Kindergarten teacher makes learning fun at Woodward Elementary
When Shelly Orchard was first seeking a job in the Tigard-Tualatin School District 35 years ago, she was told there were 1,200 applications on file.
She landed a job as a fifth-grade teacher.
“But even as much as I enjoyed it — and there were aspects of it that were super-fun — my heart has always been kindergartners, and it’s such an important thing to me because kindergarten is the gateway into ‘big school,’” said Orchard, who has worked as a kindergarten teacher at Mary Woodward Elementary School for the last 14 years.
The Tigard resident considers herself a gatekeeper of sorts, something she takes very seriously.
“My goal is to teach kids that learning can be fun and I want to get them excited every day. (I’ve) kind of been told I do things over-the-top, which is kind of true,” Orchard said.
Two years ago, while on an airplane with her daughter — who is a kindergarten teacher in the West Linn-Wilsonville School District — the pair brainstormed over creating an entire classroom motif. What they came up with was an elaborate camping scene for the younger Orchard’s classroom.
“Then I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, now I want a campground,’” said Shelly Orchard. “I call my kids ‘happy campers,’ and so I changed my classroom setting to be a campground, so when you walk in, there’s all these trees, and there’s a trailer on the wall, and there’s cabins that have different things each month on the wall.”
One element of her campground motif that engages students is when she shuts off all the lights and the room is illuminated solely by 50 battery-operated plastic candles. (She admits that when she first started the project, she came into her classroom early because it took eight minutes to turn on all the candles.)
Another classroom project Orchard often creates involves large clouds to illustrate how weather works, complete with a huge sun in the middle of the room.
What Orchard has learned over the years is that 5-year-olds have a great capacity to learn, and as long as they’re taught in child-friendly ways, they can often learn quite advanced concepts.
In addition to the standard curriculum, Orchard tries teaching her young charges in ways that are engaging.
Each year, she creates a photo album for every child that includes everything they have done over the year.
“I will actually bump into (my former students) and they will say, ‘Mrs. Orchard, I still have my album.’ And I’m just like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is amazing.’ It’s so cool,” Orchard said.
She sings constantly, she said — both songs that might be familiar to students and ones she’s made up herself.
Believing that students learn in a variety of ways, Orchard said if she only teaches students a certain way, she is not hitting every potential learner.
Orchard even has a “Pets and Vets” day — a favorite of students — where students dress up like veterinarians complete with a doctor ID tag. Stuffed animals are their “patients” for the day. Orchard said it creates a lasting memory for kids.
Another memorable chapter students recall later in their lives are projects that involve the metamorphosis of caterpillars changing into butterflies, and another project that involves watching 12 fertilized chicken eggs hatch.
“These kind of experiences are the glue that holds that academic learning together,” Orchard said.
Orchard said she loves working in the same community where she lives.
“I just see that as a bonus because I’m a hyper-connector. I love connecting with people,” Orchard said.
She once saw three families of former students inside a grocery store and talked with them all, something that does not bother her at all, she remarked.
“This isn’t just a job. At least, it’s not to me,” Orchard said. “It’s dealing with little humans and setting their course.”