A Conversation with State Teacher of the Year Elaine Hutchison

Fairview High School’s Elaine Hutchison is the kind of teacher most of us believe is typical of Oklahoma educators. She may work in a small school district, but she is uncompromisingly dedicated to her profession and her students. She is resourceful, continually working to improve as a teacher, and very humble about every bit of her success.

She sat down with the Education Focus not long after being named Oklahoma State Teacher of the Year to talk about life in a small town, her path to the classroom, and her new “flipped” classroom.

Education Focus: Where did you go to high school?
Elaine Hutchison:
“I grew up in a really small town just east of (Fairview) called Ames. I graduated with 11 other people in my class; they called us the Dirty Dozen. My high school was basically a Morton building – a one-building school, with one math room, one English room. Just a very, very intimate, little school. School was another form of family. It was a huge part of the community. Everything just revolved around that.”

EF: What did your parents do?
“My dad was on the school board, my mom was the math teacher. Mom and dad got their degrees from Northwestern (Oklahoma State University) and OU (University of Oklahoma). My dad has a degree in chemistry and Mom’s degree is in math and physics. So, you can imagine, since he’s farming and ranching and she’s teaching, we were probably the nerdiest farming family you could imagine.”

EF: What was life like in Ames?
“I just took everything there to be an opportunity. In a small school, you have to do everything for there to be programs. Everyone was in the class play. Everyone was in athletics, even (if) that wasn’t your God-given talent, you just contributed. I just had some amazing teachers in my life: Christie Sheffield, who worked for Great Expectations; Ted Roberts, who was our superintendent and was my pee wee basketball coach. I just saw them do it all, from setting up for ball games to mopping the floor to driving the bus when it needed to be done. They never complained, had seven preps a day, had every single student in 7th through 12th grade. They worked their fannies off.”

EF: What kind of dreams did you have in high school?
“What I thought I could be when I was in high school was a cafeteria lady, because I saw them every day; a teacher, because that’s what my mom did and that’s what I saw in our school, women who worked outside of the home; or a wife. That’s why my Oklahoma State experience was so important. It just opened up my eyes that I could live outside Ames, Okla., and make it.

“I love Oklahoma. I feel very rooted here. People say, ‘You just don’t want to work outside your comfort zone,’ but I feel very blessed to be in the area I’m from. I love Northwest Oklahoma. I just see it for teaching students for what they could become. I want them to have to same opportunities (as students from bigger schools).”

College Opens Elaine’s Eyes to New Possibilities

EF: “Tell us about your college experience.”
“When I went to OSU for my degree, I saw so many opportunities. Golly, there was a lab with actual (animals) to dissect. It wasn’t like road kill that your science teacher picked up off the highway (laughing). Real instruments! It wasn’t something that was makeshift, or just one set that everyone had to share. It amazed me.”

EF: Was it culture shock to go from a town as small as Ames to a campus that was 10 times bigger?
“My family begged me to go to Northwestern, or someplace smaller. People don’t know how introverted I am. Probably, my idea of a great day would be to be around my family, and reading, or doing something with that intimate group. (Going to OSU) really forced me out of my comfort zone.

“I was on President’s Leadership Council, and I was able to meet people that way. I found some other kids just like me from small schools, and just meshed. My freshman year, I shattered my ankle, I got mono, it was insane. But I managed to have to some really great years there.

“I was able to overcome some cultural differences between me and some of my professors. That was a huge struggle. Growing up, you knew who your math teacher was and they knew you were working your hardest and they’re going to do whatever they can to help. (But at OSU), you’re one of 50 in a Calc 3 class and you’re (losing your breath). Going from making straight A’s to making A’s most of the time with a few B’s thrown in there was difficult for me. I learned that we need to challenge our kids. I wasn’t challenged in high school and that was probably the hardest thing for me to realize that I wasn’t going to be perfect and to allow myself that.”

EF: So, it’s OK to fail?
“A lot of times, we think teaching kids is about everything they accomplish, but sometimes it’s a little bit about their failures, too. We need to allow them to fail sometimes so that we can show them what to do so they don’t quit.”

Teaching for OSSM and Flipping Her Classroom

EF: What do you teach?
“I teach Algebra II and pre-Calculus at Fairview High School, and AP Calculus at the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics Regional Center at the Northwest Technology Center’s Fairview campus. I am also assistant coach for the girls high school basketball team.”

EF: What is your degree in?
“Secondary math education. Actually, I have a middle school math focus, and I really thought I would love to teach advanced middle school math. I’ve (found) kind of niche teaching AP. I taught 8th grade math at first.”

EF: What do you like best about teaching the OSSM Regional Center?
“The regional center has allowed me to reach students I never would have met before, to meet parents and other people I would never have met. Elaine has kids from Ringwood, Canton, Fairview and Taloga in her OSSM class.

EF: You’re trying something very different, and pretty new, this year by “flipping” your classroom. Tell us how that works.
“I record my lectures, or practice problems that we work together in class. Students watch the video outside of class, take notes, and when they come into class, within their group, they are working the problems. When they hit a hurdle that they can’t get over, they are able to get help from me. It is amazing.

“Usually, in a regular class, you come in to class and answer questions from the day before, spend 15-20 minutes going over the new information, and then the kids would have only 15-20 minutes to work  (on the new problems). So, they get into the middle of (the new material), but they don’t get deep enough into it to figure out what their problems are. So the idea behind the flipped classroom is their homework, actually, is to watch the lesson ahead of time and come to class kind of pre-loaded. So when they come into class, we do go over the questions from the day before and figure them out, but there are a lot fewer questions because they had the entire day in class to work on their assignment.”

EF: Have the students had trouble watching the lecture videos?
“I’ve offered kids the opportunity to come in before school, at noon and after school, and they have what we call their Focus class, which is a little study hall period they have before lunch each day. They can get a technology pass to use the school’s computer lab to watch the lecture during that period. So, we’ve been able to work through some of the technology problems. And, they’re still able to use class time to watch the lecture if they need to.”

EF: How long is the video?
“The lecture is from 10 to 15 minutes. It’s a little different (because), in class, students would typically ask more questions (during the lecture). With the flipped classroom, (questions) actually occur when they’re working the problems.”

EF: Was technology a problem for your school or your students?
“One of the things with Common Core is that our students learn to work with technology. You think about imbedding that in a math classroom; at times it can be a little bit intimidating. I thought, what’s the best way for me to get kids to use technology?

“We don’t have tons of technology in our school. There are schools that have less than we do, there are some that have more. But we have some iPads, I had some iPads, my students have their own iPads, at times, or their own phones. I came across flipping the classroom on a website. It showed you how do every aspect of it through Google docs and how you could upload your videos, how you could record your lessons, and explain the rationale behind it.

“I thought, you know, this really makes sense. I went to my superintendent and principal and said this is what I want to do, and I know it may be opening a can of worms because some kids don’t have the technology at home at all, to the bandwidth at our school with all that video streaming, and with the online learning they’re offering this year, too. Will those interfere so where nobody can get anything done because it’s constantly buffering?”

EF: What kind of results have you seen so far with the flipped classroom?
“What has happened is that my class has almost split. It’s enable me to offer differentiated instruction. The kids who are in accelerated classes are mixed with the kids who are not, so in a typical classroom, if everybody is on the same page, it’s really not meeting all of my students’ needs. I’ve learned that these kids who are really craving that math knowledge – they get it, they love it – they are working way ahead.”

HT to the 6th Power – A Philosophy and Strategy for Success

EF: What is your platform as Teacher of the Year?
“I call it ‘HT to the 6th Power.’ The first and second HT are finding the balance between ‘high tech’ and ‘high touch’ in our classrooms. We’ve got to teach to the digital age, the age (in which) our students learn. And instead of saying, “Sorry, you can’t bring your technology into my classroom, or insisting that they learn to use it but not helping them get through the hurdles how to use it in the way we need them to, versus just watching YouTube for pleasure. Understanding that there are things on YouTube that are very informational. If they aren’t getting what they need from me, (they need to know how to find it online). Really become a learner, opportunities that I would have given my right hand for when I was growing up. Understanding their gadgets and the way these kids speak, is different than when I started 20 years ago.

“The approach with students (today) is very different than the way I would have approached them 20 years ago. Because of the technology, but also because what was expected of you as a teacher. If your principal came into your classroom 20 years ago, (he) would have expected your students to be quiet, for them to be working on their own. Not that they would have shared information, or shared work. And now, we see learning as a cooperative environment. The noises that you hear with students are just part of the classroom and your principal would actually like to hear your students talking during class and giving input, and raising questions, and stumping each other. Developing those critical thinking skills is very different from rote (memorization); ‘do this because I said so,’ ‘do 50 of the same problem.’

“The ‘high tech,’ I think, is huge. It gets them more interested in the math. The use of a graphing calculator is just imperative in helping kids develop some kind of a hypothesis, what’s going on in this problem, what does it look like, because they’re visual. The (need for) technology where they are able to touch things. Kinesthetic learners just a have need to do that. So, the digital age brings in a whole different aspect of ability to learn something.”

High Touch, the 2nd HT

“The ‘high touch’ is developing a relationship with those students in such a way that they know they can text me when they are unsure of an assignment. They know that if they’re ill, they can contact me and say, ‘I’m not going to be in class.’ That’s what some of my OSSM students do, and I can say, ‘That’s OK, we’re going to get you caught up when you get back.’ Or, ‘The lecture is online and if you feel like it you can pull it up and watch it.’

“No matter how great technology becomes, it will never replace the classroom teacher, in my opinion. We’re dealing with students and they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. It’s very important to me that students know I believe in them. They’ll work 10 times harder for me because I tell them they can do this. I’m not going to allow them to not try to do it. It doesn’t mean that it’s going to be easy, it just means it’s going to be worth it, you know?”

Higher Level Thinking, the 3rd HT

“Number Three is the ‘higher level’ thinking skills. Higher level thinking encourages us to develop critical thinking skills in such a way that it’s a lot greater than depth of knowledge, where we’re just saying, ‘You need to know this, memorize this vocabulary.’ It’s them actually understanding at a deeper level exactly what’s going on and then drawing conclusions based on information that’s really not there with ideas they have to come into on their own.”

Hands-On Techniques, the 4th HT

“The way we do that is the next HT, which is ‘Hands-on Techniques’ – doing more projects, cross-curricular type learning. So, if my students today, in math class, were learning about conversions with measurement, they need to understand that they will be doing stoichiometry in their chemistry class, which is converting those things out. They need to know from me that I’m teaching them the math behind that chemistry. Whenever they go to chemistry, they’ll say, “Oh, I got this. I remember doing this in math. I’m going to be able to convert the things we need to convert and I’m not going to be intimidated by it.’ They understand it is applicable in what they’re going to be doing in other classes.

“There is a reason why they have to learn the metric system, the power of 10, all these things. When you work in the real world, and you look into a microscope, and it’s a power of 10, 10 to the 3rd power, 10 to the 6th power, whatever;  or you work with computers and it’s megabytes and gigabytes and you see these things; it’s not an option anymore to be mathematically and scientifically illiterate. The reason why our kids don’t want to become scientists and engineers is because they are intimidated by it. It’s not a part of our culture. They listen to their parents say, ‘I’m not any good at math.” We’ve all heard that.

“OK, but my hair color is brown and yours is blond. Or, you grew up 50 years ago and you didn’t use an iPad in your classroom and I did. So, it’s not really an option for our students anymore. If we’re going to compete in this global economy we’ve got to develop these innovators, these high-tech thinkers.”

Habitual Thankfulness, the 5th HT

“(Next) is habitual thankfulness. What I mean by that is sometimes, as teachers, we need to have more gratitude and less attitude. We need to become more resourceful. There are a lot of people who want to help in education, but they don’t know how to help. If we don’t reach out to them and allow them to contribute, we don’t have a right to complain about what we do and don’t have.

“Somehow, when you’re grateful for what you have, that becomes enough. I tell people that when I was going to high school, we didn’t have any fancy Smart Boards, we didn’t have technology, we didn’t have animals to dissect in our science labs. We had just enough and that was OK. I think that we’ve just got to get a little more creative and we need to make sure we tell people, ‘Thank you,’ and say, ‘Please,’ and we need to teach our students by modeling that, they need to see that come from us.”

Heroic Teachers, the 6th HT

“The last HT is ‘heroic teachers.’ As teachers, we need to be their heros. For some of these kids, we see them more everyday than their parents do. They look up to us like we are a parent or a big sister, or someone important in their life. For some of them, the only positive they have in a day is seeing (a teacher). We have to know what their goals and dreams are and we have to help them find ways to get there.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to have a student that went on to become a Disney Imagineer. That’s amazing to me that a kid from a really small community like Fairview could be the kind of overachiever he is. But it’s just as much so or more rewarding for me to see that kid who grew up with nothing, who came to school because he got fed every day, who didn’t have enough money to launder his clothes on a regular basis, (but still) be able to go to college with credit from passing an AP exam and be able to get a full-ride scholarship because he had an ACT exam score over 30.

“It is an amazing feeling to know that you had some sort of a little impact on his life somewhere along the way. To not allow him not to go (to college). Some of these kids start thinking that they can’t, and you just got to be there to catch them and say, ‘You know what, we’re not going to think about ‘can’t,’ we’re just going to think about ‘can.’ And until somebody slams a door in our face, we’re not going to even think about going in any different direction. And when that happens, we’re just going to find a way to open the door.’

“We need to be the heroes for other teachers, too. Education has a lot of challenges you cannot wave a magic wand at and change, but Jim Slater, who was an amazing influence on my life, was a principal, teacher and coach here at Fairview for 38 years, and one of the things he insisted we put in our classrooms was a sign that said, ‘Quality begins with me.’

“You may not be able to control everything in the hallway or outside of your classroom, but in your classroom every day, you have a chance to make a difference in a kid’s life. The quality that you teach and the way that you treat your students, they will never forget. They will admire you for doing your best every day. I never want teachers to ever think that what they do doesn’t matter, because it absolutely does. We may not be able to reach every student every day, but over time, we can impact their lives.

“Math is not the most important thing in that way. It’s just one part of what we try to teach them about life and not giving up and persistence, facing challenges.

“I want to do my best to represent not only our school, but our state and really try to help young teachers who are trying to form an opinion about, ‘I can go work in the oil field for $100,000 a year, or I can teach for $35, 000 a year. What should I do?’ Around here, that’s something very real. You can’t put a price tag on what we do. The rewards we get can’t always be money, either.”

The Effect of Being Named Teacher of the Year

EF: You looked absolutely stunned when they call your name as State Teacher of the Year.
“It was just a very humbling moment. My mom and dad, I know for a fact that they gave up a lot to raise us on the farm. With all the good years and bad years of farming, and trying to put four kids through school. My brother is an attorney, my sister is a physical therapist, and my other brother works for Comcast and is one the leaders in what he does. To have all them that day and my little nephews in the crowd, to see them all together, and mom taught for more over  30 years, I know more than anything they just wanted to leave some sort of legacy. It felt good that somehow, I was able to give that to them.

“I’m able to see success because of the foundation they gave me. You want to be able to repay them. I think a lot of time parents think that leaving an inheritance is important, but leaving a heritage is so much more. You would have thought my family won the lottery that day.

“I’ve read enough books in my life to know that fame, or whatever you call this – the fact you could actually Google my name and something would actually come up – sometimes it can be very short-lived because people start thinking they’re special or whatever. I’m still going to sweep the floor every day before gym practice, I’m going to sit down at night after the kids have gone to bed and grade my math papers, and I’m still going to be in the classroom as much as I can. It’s going to seem a little crazy for my students, but that’s life too.

“I tell people I’m not even sure I’m the best teacher in my household. (Elaine’s husband, Troy, teaches chemistry, anatomy, physiology and physical science at Fairview High School.) I’m definitely honored to represent the best teachers in the state. My colleagues here are some kind of amazing.”


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