SHERIDAN — After 24 years of teaching for Sheridan County School District 2, eighth-grade history teacher Lorna Poulsen has a couple lessons left she hopes to teach, but these ones are not for her students.
Poulsen was recently selected SCSD2 District Teacher of the Year and has centered her multiple speeches and interviews — as she worked her way into the top three candidates for State of Wyoming Teacher of the Year — on two platforms.
The first group of people she hopes to reach is the public, with the goal of educating them on how teachers use the Common Core in their classrooms.
Poulsen supports the education initiative that has become somewhat controversial at all levels of government because it stresses relevance, rigor and the four Cs: creativity, communication, critical thinking and collaboration.
“Some people have the misconception that the Common Core has given us our curriculum that we have to follow but that’s not true,” she said. “They’ve given us minimum standards that our kids have to be at, but our team sits down and develops the lesson to get our kids where they need to be.”
She added that the best analogy she has found to help others understand Common Core better is that of building a house.
“It’s only a building block. If you are building a house you have minimum codes you have to meet for electricity and plumbing and insulation. You can have the best insulation that money can buy, if you choose, but you just can’t fall below,” she said. “Common Core is nothing more than that, just minimum codes that teachers have to meet across the United States and how we meet them is totally up to us as a team.”
Poulsen’s second lesson is one she hopes to teach legislators: All educators, administrators and school board members need to be held accountable for implementing proven best practices that are guaranteed to improve student learning.
“Why do we fail to hold school districts accountable for implementing best practices? Because in other professions — law, medicine, engineering — there’s consequences for refusing to implement research proven practices,” she said. “Doctors are slapped with malpractice suits, attorneys can be disbarred, so where’s that brand of accountability in education?”
Poulsen added that she feels strongly about this accountability for districts rather than solely holding teachers accountable for student scores.
“I think student scores absolutely have a place in evaluations but they are only a small place,” she said. “It should be a multi-layered approach.”
The layers of the approach, Poulsen said, should include professional learning communities with teachers getting together and figuring out what their students need and what their best practices are to meet those needs. Principals should also be providing evaluations with actionable feedback where the principal reviews the teachers and tells them what they can do to be a better educator. Peer-to-peer mentoring, when teachers go into each others’ rooms and identify what each can do to be the best teachers they can be, should also be included, Poulsen said.
“And then finally add that last layer of test scores and analyze those test scores,” she added. “But to just hold us accountable for our student test scores, I don’t think is appropriate.”
Poulsen developed a passion for history her senior year of high school when a dynamic teacher turned her on to it, but she said the lesson she has learned throughout her career is that her true passion is simply teaching in general.
She said she could teach anything and as a testament to that, she also teaches pregnant women Lamaze and coaches birthing.
“At one point I had six or seven kids in my class that I had helped coach into the world,” she said with a smile.
These days Poulsen spends just half her day instructing students and the other half working with teachers as an instructional facilitator.
Sheridan Junior High School Principal Mitch Craft described her as a culture builder, a mentor and a cutting edge professional.
“The kids like her,” he said. “They actually look forward to going to her class.”
Poulsen said though she will be eligible for retirement soon, she does not know what the future holds for her.
However, with a husband teaching art at Sheridan High School, two children in education in Bozeman, Montana, and a lifetime of passion rooting her to education, she knows whatever she does will stem from that.
“I want to finish out strong, I want to finish as a leader,” she said. “I’m trying to decide what they next step is…I can’t see not being an educator so no matter what the outcome is of the state teacher of the year I still hope to be somewhere where I’m teaching. Maybe it will be teaching workshops for teachers.”