Lauren Bakian-Aaker
Hale Cook Elementary School
Fifth Grade English Language Arts & Social Studies

What factors influenced your decision to become a teacher? Identify what you consider to be your greatest contributions to and accomplishments in education.
The profession of teaching is nothing new and everything new all at once. I became a teacher because I had a natural inclination to help others, and it always seemed like teaching was in my DNA. I was also inspired by both the positive and negative experiences I had with teachers of my own. It helped me see what practices to emulate and those to avoid–those that made me feel like an outcast or less than capable of meeting my potential. I believe that teachers have the power to innovate in ways that reflect today’s students but are guided by the expertise of veteran teachers everywhere. What makes me a great teacher is simple. Risk-Taking, intentionality, reflection. I’m not afraid of something new or different and often take the risk to try it for the betterment of my students’ education. 

As an educator, I believe I have contributed significantly to two areas of education: student success and teacher development. Student success can be measured in many ways, including standardized assessments and student growth measurements. In this regard, each year, my students’ overall growth exceeds my expectations, whether it is from pre- and post-assessments for writing, QRI reading assessments or iReady diagnostic scores. In conjunction with district expectations and discussion with grade-level partners, I ensure my classroom environment includes access points, differentiation and extensions as needed for all learners, whether they lack confidence, have special needs, are new to speaking English or excel in one or more areas. Although I am proud of my students’ academic growth, it is the love of learning that is, in my mind, a greater achievement. I create learning experiences (not activities) to immerse students in topics that are important and relevant to them and their lives. I do not shy away from tough conversations around race and privilege, but instead, find ways to help them think critically about their world and honor their identities and cultures. In a school where students’ home lives may look very different, it is essential to create safe spaces for students to investigate big ideas, challenge one another and, perhaps most importantly, to practice empathy and take action to make changes that help their community and others. As a brief example of this, students recently finished a novel study with the book Refugee by Alan Gratz. Following three different kids whose lives dramatically change when they become refugees, my students wanted to learn more and do something with their new learning. A few students organized a bake sale, while others researched refugees in the Kansas City area. Students were engaged in learning because they wanted to be – not because of grades or pleasing adults – and this was a result of the community and expectations we created together. Helping students find their passions and interests in an environment where it is okay to take risks is one of my most significant accomplishments. 

Of course, teaching is not a one-person show. In that regard, I believe another of my accomplishments is supporting the development of teachers to affect change on a larger scale. Over the years, this has looked different depending on teacher needs and in the settings I work. In NYC, it took the form of a teacher leader where my classroom served as a lab site, and I was a coach and mentor to both new and experienced teachers. It also took the form of an instructor of literacy courses at Teachers College for graduate students who had not yet entered the classroom.

Additionally, I have written articles in online and print publications to share ideas with others. I have used social media platforms to reach out beyond my geographical location. During my first year at KCPS, I had opportunities in my school community to lead cycles of professional development in writing. More recently, I led culturally responsive teaching practices. Beyond my school, I facilitated at each session during the three-day 2019 KCPS Summer Institute. This led to more opportunities to present at another elementary school and within my school. In sharing my practice, I often push myself to find new innovative ways to reach my students. As a result of the feedback during the cycle of professional learning focused on writing and collaboration with teachers in different grade-levels and subject-areas, I created a new writing “self-help” board for students to access strategies to improve their essay writing without me guiding them through every step. This promoted independence and also developed problem-solving skills as students aimed to become better writers. I am not only willing to share my practice with my colleagues, I actively seek out new methods and research-based strategies on my own accord to become the best teacher I can be. I personally paid to attend a Teaching Tolerance conference in spring 2019 because I needed to better myself concerning social justice and to have critical conversations around race and more. I attended DAC meetings and Dr. Bedell’s conversation, “Complex Justice,” to learn more about the vision for KCPS. I push myself to continue to be community-oriented for my students and my children.

Often collaboration is focused on supporting students academically. Still, it has also taken the form of equity and supporting teachers in reflecting on their identities and how to be culturally responsive. This fall, I co-founded an equity team to address bias and reflect on how teachers’ experiences and cultures impact our abilities to teach and reach all our students. Teachers volunteered to be part of this team, and we began by reading a professional book to understand the importance of the language we use in our classrooms. Our upcoming spring text will be “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain,” as recommended by Dr. Bedell. Supporting all students means working with school-based support staff, grade-level and vertical colleagues, administration, and families. These experiences give me insight into new and different strategies I may not have thought of previously. In turn, it allows me to share my best practices and invite colleagues to try it out or observe these practices in action and is one of my most significant contributions to education.

Describe a project or initiative that you have led or been involved with that contributed to increasing equity in education and opportunity for students in your school. What was your role in this project and what was the impact?
From the start of my career at Hale Cook and KCPS, I was committed to teaching my students about equity, and I realized that this was also an area that teachers and administration would also benefit. To ease into this work, I shared articles from Teaching Tolerance and ideas to help teachers reflect via email. I started with the “Myths of Thanksgiving” to address problematic lessons many teachers unknowingly teach about indigenous people and pilgrims. As we approached the December holiday season, I challenged teachers to consider the dominant culture of Kansas City (celebrations of Christian holidays such as Christmas), their own home cultures, and, most importantly, the customs and beliefs of their students and families when planning lessons and activities. In doing this, I hoped teachers would recognize that they may unknowingly honor one culture over another when they are trying to do a fun holiday activity and how that could have lasting negative effects on students of differing beliefs. Additionally, students with similar beliefs may begin to normalize their culture as the “right culture.” Many teachers were receptive to these ideas and responded that they appreciated the opportunity to think differently about what they had always done.

At the school level, I spoke up to my administration about “Dr. Seuss Week” and how new research argued his books were especially harmful to brown and black children for their portrayal of racist stereotypes. While change can be difficult, I felt it very important to speak up about these equity issues so that we could become better and smarter as a school. These small vignettes of addressing issues of culture and equity in my school led another colleague and me to have multiple after-school conversations regarding the challenges we faced in our fourth and fifth-grade classrooms. We both found opportunities in our class that needed work in regards to students both accepting and understanding differences, which also fit in with our school mission/vision as well as us thinking about biases we have and how that impacts our teaching. As such, we realized how important it was to include more educators and address equity issues together as a school. We reached out to our principal and laid the framework for an equity team that would later be named the Culturally Responsive Team (CRT). In short, we wanted teachers to come together to think about our students, practices, and events through an equity/culturally responsive lens.

As a co-leader of this team, my colleague and I launched the work in August with an all-staff workshop to unpack our identities and begin difficult conversations about how our identities influence everything we do, think and say in both our personal and professional lives. We invited teachers to give feedback about what types of work they would prefer to be engaged in from more workshops to a book club to brief emails with ideas and reflective questions. An overwhelming majority of teachers were interested in continuing the work in some way, and along with administration, my co-leader and I planned for a three-session book club in the fall and another in the spring. We felt that grounding the work in a text was a way to support teachers in being more open and reflective with a subject that can be uncomfortable for many. Our first book, “Choice Words” by Peter Johnston, was a way to ease into conversations around the language we use to define our students as people, the work they produce, and the success or lack thereof we notice and name. Our next book club selection aligned perfectly with our work and was recommended by Dr. Bedell at convocation. We are thrilled to begin reading “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain” by Zaretta Hammond. Although work around equity and education takes time, I have helped launch Hale Cook on a path to be more open and reflective in these divisive times. An email from the speech teacher stated, “These issues and discussions are really important to be included in the speech room, as well, so I appreciate having some other resources to learn from. I know speech/special ed is sometimes off in its own corner, but I am very much interested in being a part of these conversations at the school – please let me know if there are other ways for me to get involved!” Just by encouraging teachers to consider certain practices, include more texts in their classrooms by people of color and authors who have similar backgrounds to our students, and encouraging them to look in a mirror and consider how identity impacts their teaching and therefore their students, we are taking steps to become more culturally-responsive educators.