Board Support & Communications Specialist
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Growing up, Laura Polden never imagined a life that didn’t involve working with children.
“My earliest memory ever is the day my sister was born, and I picked out a book that I was going to read to her when she came from the hospital,” recalls Polden, who was 2 at the time. “I was ready to take on that role from a very young age.”
Over the years, Polden’s maternal instinct grew to foster jobs ranging from a camp counselor to a nanny, swimming instructor, and teacher for a special education program and private school. She was even known as the potty trainer for the local neighborhood kids.
“There’s never been anything else that I wanted to do,” Polden readily admits.
This passion and relentless dedication is obvious to her colleagues and school district leadership alike, which is why the fourth grade teacher at Pearl Zanker Elementary School was announced as Milpitas Unified’s 2016-17 Teacher of the Year during the Employee Recognition Celebration on May 24. Polden will be one of 32 accomplished educators honored at the 48th annual Teacher Recognition Celebration, presented by the Santa Clara County Office of Education, 7 p.m. on September 14 at the Heritage Theatre in Campbell.
“I was very surprised and humbled,” Polden said of the announcement. “...It makes me feel very emotional.”
Zanker Principal Trisha Lee said Polden was nominated by at least four colleagues, who helped pen the submission form collaboratively. She was first chosen as Zanker’s Teacher of the Year, before going on to earn the school district award.
Among the nomination highlights, Polden was noted for being a “dynamic instructor who has a natural ability to read her students needs through explicitly implemented informal formative feedback as well as through her ability to sense their non-verbal feedback.”
They cited her work as data driven and highly engaging -- for students and staff alike -- and said Polden has amazing communication skills, relationships with students and families, and engagement in the Zanker community, attending almost every school event.
“I think she is extremely deserving,” Lee said of Polden being selected for the award. “She has this zest for life. She finds a way to connect with all colleagues, and invites parents to be a part of her classroom. She is truly a lifelong learner.”
Lee noted Polden being recognized is also impressive because she will be entering her fourth year of teaching in the fall. Regardless of her time, she said Polden is an innovative teacher “who is very conscientious of her abilities as well as her areas for her growth, and tries to always better her practice.”
Before the 2016-17 school year started, for example, Polden volunteered for “looping,” because an intermediate teacher had retired and the opening needed to be filled. Looping is the practice of a teacher remaining with the same group of students for more than one school year. For Polden, this meant teaching a third grade class in 2015-16 and going on to teach the same students in 2016-17 for fourth grade. Lee credited this move as brave particularly because Polden was only used to teaching third grade, with three years of experience under her belt.
“Developmentally, it’s a really big year,” Polden said, adding the transition allowed her to grow by revisiting education acquired during her college coursework. Polden earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Developmental Psychology from George Washington University in 2009 followed by a Master’s Degree in Education from Santa Clara University in 2013, at which time she student taught at Pomeroy Elementary School.
Polden added that looping also allowed her to focus on being a data-driven teacher, beyond what is typically analyzed.
“It can be data in any form,” she said, explaining that often comes with student observation. “And I was telling my sister, that sometimes data is what you feel. It’s not always a number that a computer produces.”
Polden said this data is important because it allows her to meet the needs of all of her students.
“So that’s why personalized learning is really important, because each kid gets something different,” she said. “It doesn’t mean 32 lesson plans. It just means different ways, options to give to them.”
This year, Polden implemented book clubs in her classroom to meet this need. At that time, students were given options of books to read within a parameter of their reading level, to try and challenge them further. Based on their selection, they were placed in groups and engaged in different activities about their books.
Polden said the value in this is “not everybody is reading the same book, which is how I grew up,” citing “The Catcher in the Rye”; “To Kill a Mockingbird”; and other literary classics that have long been required reading in English classes.
“Guaranteed, 70 percent of the kids in my English class were not supposed to be reading ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ either because it was too challenging or it was way too easy,” she said. “You can’t teach like that anymore. And if you do, you have to have a lot of other options for ways that kids are going to get their learning targets from that.”
Polden said regardless of where her teaching career takes her, this individualized focus will always be front and center in her work. And she believes it all starts quite simply.
“You have to get to know your students,” she said. “There’s no Pinterest project, there’s no glitz and glamour borders or colorful paper that can take away that relationship that you have. If you are able to know your students, their family background, what makes them tick, what sets them off, what frustrates them, you can drive your instruction to make your lessons meaningful to all of your students.”