Interview with Catherine Caine:  National Teacher of the Year Finalist

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Catherine Caine

The National Teacher of the Year finalist promotes ‘habits of mind’ that go beyond just academics

By Mark Coleman


Catherine Caine Teacher of the Year

CRAIG T. KOJIMA / .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Catherine Caine is a second-grade teacher at Waikiki Elementary School, the 2015 Hawaii Teacher of the Year and finalist for this year’s National Teacher of the Year.


Catherine Caine believes she’s been making a difference during her years as a teacher of young children, and apparently others agree, as she now is one of four finalists for this year’s National Teacher of the Year Award.

Named 2015 Teacher of the Year by the state Department of Education, Caine is the first teacher from Hawaii in more than 10 years to be among the finalists for the national award, which will be conferred in April by the Council of Chief State School Officers in partnership with the People to People Ambassador Programs and presented by Voya Financial.

Since 1992, Caine has been at Waikiki Elementary School, teaching mostly second-graders. She has long been helping to create a “mindful school,” focusing on critical thinking, “philosophy for children” and “habits of mind” — ideals promoted by education researchers such as Arthur Costa, Bena Kallick and Thomas Jackson.

Located at the foot of Diamond Head, Waikiki Elementary School has test scores to prove that something special is going on there. Moreover, Caine is not the first teacher from that school to be named state public school teacher of the year; colleague Matthew Lawrence was chosen for the award for 2014. The school itself, meanwhile, has been named a national “blue ribbon” school twice, in 2007 and 2013.

Caine, 63, was born in New Jersey and raised in San Diego, Calif., where she graduated from Madison High School, as well as San Diego State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in child development. She taught preschoolers and first- and fourth-graders in San Diego before moving to Hawaii in 1987. A DOE employee since 1989, she earned a master’s degree in education from the University of Hawaii 2013. Caine also is a teacher mentor for students from UH and Hawaii Pacific University.

Question: How is it that you ended up being a teacher of second-graders for most of your career?

Answer: Well, I was a preschool teacher originally. I started out thinking I might like to do something with children but I was more into psychology and was thinking I might be a child psychologist.

But then at San Diego State University many years ago, when I got my child development degree, I was required to go into one of these centers for children and interact with them, and I found it very exciting and delightful. Their thinking was extremely intriguing and fun.

So from there, I’ve done many, many different grade levels, but when I moved over to Hawaii, I taught at a preschool here for a while, and then I decided to go to elementary school, and that’s how I ended up with the Department of Education here in Hawaii. I’ve had 26 years in the DOE; 27 maybe, something like that.

Q: How many students are you teaching this year?

A: This year I have 23 second graders, but I teach science to all the grade levels. We (teachers) all switch in second grade. We play to our strengths, and my strength is hands-on science. Of the other three teachers, one teaches culture, one teaches health and safety, and the other teaches geography and social studies. So we switch the children around and they absolutely love it.

Q: Why do you enjoy teaching second-graders so much?

A: Actually, there’s positives to every single grade level. I absolutely love second-graders because they’re on that edge, ... that shift from learning to read to reading to learn. So I love that. But then I love teaching fourth grade because of the Hawaii social studies content and the science of volcanoes and the plant life. So I love that, too. And then kindergarten, they are ... I mean, humor and joy is one of the habits of mind that kindergartners are very astute in. (Laughter) So each and every grade level really has the potential for just some great exploration and wonder.

But I have to say, I do like second grade, and I love my partners, my grade-level partners. We’re very collaborative.

Q: Who are those other teachers?

A: Jolyn Ikeda-Ejercito, Staci Fong and Anne Suphan.

Q: I read that you hope to create a “mindful school,” which includes project-based learning and habits of mind. What are “habits of mind”?

A: “Habits of mind” are dispositions that are research-based.

Originally they started out as 12 intelligent behaviors. The researcher is Dr. Arthur Costa, and he researched what do successful, intelligent people do? What are some of their attributes? And from those attributes, Dr. Costa came up with 12 intelligent behaviors, such as managing your impulsivity, managing all your senses, persisting, striving for accuracy and precision, listening ...

Dr. Costa has been coming to our school every year for the last 24 years. He’s a terrific man. He has a partner, Bena Kallick. She’s writing books with him. And we even spoke with him. I spoke at a conference in Singapore with him, and at another one in Kailua. So I’m really deeply engaged in the habits of mind.

Q: How do you teach those things?

A: Well, for one thing we dig into defining them. So we figure out what it looks like and sounds like. So we’re using all of our senses to come to a working agreement as to what they look like.

Q: You and your kids?

A: Yeah, and it’s called a “concept attainment.”

Q: Second-graders know about concept attainment?

A: Yeah. Well, they know what mindfulness is at this school. They know they have to take responsible risks, and question, think flexibly. So this is the big umbrella for us.

The other thing within the “habits of mind” and the inquiry-based learning is (the) Philosophy for Children (program).

Dr. Tom Jackson has been coming to our school, I think it is, 15 years now. It’s a really great shift in having children communicate with each other. And, you know, if you look at the standards for speaking and listening, the Common Core, Philosophy for Children is exactly what that is. It’s replying to someone else. Agreeing. Disagreeing. Coming up with questions from the children. And we do it weekly. ... It’s been described by Dr. J. as “gently Socratic.” And the kids ask beautiful questions.

Q: You were quoted as saying you like to teach children how to think, not what to think, but how does that work with all the teaching-to-the-test programs that teachers seem to always be complaining about?

A: Well, for one thing, when you think about the habits of mind and testing, what does a child have to do on these eight-hour-long tests?

They’re going to have to persist. They’re going to have to apply past knowledge. These are habits of mind that we live with and breathe with on a daily basis. They’re going to have to think and communicate with clarity and precision.

So all of these things that we’ve helped children on a daily basis to practice with is going to help them on that particular test.

We don’t even know exactly what the new testing will bring ... but we are really relying on our children persisting and striving for accuracy and using the habits to not only just take a test but, as Dr. Costa says, pass the test of life. These are habits.

Q: These kids are in the second grade, but are these little adults running around over there? They sound pretty mature.

A: Oh, no. Oh, no. We still have children. (Laughter) But it’s mature in a way that is child-like. Think about it. Children are curious, they want to ask questions, and they have millions of questions. And in this type of a classroom throughout this school, questioning and problem-posing are welcome; it’s a habit of the mind. It’s what we want our children to do.

Q: And you think this carries into their middle-school years, which are really problematic for teachers, right?

A: Well, the changes are radical for the child; it’s not just the teacher. But I think it does help. And actually we had a teacher—Caryn Matsuoka—she did a dissertation and did follow the children into middle school, she was a middle-school teacher, and found the habits did follow them and help them. Not every one but to some extent the majority.

Q: Are you still involved in teacher mentoring?

A: Yes, I have two student teachers this semester: one from Hawaii Pacific University and one from the University of Hawaii.

Q: Is this something you do voluntarily?

A: Yes.

Q: Why do you do that?

A: One of the things is, I have a firm belief that ... every single teacher should find their own professionalism. So one of the things I really do with teachers I mentor is I ask them a lot of questions, about why they did what they did, what they thought went well, because oftentimes student teachers are a lot harder on themselves than I could ever be. And really ... kids are not that easy to keep focused. They’re everywhere, and they’re little.

So one of the major things I think is important about mentoring is, ... we’re all in this together, and I think it’s important to help someone find that drive. Because everybody has something different to give. Each teacher has strengths, so if I can help someone to be a reflective practitioner, which is my goal as a mentor teacher, then their whole career they’ll be looking at what they do and why they’re doing it. ... And that to me is an important part of teaching, that reflective piece, thinking about what you’re doing, and, yes, celebrating the things that went well, and reflecting on how you can get better every day.

You know, no matter how many years you’ve been teaching you’re still thinking about your thinking, your meta-cognition, which is another habit of mind. (Laughter) ...

The other thing that mentoring does is it gives me an extra person to care for my children in my classroom. There’s another person who cares there. ... And also, the student teachers are pretty good with technology in general, so they help me on that part, too. (Laughter)

Q: In 1995 you were in the Teachers Training for Technology program so you could help wire your school for Internet access. How has that helped you teach through the years, and what about technology in the classroom in general?

A: Well, I think technology is a given in the classroom, though I am certainly glad that after I helped raise the money and helped wire the school and all that, that now we have people coming in to really do it. I’m a teacher. ...

There’s a lot of technology that’s really important. Also, it’s not always reliable, so as a teacher you have to prepare alternatives or be ready, as they say in habits of mind, to problem-solve it. You know, I’m not a native to technology, but all of our students are natives. I’m kind of a visitor, because of the era I was born in, but these kids are natives, and it’s a necessary thing for them to explore. But now it’s out of my hands.

Q: How do you know you are making a difference with any of these kids? Do you ever check back with them years down the line? Do they just show up, or what happens?

A: Well, they do show up. They come back on occasion, fully grown, touring Japan, doing concert pianist work ... (Laughter)

But I know I’m making a difference because the whole school is a community, and later on, later on in different grades, I see them, I watch them in Student Council, and I see them doing wonderful things.

I don’t keep track of every student, but I do see them, and I can see the progress just within the year—the first half of the year what they’re like, and the second half of the year.

One of the things that I love the most is hearing from them. Like when I received this award, a young girl texted me, who was in my second-grade class many years ago, and she’s in middle school now. And she texted me just very few words, and she said, “Now everyone knows what I already knew. You’re a great teacher.”

And for me, academics is just one part of it. It’s the habits of mind that I would love every child to walk out this door with and walk out of this school with. Because those are the dispositions that will serve them throughout their entire lives.