Teacher focuses on building relationships with students
Margaret Hicks builds connections with her fifth and sixth grade students, challenging the traditional model of discipline in her work at Oak Tree Community Day School in Palmdale.
“Our students generally come to us for behavioral referrals. Sometimes students are placed there due to expulsion. Our class size is generally small, so we can help build those skills that students are lacking at bigger campuses, where there are classes of more than 30 students,” Hicks said.
Opportunities to succeed in school are limited for her students and she works hard to change that.
“They don’t like school. They may not even like the adults that work with them. They may not be the best readers, the best mathematicians,” Hicks said. “I tell them ‘Let’s make today the try day.’ They’re raising their hands, they’re putting forward effort, they’re asking questions. I know in the past they may not have done that. They may have been thrown out of class, they may have been disruptive, causing them to get referred. When I see all the hands raised, they’re engaging in the learning process and they recognize they can be successful.”
How did you end up working with students with behavioral referrals?
Hicks started teaching at a charter school in Los Angeles as an intern in general education. “So many students had different needs academically. I felt at the time I didn’t have the skills I needed to help them understand the instruction. That’s when I went back to school to get my special education credential. Prior to teaching, I worked as a special ed paraeducator. I had opportunities to work with small groups and I could see how students could flourish in a small group and one-on-one setting.”
She now embraces the challenge of working with students that need behavior support. “I learn something new every day.”
“You have to be able to teach but also be able to manage the behaviors. It’s not about classroom management. It’s about how you can build relationships with students, so you have their trust and you can meet the needs they may be lacking. You receive more experience in working with more diverse groups of students. It prepares you for the classrooms we have to teach in.”
Hicks’ students come from foster care, trauma, toxic stress in the environment and the community. “When you have your special education credential — that’s your daily experience. You interact with students with varying academic and behavior levels, and you have to provide instruction to them. You have to have more experience, which makes you more adaptable, more flexible.”
Why did you become a teacher?
“I know this sounds cliché, but I always enjoyed helping others and teaching. I remember in fourth or fifth grade, I had a friend who was struggling in math and I made up my own math packet for her to do. It’s always something that came natural to me. As I get older, I just enjoy teaching, period. Children, adults, community members—I’ve enjoyed being able to interact with other people. I’m also a learner—I enjoy learning from other people.
Did you have a favorite teacher?
Hicks went to tiny Lutheran school and her favorite teacher taught her in several grades. “She was very strict, firm and loving. I think a lot of my teaching style comes from what I learned from her as a student.”
Tell us about your California Teach Plus Policy Fellowship
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for me. Often, we educators don’t have a voice and we don’t think our students have a voice. I learned a lot about how policies are created and I’m able to advocate for our students. We’re focused on social emotional learning to better meet the needs of our students. Teach Plus gives us that teacher voice and input that relates to policies that impact us as educators and our students.”
What’s one thing you’re proud of as a teacher?
“At our community day school, in our alternative setting for students, I have a new sense of what discipline is. When I first started, I thought it was all about students following a list of rules or students being compliant or making sure there was a consequence for behaviors, so the students wouldn’t do that again.
“Discipline is a way we can build bridges with our students, make connections. My proudest moment is the recognition of that—realizing what discipline truly is and sharing that with others. Being part of committees and presenting at conferences on discipline and making connections with our students.”
When Hicks first started teaching, she thought of discipline in the traditional sense: Reactive, with detention, suspension, expulsion. But her idea of that changed.
“Discipline can be a positive thing because you get to know your students. We practice restorative circles and build community. When you think of building community with your students, you’re building connections with them. The more you connect with them, the more you know them.”
The goal at Oak Tree Community Day School is for most students to be there for six to eight weeks, though some are there longer.
“Our staff is small; I appreciate each member because we work as a unit. They are quick to provide support when I or a student needs it. We have an excellent support system that is rare. We work really hard to meet the whole needs of the child—academically, behaviorally socially and emotionally. We have a great school psychologist that does workshops and a new administrator who helps build relationships with students. The goal is to return students to their home schools.”
Plans for the future?
Hicks is working on her master’s degree in educational leadership. “I would love to continue teaching, whether it’s adults or administrators. Inside or outside the classroom, I would like to use my educational leadership degree and share my experiences as it relates to discipline. When we want all students to learn, we are doing the work to make sure all students are learning and their needs are being met.”
One fun thing about you?
“I like to laugh whenever possible. I just enjoy having fun, whatever that might be. Spending time with my kids, going to the park, going to the beach—just finding those times to smile and being with my loved ones.”
Tell us about your family
Hicks has a daughter who is a freshman in college and a son who is in sixth grade. “I wish I could be his teacher, but I know that can’t happen.”
What would you like to do after retirement?
“That’s way down the way for me. I think I’ll still be working, even when I get to retirement age. I would like to be that retired teacher who’s going back to school to substitute teach, to be the intervention teacher, to help students.”
Teacher Talk is a series of profiles on California teachers and other educators. To be considered for a future profile, please email Communications@CalSTRS.com, with Teacher Talk in the subject line.