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Being Yourself Helps You Do Your Best

Thursday, December 4, 2014
Mrs. Kristy McCay stands in front of a bulletin board map of the world.

We’re celebrating Inclusive Schools Week this week! We visited a class to see what it looks like when diversity, inclusion, and acceptance fill every part of a classroom.

Step into Mrs. Kristy McCay’s 8th grade resource class for literacy at Eliot-Hine Middle School and it seems like just any other classroom. Linger a little longer, though, and you’ll detect something deeper—a pervading sense of family, community, and understanding that is the foundation on which everything stands.

School can sometimes just be perceived as a place for lessons, tests, assignments, activities, and sports. It is about those things. But at the most basic level, school is about people.

Mrs. McCay brings this belief in full force into her classroom. A third-year teacher at Eliot-Hine Middle School, she set out from the beginning to let her students know that she and they were not so different. Even though she may not be the same age, same race, or same gender as all of her students, she is quick to remind them that they are in this learning journey together.

Every week, Mrs. McCay and her class have “family time,” when they go through the highlights and lowlights and events of their lives. “For example, I’ll tell them that my husband and I have a budget, and they’ll go, wow, really? Our family does too!’ Sharing about our lives breaks down the differences.”

In the classroom, “we can be real with one another,” she said. “I call them my kids, and I want them to know that we can trust each other, and that we are a family.”

It’s not all warm and fuzzy, either. “When they don’t like something, I’ll hear them out,” she said. “I let them know that it’s me and you working together, and if there’s a challenge, we’ll take it on together.” She tells her students that she expects them to hold her to a high standard just as she holds them to her standards. “I tell them that I’m going to give you my all but expect you to be held accountable,” she said

She smiles when she thinks of some of the progress that her students had made. One of her students, Markell, had used a vocabulary word, “biased” in a conversation with his friend. 

Another student jumped three to four grade levels in reading in one year alone. That same student, Donald, had been reluctant to write before. Recently, though, he crafted an entire essay, which she hung up behind her desk.

“I like this class because Ms. McCay makes it easy, even if I have trouble with reading. She never yells at me. She takes her time. I don’t worry when I’m in here,” said Donald.

Markell agreed.  “She breaks things down for me, and puts lessons in words I understand.”

Mrs. McCay always had a soft spot for middle schoolers.  “Middle school was the hardest thing for me, and I knew I wanted to care for students who are going through it,” she said.

Her baseline of building trust has given students the permission to be honest about what they are picking up and what is difficult, and in turn, that honesty has helped Mrs. McCay’s class achieve. On any given day, students are on iPads working with a reading program, discussing their data with Ms. McCay (and tracking it on a huge chart on the wall titled “Reading is a Journey!” with airplanes denoting their progress), creating raps about what they’ve read, or digging into a book like Raisin in the Sun.  Ms. McCay takes inclusion to another level—she makes it a point to follow the same curriculum as other 8th graders, but modifies the pace and work. That way, students will match what other classes are doing.

It’s all part of her effort to help students develop and grow as students and as people. She said, "In here, there is no division between school and life. You can be yourself.”