CANTON — While the first day for students in Haywood County Consolidated Schools won’t be until Monday, Aug. 19, teachers have been hard at it all week as they prepare for opening day.

Educator Max Thompson, the project director of the Learning-Focused Instructional Framework, led workshops for middle and high school teachers this week. His specialty is connecting exemplary practices in curriculum, instruction, assessment and school organization to increase learning and achievement in schools.

Jill Barker, associate superintendent of instruction curriculum, said Thompson’s extensive research found there were 10 strategies commonly applied in schools of excellence, especially in schools with 90 percent of its students in each of three challenging categories — free and reduced lunches, proficiency and minority populations.

For the past seven years, the Haywood school system has ranked at or near the top 10 percent in the state for academic excellence in North Carolina, and present leaders say they intend to get even better.

Superintendent Bill Nolte said this week has been focused on training. There were training sessions for cafeteria workers on food handling; safety training with the county emergency medical staff, transportation training for bus drivers who had to brush up on new rules and more.

In an effort to complete the first semester before Christmas, a staff development day customarily held in October was moved to this week, freeing up one more instructional day to use in the event of weather-related delays.

“Plus, if they get the information earlier, they can use it from the first day school starts,” Nolte said.

Trevor Putnam, associate superintendent of support services, spoke of the lock-down training all teachers must have. This year’s focus is on situational awareness, he explained.

“Teachers need to think ahead and be ready to adapt should a situation arise,” he said, explaining that an awareness of surroundings can help better face an adverse situation. “Run and hide isn’t always the answer. Things like tossing a glass of water or tipping up a table may be what’s called for.”

The second focus is on what’s called “stop the bleed.” He noted that in school shootings, the largest number of fatalities stem from victims bleeding out.

While it is uncomfortable to think about such an occurrence, both Nolte and Putnam agreed it is far better to be trained on how to handle it rather than be unprepared.

Readying the classrooms

At elementary schools across the county, teachers were likewise in staff development sessions, which were squeezed in between getting classrooms ready for students next week.

It is hard to overstate the importance of having a lively, inviting classroom where students learn each day, said North Canton Elementary School teachers Sharon Cagle, the school’s teacher of the year, and Carol Harkins, the assistant teacher of the year.

Because the classroom floors are redone each year, teachers need to remove all items in the room and store them in cubby holes, shelving and counter tops in the room. The boxes must be covered to protect the contents from the dust that flies during the process.

Then, days before school opens, teachers are back in the classroom putting up posters, arranging teaching aids and making bulletin boards to make students feel welcome.

“The environment is very important,” said Harkins, who is in a kindergarten room. “You want the room to be a happy place where they students want to come.”

A teacher’s demeanor, likewise, makes all the difference, both agreed.

“You can’t fake loving them,” said Cagle, “and they know when you aren’t happy.”

“If you want the truth, just ask a kindergartner or a first grader,” Harkins added. “They will tell you when your hair looks bad.”

“Or if they don’t like you without glasses,” Cagle added.

Harkins and Cagle make it a point to be the first happy face their students see, whether it is on the bus, which is also a school duty handled by Harkins, or when they walk into the classroom.

While Harkins has been working with kindergarteners and first graders for 19 years, Cagle spent her early career years teaching physical education. A bout with ovarian cancer led to a change.

“When something like that happens, you re-evaluate your life,” she explained. “I kept feeling a pull to make a change, and I ended up here. It’s the most wonderful thing I’ve ever done.”

Cagle said there was a time when she wondered about retiring, but now that she’s a first-grade teacher, she thinks she may never retire.

“There’s not a day I get up that I am not ready to come to school,” agreed Harkins. “When you are there, you know it’s time to quit.”

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