Arizona teachers have been in the news lately, bringing attention to the realities of the occupation. We figured it was a good time to honor them by going inside the classroom and to shed some light on the occupational folklife of public school. Kathy Lohse has worked for 37 years as a teacher in public schools throughout Tucson. For the past seven years, she’s worked as a project-based learning support teacher for pre-Kindergarten through 5th grade at Borton Elementary Magnet School. On the eve of her retirement, we talked with her about project-based learning, the importance of a sense of purpose, and her ideal classroom culture.
How did you end up as a classroom teacher?
I came from a family of educators. My dad was a professor at the University of Arizona medical school. My mom was an early childhood teacher and became an elementary school counselor. I always say there’s this strong genetic component. Teachers breed other teachers. I graduated from UA with an elementary education degree with a bilingual education endorsement. I started at Lawrence Elementary then went to Fort Lowell Elementary, where I had been a student. Then I had twins and took a year off. I’ve been here at Borton since 1987 as a Kindergarten and first grade teacher.
Now I’m the project-based learning support teacher. When the position first got funded, I wasn’t sure about it. It was one of those jobs where you had to fly the airplane while you were building it. I got a fortune from Panda Express that said take the job. I took the job on the condition that I would not lose child contact time, because that was very important to me. I spend 85 percent of my time with students. I do whole group lessons, small group lessons. I help teachers plan. I pull resources for teachers. We use Community Share a lot to connect students to the real world. We almost have our own Community Share here. We have diverse populations, and I often invite parents to be involved—not always in their own child’s project but in other classrooms.
What is project-based learning?
Project-based learning is helping students use their academic and social learning to solve a real-life challenge or problem in the world. Our world here is Borton, so a lot of our projects deal with school-based situations. For example, the first graders were getting run over after our morning meetings—when classes gather to start the day. As classes were dismissed, the first graders could never get back to their class because of all the bigger kids. So they decided to tackle that issue. They mapped it out, collected data, and figured out if three classes moved their meeting area, it would make a difference. Another project involved the cafeteria or dining room, which has very high ceilings and is very noisy. In a three-year project, students created and hung padded frames on the wall, which really made a difference in sound levels. We also have the Easy Move-it Furniture project, a partnership with Ed Corps, where the kids make lap desks and beanbags and sell them. The students recently sold $1,000 worth of beanbags, and they get to decide what to do with the money.
The project most near and dear to my heart is one we completed this past February. It’s a sculpture in the courtyard made with clay hearts. A little girl in the room, her dream was to make a heart sculpture to show Tucson how kind Borton is. The class got behind the idea. It was a giant design-thinking challenge. How are we going to do this? What do we need? Where would it be located? How many hearts would be displayed? This was a student who needed a lot of support, but the project empowered her to make big decisions, and she found her voice. We used Community Share to bring an engineer in and get feedback. My husband built the structure. The students decided to dedicate the sculpture to a teacher here that passed a way two years ago. It’s now a permanent installation of clay hearts. The students did such a good job informing our school community about it that there have been no problems with it. They all honor it.
In this day and age of testing, there are so many data demands on teachers. But our students are more than a number. Our projects build background knowledge that improves reading and writing and math skills. This kind of work also creates memories. You don’t need to learn all the numbers that get put on you at school. What you remember is when you do something big. That sculpture out there? They will always remember that they did that.
What changes have you seen in public education over the last 30-plus years?
When I first started teaching, the big picture was pretty traditional. The writing prompts I had to give from the district for tests sometimes made no sense. There was this inane prompt about letting a balloon travel and follow where it went. It was kind of a bad idea, environmentally speaking and maybe I shouldn’t have done it, but we went outside and let a balloon go and watched it, just to get in the mindset of that. What I tried to do was set a strong purpose for what kids had to do, so they could see it and be with it. If there were some curricular obligations, I did them all. But I tried to figure out a way to make it as authentic as possible for the students. I’m really big on purpose. Projects have purpose.
Borton was the school I always wanted to come to. I came from Ft. Lowell, where we had built an adobe fort. I did longer, extended studies. That was not the norm. But it depends on who’s at the school and what kind of support you get. My first year here at Borton, the principal was Bob Wortman. He said, Let’s just let things happen. I had been on previous school calendars where you did things only in small chunks of time, for a week or two. If you did something for a month, that was unheard of. Bob said take more time. I was given opportunities to reflect and to take some risks that I think sometimes aren’t easy. It’s about meeting the curriculum needs of students but doing it in ways that are more innovative.
What kind of classroom culture have you tried to promote throughout your career?
That we are all connected. That relationships matter. I’ve always felt that social and emotional learning were as important as academic learning. Back then those things was seen as separate. But I always believed if there was a good vibe socially, the academics would come.
I’ve always tried to adapt the curriculum to children’s interests. What do you want to learn about? When you engage with this kind of work with students you have as many questions as they do. I call these “burning questions.” I think teachers on the whole are a lot more creative than they give themselves credit for. I mean, you’re up there explaining something and half of the students get it and half of them don’t so you have to find incredibly creative ways to present information in all different ways. That’s what teachers do.
I have a lot of creative confidence. I know that even through the glitches we’re going to come out okay on the other end. It’s hard for teachers to do that sometimes because of the messages they get and obligations they have to meet. But it’s a kind of confidence to build. I’ve been very fortunate to have awesome principals who helped guide me. I hope leaving now, I’ve been that person to help guide people and help them take chances.
What’s is best thing and the worst thing about public education right now?
The best thing is that if you are a true public educator, you’re helping students take their place in a democratic society. You can help students set visions for their futures. The worst thing for me right now is the overemphasis on testing. It’s really important to understand where children are, but the kind of testing that is happening is just not okay.
Did you participate in Red for Ed, the recent teacher walkout in protest to low teacher salaries in Arizona?
Red for Ed blew me away. This is my retirement year, so it’s been especially meaningful. I wasn’t able to go to Phoenix, but I’ve been at the local rallies. It was such a time of connection across the city—that day on Broadway Boulevard, all the way down the avenue, to see that sea of red. Teachers on the whole, we’re a pretty selfless bunch; we have big hearts. We were saying no, this isn’t okay. The outcomes maybe didn’t turn out, but I felt like it was a real standing up to being bullied. Educators have been bulled for a long time. I feel very united. I’m so grateful it happened.
What are you most proud of?
I am proud that I have stayed committed for such a long time. This is my 37th year of teaching. I’m proud that I’ve had the opportunity to do this job, which teaches children how to use skills in new ways. I’m proud that students notice that. Staying so connected to children and helping teachers on their journeys has been an honor and a privilege.