About the Prize Winners: Ilana Spencer

Meet Ilana Spencer

Ilana Spencer won the Kohelet Prize for Learning Environment, as part of a team of six at Lamplighters Yeshiva. Check out their winning entry, The Conscious Learning Environment, here:

In your experience, what is the greatest challenge facing students/teachers today?

I think that students and teachers need to find ways to adapt and cope with technology. Children’s minds are changing to adapt to technology more than technology is working to support child development, so I think we have to let go of the idea that we can shelter them from its influence. We need to find ways to both nurture the human mind without needlessly calling upon screentime, while still being flexible enough to introduce it when it enhances learning.

In implementing your winning project in the classroom, was there a moment when you knew that you had hit upon something really powerful?  If so, describe that moment.  

When implementing the peace area in my classroom, the finest moment for me was when children started to place themselves there to resolve arguments or recenter themselves without me guiding them there. That indicated to me that I had created something larger than myself that would exist even if I weren’t there, which is a primary goal of mine as a Montessori educator.

What advice would you give teachers who want to attempt something new and different in their own classrooms?

I feel quite honored to work in a place where experimentation is encouraged. If you can find other teachers or observe other schools where they have successfully implemented something new, use it as the starting point to bring it to your administration and co-teachers. Be willing to put in the energy and work to see it through, and don’t be discouraged if you don’t see the results you were looking for right away. If you model for your children and school that something like peace or quiet alone time is important and something you value, and you are willing to invest time and love in your classroom toward that end, I believe they will come around.

What’s your favorite part of your teaching day and why?

I love greeting children when they come in the classroom. I can usually gauge what kind of morning they’ve had and how they feel about school that day by making quick eye contact, and can more often than not turn things around if need be with a smile and some warmth. I love feeling mutually optimistic about our day learning together.

How do you ensure that you’re always growing professionally?

For me, it’s been critical to visit other schools and create good professional relationships with other teachers. I encourage the teachers I work with to do this as well. Very good things have come from cross pollination of ideas.

If you had one piece of advice to share with a new teacher walking into his/her classroom for the first time…  

Relationships are everything. A child can’t learn if they don’t feel essentially loved and accepted by the teacher, and you are a better teacher if you find a way to enjoy the child’s company. This, to me, is the cornerstone of a successful classroom. Please take the time and space to have fun with the children and laugh genuinely! I didn’t feel like I could do this until I saw another established teacher really enjoying her day and the students. That changed me forever as a teacher.

What are some ways in which you motivate your students to become lifelong learners?  

When a child asks an excellent question or develops a fascination, sit and do research with them. Let them see the process of how to look things up and how to identify what is useful information. I think they should also witness how passion and curiosity can drive this whole process.