Edmond Public Schools educators and their supporters gathered in April for the district’s annual celebration of excellence, during which Lauren Dile, a kindergarten teacher at West Field Elementary, was named the 2023 EPS Teacher of the Year.
With students returning to the classroom Thursday, Aug. 17, Dile recently answered questions on her background, life in the classroom, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and navigating the “cultural waters of education.”
The following conversation has been edited lightly for clarity and style.
Tell us about yourself. Where are you from and what led you to the early childhood education profession?
My name is Lauren Dile, and I am proudly serving as the 2023 Edmond Public Schools District Teacher of the Year. I was born and raised right here in Edmond and would happily stay forever. I graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in early childhood education in May 2019. Boomer Sooner! I’ve been married to my sweet husband, Jonathan, for four years. In our free time, we enjoy going on walks, watching OU football, playing pickleball, exploring downtown OKC and spending time with family and friends.
I’ve known that I wanted to be a teacher since I was a kindergartener myself. I spent my elementary school years begging my teachers to let me stay inside from recess to help them grade papers, clean the whiteboards and shelve books in the library. Much to my three younger siblings’ chagrin, my mom often allowed me to play teacher with them in the summer, making them complete worksheet after worksheet and center after center. Teaching had me.
While I had already caught the teaching bug as an elementary school student, it wasn’t until a few years later that I found my “why.” One of my brothers was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder when we were young. Because of him, I really have a heart for students with special needs in the general education classroom. My brother didn’t always have general education teachers who knew how to support, accommodate and care for him in the ways that he needed. That really struck a chord in me. Every student deserves to feel seen, valued and loved for who they are. My entire professional career has been dedicated to acquiring the new knowledge and skills I need to love each individual student for who they are and then equipping their peers and their future teachers with the knowledge and empathy they need in order to do the same.
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In 2023, what does success look like when teaching a class of kindergartners?
As a kindergarten teacher, I find great joy in watching my students grow from knowing absolutely zero letters and sounds in August to watching them read and write complete sentences by May. Those light-bulb moments where addition and subtraction finally click for a student after months of reminding them that, “Gus the Plus adds more, and Linus the Minus takes away,” are the best. The academic growth and development of young students are an essential and irreplaceable part of my job. While these moments absolutely should be celebrated, they are not my greatest accomplishments as a teacher.
I know that we have had a successful year together in kindergarten when, on the last day of school, my students are sad to leave their class family. For nine months, we get the privilege of doing life together. Throughout the year, we become a classroom family where nobody is left behind, where everyone is taken in with all of their beautiful quirks, missing skills and messy parts. I teach my students important life skills like showing empathy for others, using an assertive voice to stand up for themselves, and how to resolve conflict and problem solving as a team. Through these skills, we learn how to love and care for each unique person in our class family in the unique little way that they need to be loved. When May rolls around and my students are teary-eyed walking out the door, I can say, “We did this. This beautiful thing that’s so hard to say goodbye to? We built it — together.”
What do you believe are the biggest challenges EPS educators are facing today?
The cultural waters of education today are tough for teachers. It seems as though everywhere we turn there is a new article, news story or social media post about education. This can often leave educators feeling hopeless and overwhelmed. This, in turn, causes more and more teacher burnout. We have more educators leaving the profession now than ever before.
If you are reading this, I urge you: Please don’t make assumptions about what it’s like in education today. We all have school experiences in our past, but in education, things look really different from year to year. Education five years ago looks vastly different from what it looks like today. Instead of making assumptions or jumping to conclusions, ask educators what it’s like. Be willing to listen and ask them their story, what their day-to-day looks like and what they really need.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed how you teach, and what pandemic-related issues are you and other educators still trying to navigate?
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, social activities worldwide changed pretty drastically. Most in-person events quickly changed to virtual events or were canceled all together. This had a profound impact on our littlest learners.
In the years since the COVID-19 pandemic, we have had students coming to us with fewer social experiences. Many of my kindergarten students were infants and toddlers when the world shut down. This means they missed out on a lot of typical social experiences like going to the grocery store and attending birthday parties, daycare, Mother’s Day Out, etc. While we don’t often think about it, young children learn a great deal from these day-to-day social experiences and interactions. Since our students are now coming into school without these experiences, we as educators are spending a lot more time teaching social skills like self-regulation, assertiveness, problem solving and so on.
What is your favorite program within EPS?
Hands down, my favorite program within Edmond Public Schools is conscious discipline. One of the best things about working for EPS is the rich professional development opportunities it offers to their teachers. I would not be the teacher I am today without it.
Conscious discipline is an evidence-based, trauma-informed approach to social-emotional learning and classroom management. The program follows the school family model for discipline. It is deeply rooted in the belief that both students and staff need to experience deep feelings of safety and belonging in order to be successful: Nobody can learn until they feel safe! When we put relationships first, when students feel like they are a part of a family, the academic learning falls into place. Students begin to intrinsically want to work hard and learn to their highest potential. They want to support their classroom family and make decisions that help others be successful.
What is one lesson that you teach your 5- and 6-year-olds that you hope will stick with them for the rest of their lives?
Unfortunately, our world is full of adults who were never given the tools they need to recognize their own emotions, regulate them and then solve conflict in both an assertive and productive way. Thus, I have made it my mission to equip as many young children with these skills as possible.
I wholeheartedly believe that with these critical life skills in their tool belts, my students can change the world!
What is your most cherished memory from your time teaching thus far?
It’s hard to pick just one memory! As a kindergarten teacher, my day is filled with more joy, laughter and precious moments than you could possibly imagine. However, there is one particular memory that I will never forget.
One year, I had a student walk into my classroom late from a dentist appointment. This was a student who had struggled all year to make friends because he was missing a lot of the social skills that he needed in order to do so. I was reading my class a story on the carpet as this student walked in from his appointment and began to quietly hang his backpack up in his cubby. As soon as his classmates saw him, my entire class leaped up from the carpet and immediately covered him in a giant, silly, messy, kindergarten group hug screaming, “We missed you!” In that moment, my eyes filled with tears, and I was able to stand back in awe of the classroom family that we had grown and built together. That is my why. I’m here for those moments.