By Emily Williams
Cherokee Bend Elementary second- grade teacher Lauren Lunceford may have started her teaching career at the Mountain Brook school, but her experiences volunteering in Africa have shaped her approach to education.
Lunceford, who recently was named the school’s Teacher of the Year, had the opportunity this past summer to volunteer with Sozo Children, a local nonprofit organization that supports and builds children’s homes in Uganda.
“School in Uganda is very different from Mountain Brook,” Lunceford said. “Class sizes are much larger – 40 to 60 students per classroom – in Uganda, and they do not have materials such as books, computers or even pencil sharpeners.”
According to Lunceford, about the only materials they use in a Ugandan classroom is the chalkboard and their pens and papers.
Regardless of the material differences between Ugandan and Mountain Brook classrooms, Lunceford said she found the same curiosity and willingness to learn in the students.
“They can all be coached to solve real-world problems and think for themselves. That is one of the things I enjoy most about teaching in both of these contexts,” she said.
Through her experience working with teachers in Uganda and elsewhere around the world, Lunceford has devel- oped a passion to help make education available to all children.
She also tries to educate her students about other cultures.
One of the favorite moments of her career was when the Sozo Children’s Choir traveled from Uganda to the states and performed at Cherokee Bend.
“It was when my two worlds collided,” she said. “My students at CBS already knew so much about Uganda and the Ugandan culture from me sharing stories and pictures from my travel, but it all came to life when they were able to interact with the children from Uganda.”
Regardless of class size and location, Lunceford is a lover of elementary education – teaching the basics and seeing each student become confident in reading, writing, math and science.
As she’s grown from instructional aide to teaching kindergarten and then second grade, Lunceford said her teaching style has remained the same: take each student’s unique needs into account.
“The most important part of an elementary classroom is the community that you foster as a teacher,” she said.
Her favorite thing about teaching second grade is the students’ growing passion for reading. Taking into account each student’s interests and skill levels, Lunceford and her students pick out those “just right books.”
“They get really excited about making their book choices and sharing book recommendations with their classmates,” she said. “Sometimes it is difficult for students to find that just right book, and they need a little extra help and encouragement from me.”
Even if it takes a bit longer, seeing a student find a book that they truly love and want to share with their friends makes any extra effort worthwhile, Lunceford said.
Lunceford also works to make the classroom a safe place for students, a place where they feel their contributions and work are valued, and she calls on other teachers to do the same. If they feel that their voices are being heard, they will speak up more often, she said.
“One of the most important things I teach my second-graders is that they can do anything they put their mind to,” she said. “Problems may not always be easy to solve, but if you keep trying and learn from your mistakes, you will find a solution.”