A lot still had to be done in Liz Fitzgerald's fourth-grade classroom at Sagebrush Elementary School on Aug. 4.
A week remained before classes kicked off for the 2016-17 school year, and Fitzgerald had a laundry list of tasks to complete before she formally welcomed students on Aug. 11. Books sat in stacks on the carpeted floor, waiting to be organized according to category and reading level. Desks and chairs were stacked on top of each other in the corner; a number of rubber exercise balls offered the only seats in the room.
The landscape would soon change. To the strains of a country music soundtrack, Fitzgerald crisscrossed the classroom, stocking up cabinets with new school supplies and tacking a stretch of cloth to one of the blank walls to create a "sticky board" for the coming year.
As she went about the tasks of prepping her classroom, it was impossible to miss an almost palpable sense of excitement.
"There's a lot of hope this time of year. It's a brand new year, a brand new start, a brand new group of kids," Fitzgerald said. "That's really exciting right now."
Fitzgerald, who'll start her seventh year teaching and her third year at Sagebrush and in the Cherry Creek School District, recalled words of wisdom she'd picked up from a colleague when she first started in the profession. Part of the reason that teachers keep coming back year after year is an elusive quest for perfection, her colleague said; every year offers a new chance to get things right, a new opportunity to help every student succeed.
Fitzgerald has found some truth in those words.
"In some ways, I've figured out what my management style is and how I'm going to connect with kids. That stays the same," Fitzgerald said. "But it doesn't get easier – it just gets different … I'm very Type A – I like having everything organized and figured out. The hardest part is being OK with the fact that everything will change depending on the needs of my kids."
In the meantime, Fitzgerald joined hundreds of teachers across the district in a preparation process that combines curriculum planning with a skill for interior decorating. Fitzgerald eyed the blank spaces on the classroom walls and explained the spots were reserved for artwork, decorations and other materials from the students themselves. She scanned the room and explained that she wanted to offer plenty of space for movement and kinetic learning.
All of these considerations figure into the learning process, she explained.
"Even when my room is 'ready,' it will still look almost like it does right now, because I want this to be their room and their space," she said. "We'll put a lot of stuff up together so it feels like our classroom. I always want school to be a really safe space. I want it to feel like home for kids."
Still, Fitzgerald had plenty of items on her list to check off before students could begin to put their own stamp on the space. From organizing books for a newly refitted library section to putting materials in their proper place, there were several tasks to complete before the room was "kid-ready."
"It's little things like going to Target and making sure I have extra school supplies and new dry-erase markers and new bookbags for my kids," Fitzgerald said. "Within these four walls, I can control that the kids feel safe and that they have a safe place and that it feels like home."