Sitting among a class of seniors at Fort Vancouver High School, Bethany Rivard listens to one of her students recite a heartbreaking poem about the private agony of one of America’s most beloved entertainers, the late Robin Williams.
Moments later, Rivard stands at the front of the classroom, reading aloud an autobiographical poem written by one of her students from the perspective of Malcolm X. The scene epitomizes what the job is all about for Rivard, a 40-year-old English teacher and one of nine finalists for this year’s Washington State Teacher of the Year Award.
“Teaching is about listening,” she said. “That’s the most important thing.”
In Rivard’s classroom, everyone is an equal and everyone has a compelling story to tell. After nearly a decade teaching at the school, Rivard is trying some new tricks, adopting a discussion-based teaching style called the democratic classroom.
It’s a structure that fosters a more collaborative and open environment, where students help in making the rules, she said. And it promotes a system where everybody — teachers and students alike — becomes actively involved in the learning process.
“The idea is that all the students own the classroom and the teacher is not necessarily more important than anybody else,” Rivard said. “I think a lot of times, students are afraid to speak their truth, to talk about their background. This kind of teaching style is empowering, because it gives students a voice.”