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A decade in, teaching is still all about relationships

Middle-school teacher reflects on her first 10 years

Grandville — As students stream into her classroom at Grandville Middle School and find their seats, Courtney Gritter switches off the overhead lights and switches on a colorful disco ball in the corner of the room. 

Beams of light bounce over the walls and floors as she explains the plan for that day’s class. Then, as students get to work, she turns up the speakers on her computer as a peppy soundtrack to the assignment: the song “YMCA” plays, followed by “Shut Up and Dance” and then “Happy.”

Ten years ago, when she was a brand-new teacher, Gritter says she would not have recognized this scene as her own classroom. 

“(The classroom) doesn’t seem like such a sterile environment as it used to be,” said the seventh-grade language arts teacher. “The kids really enjoy listening to music while they work or during (class period) transitions. And a disco ball? I would’ve never done that 10 years ago. 

“It’s been this shift of making this place warm, welcoming, someplace that kids want to be, because then the learning just kind of happens.”

‘Students want to know that what they’re learning is meaningful,” Gritter says

Like Gritter’s classroom, the world of education has changed significantly in the past decade; no one knows that better than the educators who have seen things firsthand. In conjunction with School News Network’s first decade of education reporting, we sat down with the middle school teacher to talk about her first 10 years in education, disco balls and all. 

“You have to make sure those kids know that you are on their team and you’re fighting for them.”

— language arts teacher Courtney Gritter

(This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

How has your approach to teaching changed over the past decade? “I feel like this work is never not changing — that is the nature of education. At the beginning (of my career), it was a lot of focus on content: the curriculum was changing and shifting, (and) we were going through all these trainings on how to use technology effectively. 

“Then, the pandemic hit, and we were tasked with teaching in person and online at the same time. We had to adjust all of our curriculum, scale a lot of things back and take out a lot of the collaboration because of (social distancing). … Now, we’re back to the point where we want (students) working together again, so that’s another adjustment. … With the decade we’ve had, you just constantly have to be willing to adapt and think on the fly. And you can’t ever be complacent, because kids are constantly changing, too, so you have to change with them.”

In what ways have you seen your students change? Gritter said the combination of increased access to technology and the “shared traumatic experience” of the pandemic has led to an interesting shift in how today’s middle-schoolers accept and process information. 

“With so much access to information today, and with (students) having used technology so heavily (during the pandemic), teachers have to build more credibility for (students) to be invested in what you have to say. … You have to really get them to see the purpose behind what you’re trying to teach them. They want to know that what they’re learning is meaningful, and how it’s going to help them in the long run. … And they want to know that you care about them, and that you’re invested in what they are invested in. You have to build that relationship and work hard to maintain it. 

“If you can do all of that, then they are all in on what you have to say.” 

Teacher Courtney Gritter answers a question as students work on an assignment

What have you learned in those 10 years? “This is middle school, so I’ve learned that when kids get angry or when they’re being difficult or not engaged in class, it’s not necessarily a personal attack on me. … When you’re first starting out, you think kids will do what you say and you’ll have all these classroom management skills, because that’s what you’re taught in your college classes. But it doesn’t work like that in the real world. Most of the time, when they lash out, kids are just hurting in some form. 

“I’ve learned to just try to maintain a sense of calm with them, and to be an uplifting presence, and to show up the next day with a hug or a smile. You have to make sure those kids know that you are on their team and you’re fighting for them. And you have to be willing to own up to your mistakes, or admit that you don’t know everything, because you don’t. These kids will absolutely catch me if I misspeak — and sometimes I do like to do it on purpose to see if they’re paying attention — but I am human. They need to see me be human so that they feel safe making mistakes too.”

Besides disco balls, what is one thing you see in school today that you never would have imagined when you started teaching? “Honestly, these kids have no shame. They will say the most ridiculous stuff. …When I was in school, it felt like the teachers were more distant. These kids I have now have such a level of comfort — like with some of the nicknames they’ll call me or the jokes they’ll make to each other — that sometimes it’s just crazy to me.

“At times we have to rein it in a bit … but mostly I think it’s a good thing, because relationships are part of creating that sense of humanity with their teacher. When (the disco ball) is on, I’ll have kids that I don’t even know peek their heads in the classroom and say hi, because they’re curious (about) what we’re doing in here. They’re intrigued, and I want them to be intrigued about learning.”

Teacher Courtney Gritter reviews some details with her seventh-graders at the start of class

Do you have any goals or hopes for your next 10 years in education? First of all, Gritter said she hopes that the post-pandemic focus on teaching real-life/soft skills continues, especially at the middle school level.

“Through no fault of their own, these skills like collaboration, working with different people, that was taken away from them. We have a generation of kids now who are lacking in some of those areas, and those are the skills that get you jobs … We need to continue to incorporate soft skills into the classroom, (and) give them an environment that makes them want to be part of something bigger than just themselves.”

She paused for a moment to reflect. 

“When I was in middle school, my teachers were the ones who got me through it. Middle school is a hard time, when you think about friendships and puberty and all the external noise that a lot of these kids deal with. 

“In all of that, the teachers are their one constant. That’s what I try to focus on every day. … I just hope people know that every single person I work with in this building is here for the kids and wants to see all kids succeed.” 

Read more from Grandville: 
Bulking up on their biology skills
Playing with fire

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Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is associate editor, reporter and copy editor. She is an award-winning journalist who got her professional start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate and proud former Chimes editor, she later returned to Calvin to help manage its national writing festival. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio


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