
When talking about her students and her career she often says she believes her students could be agents of change.
One of her own “game changers” is Malala Yousafzai. Her students poke a little fun at her for that because Ms. Berry is actually older than her, but this also gives Ms. Berry the chance to make a point.
“It’s important for them to understand that youth can change the world as well,” she said.
W.R. Odell Elementary incorporates service-learning projects at every grade level every year. Students get chances to learn about what is going on around the world and in their own communities as well and talk about what they can do. What can they change? How can they help? Because, like Berry said, youth can change the world.
“As they progress from third to fourth to fifth, we’re intentionally trying to get them to recognize real-world problems within our units of study and then try to solve those problems,” she said. “So seeing them problem solve together is such an awesome feeling.
“For example, in my class this year our service-learning project that we kind of embed into our social studies and science and reading units is dealing with water inequality. We have a Sudanese family in our class this year and they shared their family story about living in the Sudan and what those families go through just getting water every day and what goes into that. So my students really gravitated toward that real-world problem this year and we were able to work together to kind of embed lots of our different units of study to analyze that problem and try to work together to see if we could make any sort of difference. And that’s something that continues as they progress through the grade levels. We try to give them those service-learning projects and opportunities as they progress so they can become agents of positive change.”
Her work with her students stands out and is hard for her colleagues to miss.
“From the first time I saw Ashtyn teach I was in awe,” fellow teacher Ashley Haynes said. “The depth of which she teaches her students is evident in how she questions them, challenges them, and pulls out their thinking. It looks effortless but you know it’s not. You know she spends countless hours planning each and every moment and creating detailed learning experiences for her students. Beyond that she truly knows her students embracing them for all of their quirks and only seeing their positive attributes and loving them for it. She believes that every student can succeed.”
Her own goals for change
Berry wouldn’t be asking children to be agents of positive change if she wasn’t actively working to do the same herself. Every single teacher tries to have a positive influence on their children from the second they step into a classroom and Berry is no exception.
She would hope that she would get the chance to advocate for change across the state if she were to win Teacher of the Year.
“I would just be so thankful to have a platform to use for advocating for these amazing students and also the amazing educators in this state,” she said.
She continued: “Our students in this day and age, they have so many needs that come before their academic needs. Their basic human needs, their physiological needs, just an SEL need (social emotional needs), I think that’s an important issue to address those needs first and understand that the achievement gap is really more like an opportunity gap and an equity gap. I think that policy makers and people who have the agency to affect change in our state need to make sure that they keep that opportunity and equity gap in mind when creating policies that impact our students, because they have so many needs that really do need to come first. And then they can start growing and learning toward their academic goals.”
She said she would want to get into the ears of policy makers about the importance of early childhood education and bridging the equity gap when it comes to providing it in a quality way.
“Access to early education is one of the biggest issues that I think needs to start changing in our state because it makes all the difference in those early years,” she said. “And if we can make sure all of our students have access to high-quality Pre-K they can start out their kindergarten years already on the right track.”
Berry is currently a graduate student at Appalachian State University and is hoping to apply much of what she has learned recently to advocating on these issues.
“Just contacting policy makers and making sure that they know that there are educators who believe in these initiatives,” she said. “Making sure that sometimes our student voices aren’t heard that we are here to make sure that they know that our students have needs that need to be met.”
If she were to win
Whether or not Ms. Berry wins Teacher of the Year she is going to continue to advocate for her students, the community and her fellow educators. That will never change. But if she did win she would hope she would be able to use her platform to help create change.
“I would just be overwhelmed with gratitude (if I were to win) and also feel a giant responsibility to make sure that I advocate in a way that people would want me to and our students and their communities need,” she said.
For Dean of Students and Berry’s former teammate Dianna Link, she exemplifies everything their school wants in a teacher.
“Ms. Berry gives students purpose, sets them up for success as citizens of our world, and inspires in them a drive to do well and succeed in life,” she said. “More importantly, she models kindness and compassion for her students, which impacts students by scaffolding for them ways to emulate kindness in their own lives.”