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Talking Education with Vermont Teacher of the Year

Vermont Teacher of the Year Elisabeth Kahn in her classroom at Main Street Middle School. Photo by Mike Dunphy.
Vermont Teacher of the Year Elisabeth Kahn in her classroom at Main Street Middle School. Photo by Mike Dunphy.
Montpelier schools rejoiced in mid-October when Elisabeth Kahn—a French and Spanish teacher at Main Street Middle School—was named Vermont Teacher of the Year for 2020. Kahn, better known as “Bibba,” has been teaching in middle schools for 12 years and is in her sixth year at Main Street.

“Main Street Middle School is incredibly proud that Bibba Kahn found her way back to Montpelier five years ago,” said Main Street Middle School Principal Pam Arnold, while Montpelier-Roxbury Public Schools Superintendent Libby Bonesteel said, “This award could not go to a more deserving professional. Bibba is an incredibly engaging teacher and the ultimate professional. MRPS is extremely lucky to have her in our family of educators.”

The Bridge discussed with Kahn the award, her teaching methods, and why the Montpelier School District wins so much praise. The interview has been significantly condensed for printing.

The Bridge: Congratulations on the award? Have you enjoyed all the attention?

Elisabeth Kahn: It was a pleasure, obviously, to be recognized, but it’s been a lot. There are so many remarkable colleagues of mine in this building, in this district, and around the state who are equally talented.

What do you think about the concept of naming someone teacher of the year, then?

Kahn: Teacher of the Year isn’t necessarily about who’s the best teacher. It’s about who is going to be the spokesperson for teachers and students for the next year. In that way, I think it’s hugely beneficial. I’m really excited to share with people who I know—and now know who I am because of this award—my thoughts on what we’re doing and what we need to improve education.

What were your students’ reaction to the award?

Kahn: My students were really sweet, I have to say. I was really impressed with the number of kids who went out of their way to say congratulations. A couple of students made me cards.

How do you determine your own success as a teacher?

Kahn: I determine my success based on my students’ success. I could have what I think is an amazing lesson plan that checks all these boxes for me, but if it doesn’t result in my students actually learning the material or being able to show me that they’ve learned the material, then I’m not there yet.

What do you think about teaching a second language in the U.S. or Vermont, where there are few opportunities to practice?

Kahn: In the classroom, one of the things that I try to do is get the students speaking to each other and me as soon as possible, because what I think happens to students, but also particularly happened with me, is that I was never really forced to speak very much in class. And so I learned how to read and write really well, and could conjugate verbs like a champ, but when I actually had to speak it, I was too shy and unskilled.

So I try to build speaking activities into all of the units, starting right in the beginning of their time here in fifth grade.

Like role plays?

Kahn: Yes, there’ll be structured things like role plays. There’s a speaking assessment that I do as a recorded conversation where, for example, they are learning how to order something in a cafe. So we set up a little “cafe.” Somebody is recording two kids, and they have a conversation; one of them is the waiter; one of them’s the customer. It’s video so that I can see gestures and non-verbal communication, too.

Part of their score is not necessarily on the accuracy of what they’re saying, but rather could they make themselves understood. Because I think that’s another thing that got in my way. I felt like I had to get everything perfect. You can communicate a lot with gestures.

How would you describe your general teaching methodology?

Kahn: It’s definitely a hodgepodge of different things. If I had one sort of methodology, it would be that I’m trying to reach all students; I’m trying to make sure that my curriculum and instruction is accessible to all of them.

There is a methodology or a series of guidelines called Universal Design for Learning, which talks about providing information in a variety of different ways and providing lots of choice for students and how they practice and express their understanding. And so I do try to incorporate a lot of that into it.

If we’re practicing vocabulary, I might give students a few different ways to practice. There are kids for whom writing things down is their bread and butter, so they might work on a worksheet. There are definitely students for whom kinesthetic memory is how they learn best. So they might do a group practice of charades. Kids are really great about knowing what it is that they need and responding to that.

Other than facility in a language, what does second-language learning give students?

Kahn: A few things. But I think for me perhaps the most important thing for them is that at the root of learning the language is the idea that you’re going to be communicating with someone from somewhere else, who doesn’t necessarily have the same value system, eat the same foods, or wear the same type of clothing. I think learning a language gives value to people who may not be like you. I think it’s really important.

The news release announcing the award said you were a “middle school teacher in your bones.” What does that mean?

Kahn: I love middle school kids. I love that they are playful and a bit more childlike, and then at the same time, they’re really capable of serious intellectual inquiry and conversation. That interplay of those two things is really great.

I also read that your philosophy is “work hard, love often, and act with honor.” How does that apply to what you do?

Kahn: I don’t know if it’s the “kids today” or technology, but I think sometimes they worry that if you have to work hard at something, that means that you’re not good at it. I really try to emphasize all the time that everybody has to work hard to learn a language. It’s like building a muscle, the more you work, the better you’re gonna be.

The Montpelier school district has a very good reputation. How do you compare it to school districts where you worked previously?

Kahn: This is the only school district that I’ve worked in in Vermont, and what I have been really impressed with is the high expectations our administration has for the faculty, but also that the faculty has for itself. They are really committed to the teaching profession and really driven to better their practice and improve their skills. I think the unifying thing is that the faculty is really engaged and committed to the success of our students.