Sarasota Teacher: Silencing 'muttering monsters' helps students grow

·5 min read
Carrie Koontz, teacher at Taylor Ranch Elementary School
Carrie Koontz, teacher at Taylor Ranch Elementary School

Taylor Ranch Elementary School teacher Carrie Koontz wants everybody to remember that even academically high-performing elementary school students are little children.

“My second-grade kids are intelligent and resilient little guys and girls, but they still are real little kids.

“They’re coming to school and working hard every day, and we need to let them focus on doing their job as little kids and avoid letting them get caught up in negative things going on in social media and the news.”

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Koontz is quick to say that doesn’t mean sugar-coating or glossing over reality for young children.

“You have to be real, but when an adult models how to deal positively with changes or new and uncomfortable situations, a child can see that there’s a constructive problem-solving way to address it.”

Koontz earned her master’s degree in gifted education and is a firm believer that kids need to have both their academic and social-emotional needs met in the classroom.

“Social-emotional behavior and character education are where my heart is,” Koontz said.

“Teachers have a unique, wonderful opportunity to come alongside families and the community to help lay foundational skills in a child’s character so they can leave us as productive, confident citizens who care about one another and have the tools to build and nurture good relationships,” Koontz said.

In Koontz’s second-grade advanced work class at Taylor Ranch, she sees firsthand the intensity that gifted and high-performing students bring to their tasks.

A lot of her students have an inner pressure to perform that generates anxiety. To the casual observer, the child may appear confident while having a negative inner dialogue and asking themselves, “How good am I at this? What if I can’t do it?”

“If they don’t struggle now with self-doubt, I know that time will come, so I work hard to give them tools to deal with and overcome negative thoughts. I don’t want them to be caught by surprise and have their growth derailed when they’re further along in life,” Koontz said.

The topic is so important to Koontz that a couple of years ago she wrote and published “Scooter and the Muttering Monster,” a book that teaches kids to identify and overcome negative self-talk and a fixed mindset.

The book, which is available through online booksellers, is used throughout the district by elementary school guidance departments. Koontz and her colleagues have found it particularly effective before testing.

“It’s gratifying to hear students remind themselves and each other to ‘starve that muttering monster’ when pressure builds,” Koontz said.

Another effective tool is the use of Kagan Structures, exercises designed to promote cooperation and communication in the classroom.

One of Koontz’s students excelled academically but had a lot of anxiety and self-doubt. By working in a structured group where kids have to rely on each other and can succeed only when everyone does their part, the student learned how to agree and disagree with her classmates, ask for clarification, and explain her own ideas without being defensive.

“It was thrilling to see this bright, sweet student grow by leaps and bounds in her confidence, understanding how people perceive her, and ability to reach out and engage with other students,” Koontz said.

“Her parents said it changed the trajectory of her life.”

Citing Koontz’s students’ growth scores and academic successes, Taylor Ranch Principal Tara Spielman said, “Carrie Koontz is the teacher you wish you could replicate so every student would have the benefit of her passion, dedication, and instructional excellence.”

Koontz likens her use of data-driven instruction to working on a motorcycle racing team.

“My husband and I watch professional motorcycle racing, and I notice the constant tweaking of the bikes after each session when the racer gives feedback to the crew.

“Teaching is like that. I look for overall patterns in my data and for specific areas where individual students are lowest and highest to see where I need to fill in gaps. Constantly reviewing this feedback allows me to keep tweaking my teaching to have the most meaningful impact on my students’ learning.”

Incorporating motorcycle racing references in lessons has a bonus: “It gives me cool points with my students,” Koontz laughs.

Koontz extends her belief in the importance of social-emotional health to supporting her colleagues and mentoring new teachers.

“This profession is vital to the development of our communities, and we need teachers who can acknowledge the difficult parts and move forward with positive make-it-happen attitudes.

“We live in a wonderful community with good resources, but we realize everything isn’t perfect.

“But if adults in our community approach challenging situations the way my students are learning to do, and look at them in a problem-solving way, and really hear other viewpoints, it will be better for students and teachers and all of us.”

About the Education Foundation of Sarasota County

The Education Foundation of Sarasota County sponsors the Ignite Education: Teacher of the Year annual recognition in conjunction with Sarasota County Schools. The Education Foundation is an independent, philanthropic organization whose mission is to enhance the potential of all students, promote excellence in teaching, and inspire innovation in education, guided by strategic philanthropy and the belief that education changes lives.

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Sarasota Teacher: Silencing 'muttering monsters' helps students grow

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