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COMPETING FOR ATTENTION

February 16, 2017

By KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT
Rutherford County Schools

Judy Goodwin, who taught elementary school long before she became principal at Barfield Elementary School, recalled a chance meeting with a former student 15 years after he had been in her third grade class in Smyrna.

His ability to remember her was a big deal.

He explained to Goodwin that he had been involved competitively with BMX freestyle riding and skateboarding when he suffered a traumatic brain injury. Through physical therapy he relearned to walk, but he lost most his memory.

So Goodwin assumed he no longer remembered her class.

She was wrong.

He told her, “I remember you coming in the back door, you were crawling on the floor and barking like a dog. And we had to write about what was going on.”

It was a creative writing prompt for third graders.

They had a choice of either writing from a factual point of view or creatively, she said. Fact or fiction, it was up to each student. Students often complain about having to write. However, by engaging them in a physical demonstration, the writing exercise became more real.

That connection resonated with students like the one who recognized Goodwin.

“I almost cried,” Goodwin recalled. “Of all the things he had forgotten and of all the things he had to relearn, that memory had held on. That was so rewarding to me. It said, the novelty of that event remained in a brain that had been washed away.”

Their conversation remains the most powerful moment of her 44-year career in education. 

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Competing for the attention of students has been a daily struggle for teachers long before Goodwin began her teaching career in the early 70s.

It’s commonplace nowadays for them to find ways of connecting with a classroom of kids by engaging them in activities, like Goodwin’s creative writing prompt, that also include educational lessons.

She began her career in Smyrna, where she spent 17 years teaching before eventually splitting her time between teaching half time and transitioning into an administrative role.

She’s currently the longtime principal of Barfield Elementary School.

In 2009, Goodwin was a finalist for the Tennessee Principal of the Year, and in 2015, she was named the YMCA School Age Services Volunteer of the Year.

Goodwin had a distinguished teaching career littered with honors and accolades.

In 1989 and again 1990, she was named Teacher of the Year at John Coleman Elementary School. She then received the district-level and Upper Cumberland region honor, as well as being a finalist at the state level for Teacher of the Year.

However, going back to her first years of teaching, Goodwin noted that “Sesame Street” and later “The Electric Company” emerged as educational programing available on television.

“As a kindergarten teacher back then, I realized I was competing with Big Bird,” said Goodwin, who was among the first local educators to recognize the challenge ahead.

Goodwin decided to use a great deal of music and dramatic play as well as “active student involvement” in her daily lessons.

She regularly integrated the arts and anything else that resonated with young children.

She also developed an accelerated kindergarten program in Rutherford County Schools known as “Basics and More.”

“Whether you’re teaching pre-K or college students, it all has to be centered on the students,” said Chris Lafferty, assistant principal at Barfield. “I think that’s something Mrs. Goodwin is constantly preaching to her staff, this is a student-centered learning environment. That comes first.”

As an administrator, Goodwin stressed the importance of making personal connections, especially nowadays when teachers are vying for a student’s attention.

It’s why Goodwin requires her teachers to take a “personal inventory” of their students every school year. She wants teachers to know the names of family members and pets, hobbies and interests.

That’s how teachers get to truly know their students and connect with them.

Those personal connections make young students more willing to engage with class exercises.

“There’s a lot of pressure on teachers because we’re in a place we’ve never been before,” said Lafferty, who explained a modern-day key is putting the appropriate technology in the hands of students.

Today instead of competing with Big Bird for the attention of elementary-aged children, it’s incumbent upon teachers to teach young people that technology isn’t only used for entertainment.

Tech devices certainly can have educational purposes.

Goodwin added, “Technology gives us the avenue to go just about anywhere.

“Technology has its place and it certainly connects to students,” Goodwin continued, “but I don’t think there will ever be anything that can replace an excited, passionate teacher to connect personally with our students.”

Engagement has always been the key to making a lifelong impact in the classroom — much like Goodwin’s student who, despite suffering a traumatic brain injury, retained vivid memories of Goodwin’s creative writing prompts.

Sometimes those roles can even be reversed.

Goodwin recalled a year when her son was nine-years-old, she was teaching kindergarten, coaching a girls high school basketball team and her mother was terminally ill.

Every day was like walking on a tightrope.

Goodwin said there were times she didn’t always know where to be, but she oftentimes wouldn’t get home until nearly 11 p.m.

At the time, Amy Barkley had no idea, but she’s the reason Goodwin made it through the toughest time of her life.

And truthfully, Barkley was merely responding to Goodwin’s ability to engage her students.

“No matter what I had gone through the night before,” Goodwin said, “this child sat on the floor with a smile on her face looking at me and essentially saying, ‘What are we going to learn today Ms. Judy?’”

They had engaged each other.

Barkley, who was only five-years-old, loved learning.

Goodwin was reminded of the fact that she loved teaching.

“It’s a double gift,” said Goodwin, who randomly met Barkley 15 years later at a craft store in the Hickory Hollow area of Nashville.

Barkley was a cashier.

“When I saw her,” Goodwin said, “I thought, ‘This is my moment to say thank you to her.’”

Goodwin told Barkley it had felt like she waited a lifetime to thank her for everything. They both shared their memories.

They cried.

They hugged.

And they cried some more.

“The people around us were hugging and crying too,” said Goodwin, who described education as a gift.

“It’s not only the gift we give our children,” she concluded, “but it’s what they give back to us. It keeps us going. It gives us the courage that no matter how much stress might be in your life, there’s joy to be had in learning.”

PHOTOS / KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT
Judy Goodwin looks through photo albums of newspaper clippings and other memories from her 44 years in education.