SEALs: all in, in all buildings

Teaching assistants get experience, celebrity attention

Northview High senior Emma Van Dyke works on ‘h’ words with Kingston Wells

Northview High senior Emma Van Dyke got a rock star welcome in March when she popped in for a visit to Amy Panse’s early childhood special education classroom.

To the students there, she is a celebrity of sorts: the high schooler who for nearly two years spent about an hour every day helping out in their West Oakview Elementary classroom.

“She’s just wonderful with the kids — very natural and doesn’t need a whole lot of direction from me,” Panse said.

At Highlands Middle School, Jules Hidalgo worked in Language Arts teacher Kathie Lewis’s homeroom before the mandatory statewide school shutdown.

Lewis said he alleviates work such as filing, data entry and organization, and that his impact is felt by students and by herself.

“Students in my class eagerly look forward to Jules coming to class,” she said. “He interacts with them in a way that is supportive and gives them a connection to the ‘cool factor’ of high school. I truly appreciate what he does to advance teaching and learning.”

Emma and Jules are SEAL students. And like their Navy counterparts, they’re all in.

Northview High School teacher Jim Haveman shows off a fossil replica made by a former SEAL student, to help model for her peers how she planned to teach about them to younger students

Aka Teacher Cadets

SEAL, an acronym for Student Educators and Listeners, is a yearlong class that focuses the first semester on communication, psychology and leadership. It is on par with teacher cadet programs in other districts.

Students must apply to be enrolled in the class. The first semester is spent learning to be good listeners, how to interact appropriately with different age groups, and role-playing exercises to get them comfortable presenting in front of groups.

“They’re going to be leaders in the classroom, so they need to be good role models to other kids,” said Northview High School teacher Jim Haveman. “We cover how to dress appropriately, use proper language, just some of the very basic things such as confidentiality. Those kids will look up to them.

“The main focus is to support the teacher and to build relationships with the students learning in those classrooms. The kids who need help the most, (SEAL) students are there to support.”

SEAL started more than two decades ago with high school juniors and seniors helping out in elementary classrooms, and has expanded to every school in the district — in general and special education classrooms. Even at Field School.

At the high school, one SEAL is working with students with cognitive impairments; a former SEAL mentored a pre-calculus classmate, and is currently enrolled at Michigan State University, majoring in education.

Other students work with small groups — such as teaching American Sign Language to preschool and elementary students in deaf and hard of hearing classes.

Northview High senior Jules Hidalgo helped out this year in Highlands Middle teacher Kathie Lewis’ sixth grade homeroom

Career Exploration

And it’s a proving ground for future educators.

“A lot of students take this class to see if they want to eventually work with kids,” Haveman said. “It’s a class where some want to work in day care someday, others want to work at a preschool. Others think they might want to be a high school teacher; it’s a great way for them to explore a career and an avenue they might not know whether they are cut out for.”

Haveman, who took over teaching the class about seven years ago, said there were around 15 SEAL students then. Now there are nearly 50, mostly juniors and seniors. Some go to their assigned classrooms for an hour every day; seniors who are in their second year can do more if their schedules allow, he said.

“Students really like the interaction and the bond we have in class the first semester, and I tell them, ‘When you go out into the field, that’s going to be your favorite part of your day.’”

Haveman recalled that his own son was in a class that had a SEAL student who was also a high school basketball standout.

“I can remember how cool he thought it was that that older kid showed up at his game on a Saturday. SEALs get invited and go to all kinds of class parties and extra events that they don’t have to go to, but they do.”

‘Makes You a Better Person’

SEAL students receive a grade for their participation, borne out by assessments from the teacher to whose classroom they are assigned. Mid-term assessments include ranking skills such as problem-solving, initiative, dependability and responsibility.

Teachers also complete short-answer evaluations that Haveman encourages students to share with potential employers. “I just say ‘hand this to them at the interview and show them what a former employer has to say about you.’ I’ve had a number of students tell me they got a job because of that.”

Panse thinks the program is a great opportunity for high schoolers to see whether the classroom is what they truly want to get into.

Take Emma, who said she was interested in becoming a SEAL because she thought she might go into special education. She recently was accepted into the nursing program at the University of Michigan, and now plans to become a pediatric nurse, where her time working with younger students means she already has meaningful experience communicating with young children.

Jules wants to become a high school counselor, and his easy rapport with Lewis’s middle schoolers indicates that’s likely to be a good fit. He trades “dudes” and “bros” with the sixth graders as he relates what they are learning about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to what he is learning in his U.S. History class.

“The longer I am in high school the more I see underlying problems with kids, and want to see if I can help them figure some of that out,” Jules said.

Would Emma recommend the SEAL class to others?

“I think it’s one of the most beneficial classes we have, just being able to see what teachers give of themselves every day in order to give to us,” she said. “It takes a lot of patience to work with kids. SEALs makes you a better listener, for sure. And a better person.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.

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