Rachel Leach Cultivates Learning at Silver Stage Middle School
By Pam Ertel, 2017 Nevada Teacher of the Year
During our spring break, a colleague and I visited Rachel Leach, a 2018 finalist for the Nevada Teacher of the Year, and her joyful and loving team of teachers at Silver Stage Middle School. We are still discussing ideas that we learned from and about Rachel, her school, and her vision for her students. Rachel modeled that vision as soon as we met her walking down the hall on the way to the lunchroom. She responded positively to greetings from students with hugs and encouraging words while rounding up the free breakfast coolers left beside classroom doors after a morning of testing. That short walk was an introduction to a very special place with an amazing educator at the center of much of the activity.
Ms. Leach directed us to the lunchroom where students were talking with each other and a teacher at each round table. The GREEN Team students continuously walked up to check in with her while she told us about family style dining, collecting food waste for composting and food for pigs raised nearby, and the school’s recycling program. As a twenty-year veteran teacher, it was clear that Rachel was making a difference in the lives of the students at this school, not just a place for learning math and reading, but the very center of survival for many students living below the poverty line in this part of rural Nevada.
We were told that food waste had been reduced by 90% and witnessed the direct line of compostable food from the lunchroom to the bins and rows in the ground, later to become rich soil used to grow vegetables, herbs, and fruit trees in the desert.
After a chance to chat with the students and watch them in action in the lunchroom, several members of the GREEN Team continued our tour of the middle school grounds to the school garden, which is shared with the elementary school. We were told that food waste had been reduced by 90% and witnessed the direct line of compostable food from the lunchroom to the bins and rows in the ground, later to become rich soil used to grow vegetables, herbs, and fruit trees in the desert. The students took us into the lush growing area inside the hoop house, which we later learned was the beginning of the school garden in 2012, donated by Healthy Communities, a regional effort to increase access to affordable, local, and sustainably grown food. At that time, two local farmers also started volunteering their expertise and plants. In more affluent communities, many volunteers keep projects like the hoop house project going. At this school, the project started growing and flourishing only after Rachel asked one day if she and her students could grow zucchinis inside the hoop house. Soon, she was in charge of the whole project, with the help of her farmer friends and an AmeriCorps volunteer.
One teacher cannot manage such a large garden (it has grown exponentially in both size and production in the past seven years), so the GREEN Team was formed to support the garden and recycling efforts. Rachel’s students at the time, now seniors in high school, coined the acronym, GREEN, for Gardening Recycling Educating & Encouraging Neighbors. The team is made up of fifth through eighth graders, who complete a job application with references and answer questions from a panel interview. Once hired, the students fill out daily time sheets to account for all their service hours. Some of the kids donate over 150 hours each year! They mentor others to carry out the many garden and recycling tasks. Every day, the work is accomplished by the GREEN Team and Ms. Leach’s sixth graders, and about once or twice a week, younger students walk out the elementary school doors to work in the garden with guidance from these older mentors.
All of this, and Ms. Leach continues to teach her sixth grade class with a sense of humor and fun sprinkled into every day. Her students learn to read better, tackle tough math problems, and write to express their learning and themselves, just as any other sixth grade students are expected to do. However, often this learning is directly related to working in the garden. One of the best reasons Ms. Leach gives to justify the “garden period” each day is that students want to show up at school to see what is happening out there, what has changed, what is growing. When students attend school on a regular basis, they learn much more than when their attendance is sporadic.
…she isn’t trying to build better test takers, but better people, better citizens of the world, better humans, who are kind, empathetic, thoughtful, and passionate.
Rachel expressed that while her students do perform well on the end of the year tests, she isn’t trying to build better test takers, but better people, better citizens of the world, better humans, who are kind, empathetic, thoughtful, and passionate. There is so much more happening for her students. The state tests do not directly measure all that her students are learning: collaboration and communication with peers, younger students, and adults; appreciation of food grown by hand and hard work; celebration of garden successes; perseverance when crops or water systems fail; and the value of participating in something larger than themselves. Also, although not stated by Rachel directly, but evident that day spent at her school, these students experience positive relationships with compassionate and competent adults who want to make their lives better in every aspect. Personally, I was pleased to see two former students from my school fitting in so well and blossoming in this incredibly loving environment. The social-emotional support gained by working in a garden, collaborating with peers and mentors/mentees, and being nurtured and nourished in an environment such as the one at Silver Stage Middle School is not found in every school, no matter the economic stability of the community around it. At SSMS, Ms. Leach and the garden project play important roles in the positive impact on students’ lives.
With her expertise and experience, Rachel Leach would be welcomed at any school. In fact, friends often ask her when she will join them teaching at a school in a larger town. Her answer is evident of her dedication to this community and its children, “Never! I love it here!” Since her family lives in the area zoned for the Silver Stage schools, her two children attend the same school where Rachel teaches and regularly walk by her classroom. I heard Ms. Leach ask a student to get the attention of “Robbie” in the hall. The student asked which Robbie she wanted. Rachel replied, “MY Robbie,” meaning her son. However, as we observed during the time we spent with her, all the students are “HERS” and are offered the same loving embraces and encouragement as her biological children, a practice seen widely throughout the school.
“My students feel a sense of purpose. They truly believe they are starting the work of changing the world, and that seems to have made all the difference.”
Ms. Leach summed up our conversation by stating, “My students feel a sense of purpose. They truly believe they are starting the work of changing the world, and that seems to have made all the difference.” And one worm bin at a time, one round table at lunch at a time, one seedling at a time, one student at a time, Rachel Leach is truly the genesis of that beginning work experienced by her students in changing the world for the better, and consequentially, the resource for others who want to carry out similar projects back in their own schools and communities. The influence Rachel is making is far-reaching beyond her wildest dreams, as suggested by the age-old saying about pebbles in a pond! Thank you for being willing to throw the first pebbles, even when the tasks seemed so daunting, Rachel. We salute you and all your worthwhile efforts, as one of the hidden treasures of Nevada, its amazing teachers.