By Toby Welch '73
I usually arrive in the classroom around 7:00 a.m., about an hour before my students. I fine tune plans for the day, make a list of students to check in with, email a couple of parents, and consider how students responded to yesterday’s lesson summarization for their biography project and what I can do to further develop that skill. More than anything, that hour lets me clear the decks so I am 100 percent present for students when they arrive.
Teaching is a humanistic endeavor. I believe that all people want to be known, cared for and valued for who they are. As students enter each morning, I ask about last night’s homework, I inquire about a sibling’s birthday celebration, I wonder with them about what will happen next in the class read-aloud book. Before we can build our knowledge of essay writing or long division, we must set a firm foundation of trust. A sense of trust is central to a student’s willingness to take risks, to see failure as a growth opportunity and to persevere.
Early in the school year, I make it a point to let the students know that I am a poor speeler, spelller…speller. I believe that it is important to model the kind of learner that I am encouraging students to become. Learning is not about achieving perfection, but rather about recognizing your own strengths and weaknesses and developing strategies to become a stronger student. I think it is important to have students name the challenges they face and to then devise tactics together to support growth in that area.
I first discovered that I loved working with children during three blissful summers as a camp counselor. That experience propelled me into a 38-year career in education. I started at Foote as a Mixed Age Group assistant and then a Grade 4 teacher thanks to then-Head of School Frank Perrine taking a chance on me. After two years on Loomis Place—having benefited from the mentorship of Laura Altshul and Saylor Heidmann—I headed west to Vashon Island in Washington state, where I taught in independent schools and, in 1995, founded Harbor School, where I served as head for 13 years.
It is important to me to be in a school where innovation and creativity are encouraged, celebrated and shared. Over the past six years, my colleagues and I have implemented a variety of initiatives: parent-teacher conferences that include students, and indeed are led by students; a 1-to-1 laptop program; a buddy program with elderly residents of Whitney Center in Hamden; and new collaborations with New Haven-area nonprofits. We have made significant changes to the Social Studies curriculum that have challenged me as an educator to take the complex topics of immigration and slavery and make them accessible to 9- and 10-year-olds. Several years ago, I worked with a colleague to bring a weekly mindfulness practice into the classroom. I very much appreciate the opportunity we have as teachers to take an idea, shape it to fit the needs of our students and implement it.
All of this makes for a full day. On my walk home, I often find myself reflecting on the day. What keeps me coming back to the classroom is the students—the root of all my work. Just recently, one of my students took it upon himself to put together a “box of encouragement” containing notes of support for his peers. Teaching fourth grade doesn’t get much better than that! I teach because I believe that I can have an influence on the kind of person each of my students is to become and because it’s among the most important ways I can positively impact the world.
Toby Welch ’73 is a Grade 4 teacher at Foote. He served as a Grade 4 assistant teacher from 1981 to 1983 and returned as a head teacher in 2014. Previously, Toby founded and was the head of Harbor School, an independent K–8 school on Vashon Island, Washington state.
This article originally appeared in the spring 2020 issue of Foote Prints magazine.