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Hatfield grabs teaching moments

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After teaching in four states and in classrooms from first grade to high school levels, Brenda Hatfield feels she has found her educational niche with fifth-graders.

"They have thinking skills. You can discuss things with them," said Hatfield, Granite School District's choice for Teacher of the Year.

Those more mature skills came to the fore last week when a national disaster unfolded on America's East Coast. "We talked about it and they were able to look at it from a world perspective, not just as individuals. We took all the time we needed to talk about it. I told them, 'This is something you will tell to your children and grandchildren.' "

Catching the "teaching moment" is one of Hatfield's strengths, said Carole Cannon, her principal at Oakridge Elementary, tucked into the Wasatch foothills on the district's east side.

The Oakridge teacher demonstrated the same penchant when an artist-in-residence project was undertaken at the school. The project involved tiles, and Hatfield soon had her fifth-graders busy trying to figure how many tiles would be needed for the project and how much they would cost if the unit price were such and such.

Hatfield says she "knew since second grade" that teaching was for her. The death of her only son seven years ago only confirmed her resolve to make a difference in the lives of children. In 1995, she reached beyond the classroom to work two weeks in Vietnamese orphanages.

Teaching children self-acceptance is high on her list. In a discussion of the brain, her students were steered into a discussion of many kinds of "smart," so that each had an opportunity to see himself as being in at least one of those categories. The children made summary booklets and tried to think up possible titles, such as "The Great Grey Brain," that they will share with parents.

Hatfield is modest about the Teacher of the Year honor. "I just represent a lot of hard-working teachers who spend their time with children," she said. "This is an honor for our whole school and the community."

Hatfield doesn't think educators set their expectations high enough. Students will perform if they believe the adults in their lives expect it of them and set the example, she said.

In her nomination materials, Hatfield repeated that philosophy: "I can expect excellence only if I model excellence in my teaching."

E-MAIL: tvanleer@desnews.com