Cato School graduate students Rachael Balmain Sprankle '09 and Caitlin Bower Russell '09 share each other's fourth grade classrooms as well as a penchant to perform in them. They've dressed up like nurses. They've impersonated rappers. They've transformed their corner of Collinswood Language Academy into a virtual junkyard. "That was to explore magnetism," says Russell. "We used caution tape and wore jumpsuits. We even brought in old car parts." Their goal is to teach children in a way that will make a lasting effect on their lives. "To make it engaging," Sprankle says. "We're not the kind to lecture. We have to be moving." Russell cuts in. "There's that infamous question," she says. "You know. 'What did you do at school today?'"
Well, we never want our kids to say, "'Oh...nothing.'" The super-charged role-playing and treating their classroom like a set-these aren't stunts. They're techniques, part of a complex teaching doctrine that borrows from the work of Ron Clark, an internationally-renowned teacher from eastern North Carolina who combines energetic teaching with strict discipline. When they talk about their craft, they trade thoughts and finish each other's sentences. "We have the same background, the same experience," Sprankle says. "We can look at each other, say, 'Let's do this!' and we know it's going to be great."
After earning their undergraduate education degrees from Queens, they taught at different Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools. Russell started at Collinswood, a Spanish language-immersion school, and won CMS's First Year Teacher of the Year award. Sprankle began teaching at Collinswood in the fall of 2010.
It wasn't long before they decided it was time to go back to school themselves. There was no question about where they would go.
"Queens had us feeling extremely prepared when we first started teaching. There was never that moment other new teachers have of 'Oh my goodness, I have 30 kids in my classroom. What am I going to do?' "
- Caitlin Bower Russell
Sprankle shakes her head. "In grad school," she says, "we find other students just learning things we learned as undergrads."
Sprankle and Russell graduated with master's degrees in education in May. And when they did, their fourth graders were cheering. "Our kids know their teachers are students, too, and that's important," says Russell. "It drives home our theme. Never stop learning."