By Emily Williams-Robertshaw
Update: Homewood City Schools announced on June 16 that Alli Phelps has been named amongst the final four finalists for Alabama Teacher of the Year.
One of Shades Cahaba Elementary School teacher Alli Phelps’ favorite quotes is by Maya Angelou and reads, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
For more than a year, teachers dealing with classes during a pandemic have had to focus even more on meeting students where they are physically and emotionally.
“I think it has really enabled us as teachers to focus in on what is truly important,” Phelps said. “There is so much division in this country, and I feel like that was something we could all unite around – kids, helping teachers, helping teachers teach the kids who needed help.”
Phelps has been Shades Cahaba’s English learner teacher for the past 12 years, previously teaching at Homewood High School as an advanced placement teacher in addition to working with EL students.
She recently was named one of the State of Alabama Department of Education’s 16 finalists for Alabama Teacher of the Year.
She likes to keep the focus on the students she teaches.
“One of my favorite parts about my job is the family and community engagement work that I have done,” she said.
Before the pandemic, Phelps was working on a goal she set for herself. With the support of the Homewood City Schools system, she set out to make home visits with her students and meet their families.
“That was the most incredible thing I’ve probably ever done professionally,” Phelps said. “It turned personal. I got to really know my students and what their needs were.”
Phelps noted that she’s worked with some of these students’ siblings in the past and thought she knew them well; yet getting that glimpse into their life outside of school made her both a better teacher to her kids and a better person in her life.
“During the pandemic, I really felt fortunate to have that in my background because the families were also more comfortable with me and knew me better as well,” Phelps said. “Everybody was so isolated and miserable and struggling and our more marginalized communities, like the families I work with who are linguistic and cultural minorities – they had different challenges than maybe some other communities.
Those connections she made also were essential when it came to providing educational support and making sure the students and their families were OK.
“I love that my school supported me pre-pandemic in the home visits and I love that they also continued to enable me to do my work reaching out to families,” she said. “I know it’s not that way everywhere. … Our smaller Over the Mountain communities lend themselves to really reaching out, and there are so many great people out there who are reaching out.”
Invest in Reading
Phelps’ teaching philosophy rests on two main pillars: treat students how she would treat her own children and invest in reading.
“I always ask my parents what their dreams are for their kids and what their goals are,” Phelps said. “The answers are always so interesting, but many times they are the same as mine for my own children.”
When the pandemic hit, one of Phelps’ first actions was to start doling out books from her library to her students.
“The listening, speaking, reading and writing that goes around a book, those are our domains of English that we teach as English teachers,” Phelps said. “I’m talking with them about the book. They are writing about the book. We’re speaking about the book in book chats. Then, of course, they are reading the book.”
Most of her students and their families don’t have internet access in their homes, so she wanted to make sure they had reading materials on hand so they could keep up with their skills and continue to improve.
“Reading makes such a big difference in a kid’s life,” Phelps said. “It’s about the volume of reading. It doesn’t matter if they’re reading graphic novels or anything else, it’s just that they are reading.”
She is working to restock her library through a partnership with Little Professor in Homewood. Her vision is a dreamy, soft space in the classroom where her kids can pick out a book, plop down and escape for a little while.
“I’m building a classroom library that is multicultural (with) high-interest books,” Phelps said, works that her students can connect with.
Ever a champion for reading and literacy in general, Phelps has made sure her work with students carries through summer.
For the past eight years or so, Phelps, along with Shades Cahaba reading specialist Ellen Helf, has gotten a grant through the Homewood City Schools Foundation for the school’s Summer Reading Project.
The project focuses on providing summer reading materials and incentives for English language learners. Students are provided 10 new books that are a mix of genres and writing styles.
“We pass out those books and try to really make sure those books are on their level and they are really interested in them,” Phelps said. “We meet with the kids over the summer and then we have a pizza party and a book swap in the middle of the summer. They come and bring their families, and it is just a blast.”
It’s a way that Phelps and Helf can assure students are not falling victim to the “summer slide,” a decline in reading abilities and academics that can occur over the summer when school isn’t in session.
Though the data wasn’t gathered for the summer of COVID-19, Phelps’ data from previous years showed that not only did her students avoid the slide, some of the students’ test scores improved.
“We are actually really proud of our data on that,” Phelps said. “In particular, the kids that I work with, many of their homes are poverty level or below. We also have a large segment of our school’s population who are going to McWane Science Camps and traveling or going to Europe over the summer. … To maintain that consistency of learning and reading with books has been incredible.”
As a finalist in the Alabama Teacher of the Year Program, Phelps is one of 16 who have emerged from a pool of 138 skilled educators.
Shades Cahaba Elementary Principal John Lowry said Phelps is a student-centered teacher who advocates for her current and past students and their families.
“Ms. Phelps’ life work is making a difference in the lives of her students, their families and her community, and I see the impact she makes each day through her compassion, love and kindness for others,” Lowry said.
Homewood City Schools Superintendent Justin Hefner noted that he is proud to see Phelps represent the school system and district.
“She serves as a literacy leader within the school community, and she creates a warm classroom environment where her students feel special and important as they learn the English language and develop confidence in themselves as students,” he said.
If you ask Phelps, she will say she’s honored.
“I didn’t think this would ever be me,” she said, adding she’s honored that an English learner teacher was recognized. She doesn’t plan to take anything for granted.
“I love the students and families I work with,” she said. “I’m so fortunate. When I say they have made me a better person, they truly, truly have, just by me getting to know them. I’m really grateful to advocate for them and to have this platform moving forward to hopefully continue to do so.”
The 2021-22 Alabama Teacher of the Year will be announced in August.