You’d think an educator entering her 33rd year teaching the same grade level, in the same town, would know just about everything there is to know about kindergarten.
If that were the case, Lou Hitt would probably have a different job.
Instead, Hitt said it is the drive to learn new things along with her students that keeps her fresh and excited about each new school year.
Much has changed since Hitt began teaching in the old Decatur Elementary building on the south side of Eagle Stadium. Expectations for students have increased, and technology that couldn’t have been imagined in 1981 has now become commonplace in the classroom.
Hitt has embraced all of it.
“It’s probably kept me in the teaching field longer, because I’m still learning,” she said. “I’m a learner, and that’s what excites me is the learning part of it. And (when) I can turn around and enable my students to learn something while I’m learning at the same time, that’s the most exciting to me – and then to see their little minds light up as they get something new and then can turn and teach something to their peers, that is the best.
“I think the advancement is an exciting part of it. It would be really boring if you had the same thing year after year after year.”
After being selected as Decatur’s Elementary Teacher of the Year earlier this summer, Hitt was named the Region XI Elementary Teacher of the Year three weeks ago. She will find out Monday if she is a finalist for the statewide honor.
A week before students will fill her room at Rann Elementary School in Decatur, Hitt’s classroom is already filled with colorful letters and numbers adorning the walls. Hand puppets on a shelf await a guiding hand to bring them to life. Books and board games sit neatly stacked, and tables with tiny chairs are spread around the classroom.
With the first day of school next Monday, it’s not only the students who are anxious.
“For 33 years, the night before (the first day) I will not sleep,” Hitt said. “I’m very anxious and excited for them to get here. But it makes you a little anxious how they are going to mesh, how quickly they are going to come together as a little family in our classroom.”
And it is like a family in Hitt’s classroom. For many students, it is the first time they have been away from home. Often during the first few weeks of school, students will even call her “mom” by mistake.
“The first time I had one call me ‘Grandma’ I thought, ‘Oh, no!'” she joked.
But rather than correcting and possibly embarrassing the student, Hitt will instead explain how she is like a mom during their time together.
“I explain, ‘I am the mom of the classroom, and it’s kind of the same kind of thing,'” she said. “‘Your mom takes care of you at home and wants what is best for you, and I’m like your mom in the classroom. I’m going to take care of you and make sure you are safe, make sure you do your best and get everything you need in this situation.'”
More and more of those joining her little family are second-generation students.
“You can see little habits and things that they do that is their parent to a tee, and they always get a big kick when I bring my scrapbooks up and show them their parents when they were in kindergarten,” Hitt said.
While they might behave much like their parents did years earlier, this new generation faces much greater expectations. In the early days of her teaching career, she said she might have one or two students who knew the whole alphabet by the end of the year. Now, every student is expected to be able to read before leaving kindergarten.
Hitt said she believes technology and media have played a big role in that advancement. Many kids are exposed to all kinds of learning games and educational programming on television at a young age – something she described as both good and bad.
“The kids get to kindergarten and expect the letters to dance across the screen and sing for them, and that doesn’t happen in a book,” she said.
Others are not exposed to those same resources at an early age and may not be as advanced. Hitt’s job is to meet each student at his or her level – to challenge them but not frustrate them.
She realizes the large responsibility kindergarten teachers have in setting the tone for years of education to come.
“It’s my goal to make every day a positive day (so) they want to come back,” she said. “They’ve got 13 years of public school and four years of college, and I always set that before them. I don’t ever say ‘When you graduate high school…’ it’s ‘When you graduate college.’ Put those goals in their minds right to begin with.”
Rann Principal Melonie Christian said Hitt’s passion for learning is passed along to her students.
“Her kids love learning,” she said. “You go in the classroom, and the kids are always engaged in something. … I think it is huge creating that love for learning that those kids have.”
It’s not only 5- or 6-year-olds who are receiving help in those first few steps of education, such as learning to read. Hitt also helps with the ESL adult program on Wednesday nights at First Baptist Church in Decatur. In some cases, she is teaching both the child and parent at the same time.
“A lot of the students who don’t speak English, the parents might not have the English ability to be able to teach the kids. What’s exciting to me is seeing the parents of the elementary students up there trying to learn the sounds the letters make so they can help their child learn how to read, so in the long run, it’s helping the kids, too. It’s very rewarding,” she said.
Tests are often used to measure success in the classroom, and Hitt said they do perform an important role. But she defines success in a different way.
“What I see happening with that child in the classroom on a day to day basis tells me more about them than any answer on a test. We do give them tests, most of the time oral tests. And the look on a child’s face, their confidence level in answering me, tells me more than the answer they mark on the page,” she said.
By any measure, Hitt has certainly had a successful career. But don’t think she is thinking about retirement anytime soon.
“It’s still fun,” she said. “As long as it’s still fun and I’m enjoying it, I’m going to be here – as long as they’ll have me.”