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Vermont's 2024 Teacher of the Year brings collaboration, diversity to the classroom

Classroom without children at school's out. The desks are in rows and you can read the names of the children on the front of the desks drawn in multicolour. Photo was taken in elementary school in Quebec Canada.
Classroom without children at school's out. The desks are in rows and you can read the names of the children on the front of the desks drawn in multicolour. Photo was taken in elementary school in Quebec Canada.

For the past few years, Burlington teacher Aziza Malik has advocated for collaboration in and outside of her classroom.

That’s by building relationships between schools and local businesses, nonprofits and other community stakeholders.

This approach has led Malik, who teaches fifth grade at Champlain Elementary, to be named Vermont’s 2024 Teacher of the Year.

Malik spoke with Vermont Public's Mary Engisch from her classroom. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Williams Engisch: Well, congratulations. We'll dig into your teaching philosophy in just a sec. But first, how did you hear that you were named as 2024 Vermont Teacher of the Year? Take us into that moment.

Aziza Malik: It was a staff meeting. We were all there at the beginning of the school year, gathered into a kindergarten classroom in some little teeny, tiny chairs. It was about 90 degrees that day. I think we were all feeling pretty tired after our first couple of days. Then my principal said, "There's one last announcement to make." Then he told me, and it was just a complete shock! I had no idea that was coming, and it was extremely exciting.

How did it feel to hear that news? What was your first thought?

My first thought was that it is really, truly a shared award. Every single project that we've done together here at our school — all the things that I'm being honored for — not a single one has been done by myself. I couldn't be luckier to be in a place that really embraces working together in that way; I couldn't be prouder of the things that we've accomplished together.

Tell me more about that — you said that your classroom curriculum should reflect local community needs. Tell me what you mean by that?

The way that I approach curriculum is school is not just a place to read something out of a book, and dream of things happening in the future. To me it is — yes, reading those books, learning about the world through those things — but really using our time together, using those skills that we've learned to make our community a better place. Every year that looks a little bit different: the community shifts and changes every year, the students that are in our classrooms change every year, the world outside our classroom changes every year. It's our job as educators to really be looking and finding those connections, so that we can all work together to really achieve those mutual shared goals.

Your classroom sort of sounds like this living, breathing entity full of all these different students. I understand that you also advocate for your curriculum to focused on diverse perspectives. Where did that teaching philosophy come from? Was there a particular moment? Or or did you feel that something was missing in in most classrooms?

I think it comes from my own schooling and upbringing. I grew up in Southern California, in a suburb of San Diego, that was primarily white. My dad is from India, and my mom is white. Me and my brother, were the only two people in our entire school that had names that were different. My dad was Muslim, had different religion, all of those things. I remember looking through books and never, ever seeing myself reflected. People were always afraid to say my name. All those things kind of made me feel like I wanted to be someone different. I really wanted my name to be Jessica. I really wanted to have blond hair and blue eyes because that's what I saw reflected in the curriculum. I think that's kind of been with me throughout it all.

I couldn't be luckier to be in Burlington, where we have such a diverse student body. It's just such an opportunity to be able to see all those diverse perspectives, to be able to include those in our classroom. I want every single student to feel like they belong.

There was another project that kind of was like ah-aha moment for me. I've done work for many years in the farming community. Before I was a classroom teacher, I worked at the interval as a farm based educator. I have a lot of background and gardening and farming and that work has continued as I've come into the classroom. We have been doing lots and lots of cooking, and I kind of suddenly realized that our cooking curriculum really didn't reflect the diversity of people in our schools. We started the "celebrating our roots" project. There was a moment that really got me.

We have a tea time in our classroom. While we're reading books, we have tea that we've collected from the garden, we do a lot of peppermint and other types of tea, but I decided to make Chai for my students. It comes from my family, we drink Chai all day, every day. I put that together for them. As I served it, one of my students of African descent came up to me, and he just was so over the moon excited, because he said, "This is the tea that I make at home." The next day, he came in with his little bags of black tea, and we made the Chai together. It was just a beautiful moment where he saw something from his home culture reflected in our school. I just saw how much he felt like he belonged in that moment, the connection that we made together, and then his joy to be able to share that with the rest of the classroom, because of course, everyone loved it. I really have been working to create those moments where we feel like we belong and we're proud to share who we are. If we don't have that, we don't have anything.

Take me a little bit more into your classroom. I'm a new fifth grader at Champlain Elementary. What would I encounter first in your class? How might you connect me with the learning process?

Yeah, so I think I was sharing before we really always start with identity. We want to know who we are as individuals; we explore many aspects of who we are. I keep my classroom pretty blank to start off. Together, we really build both the art on the walls, we really put what we believe up on there and then we also create systems together. I truly believe, especially fifth graders, but really any grade level, that students really are the leaders and it should be a shared experience. We decide together how we're going to gather, when we need to come together, what's the signals we're going to use and what's the best way to do things. We create a shared set of norms with each other that we hold each other accountable to. That way, it just really feels like our classroom versus me telling you what to do all the time.

I mentioned this in the introduction, too. But can you give us some examples of how you build relationships between students and also local businesses, local governments or nonprofits?

We have the most amazing community. I just couldn't be more grateful to be in a place that has the people who are doing such wonderful things, and are also willing to come speak to fifth graders, our whole school and really work with us.

It's been a process through many, many years. I think it's really having conversations with people when you meet them, every single year, you have a fresh batch of families that come into your classroom. Just in the classroom itself, I have met so many people that have connected to projects that our school.

For example, one of our biggest projects is with an organization called Burlington Wildways. It's truly a collaboration, Burlington Wildways connects us to parts of our city like Burlington schools, and Burlington Parks and Recreation. Often what happens in cities is we work really in isolation from each other. When really, if we work together, we can really achieve mutual goals. Burlington Wildways has brought us together to be able to help the city achieve some of its climate goals. Now, we have things like a wildlife corridor and a native tree nursery. We are learning about nature based solutions to climate change. It's so amazing. We're learning all about the wildlife habitat, and we're taking actual steps to really create change right here on our school campus.

This project started with a conversation with a parent in my classroom. One of my very first classrooms here, so it was probably about 13, 14 years ago. We just started talking about how we wanted every single student in our school to have access to nature education.

Why do you think it's important for students to learn about these sorts of concepts now as kiddos? They're fifth graders, they're 10, 11 years old? Why now? What do you hope comes from some of these connections that they're making with the community, with their natural world?

What are we doing with our time? Yes, we're learning, but we can use that time for greater shared purpose. How empowering is that to see your work really make change? We've had so many projects that students years later come back and say wow, "We did this together." It's the thing that they remember because it was real; it had relevance to their lives. What could be better than that? I mean, really nothing.

You've been teaching for 14 years, has your teaching style changed since year one?

I would say absolutely. Your first year, you're just trying to survive, for sure. But I think my deep philosophies have never shifted. I would say I have my systems down pretty well at this point. There's no job I'd rather do; I absolutely love being here. I never want to leave the classroom, people always say, "Oh, you don't you want to do something else outside of here?" No, the kids and being here! It's just the magic of what you accomplish every year together, that can't be replicated any other way. It's just the most wonderful thing to experience. I absolutely love what I do. Every single day.

Have you noticed differences in how your students access learning over the last 14 years?

Yeah, I would say that there are many shifts, just as the world changes and technology coming in. I feel like COVID changed a lot of things, where we suddenly had to be super in isolation from each other. That was definitely for a few years, and I feel like we're still coming out of it. It became very individualistic. At the beginning of the year, having to put a lot more effort into how do we interact with each other when we're in a room full of others. When we're trying to move around the classroom when we're working in partnerships, because that was that was missed for a few years. I would say, that is definitely a shift I see of coming out of now. But there's been a lot of work on, how do we come back together after needing to be apart?

Currently, the state of Vermont is looking for its next Secretary of Education. What do you see as some of the bigger challenges that are facing schools? And in Vermont right now? What kind of qualities would you like to see in the next person that leads the agency of education?

I would say our biggest challenge is that we don't have enough people. Our staffing has been really, really low, and that has put tremendous stress on our educators — not having the people that we need to effectively do our jobs. And it's been really sad.

Over the last few years, I've lost some really great colleagues. My teaching teammate of over 10 years just left because it was just so overwhelming to be a teacher while also having a young family. And I completely understand. I think the job is just so, so wonderful and if we had the people, we could really be at a much better place.

One last question. Many of us can name our favorite teacher, or a teacher who saw us and understood us when it seems like no one else really could. Can you name your favorite teacher and what they recognized in you?

Absolutely. My favorite teacher was my fourth grade teacher. Her name was Miss Breading. What I loved about her was that I felt like she really did see me. Every day, she waited at the door, she gave every single student a hug as they walked in, looked in your eyes and greeted you. She did projects that felt really relevant and fun. We were able to write creatively. For the first time, I just started writing pages and pages and pages of creative writing. The way she encouraged us, and she just had this lightness and joy about her. She would sing songs with us and she had a guitar. I just have such wonderful memories of her. I've tried to track her down a bunch of times, but I've never successfully been able to do it. If you're out there Miss breading, I would love to thank you for for being the most amazing teacher ever.

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