WATSON -- One student has straight A’s, hardly needs to ask a question in class and is a talented artist.
Another student has been to numerous schools in the last year, can hardly put together a paragraph and has lost nearly all confidence.
Like any good teacher, it’s Candace Shaidaee’s job to pinpoint the strengths and weaknesses of each student to help them reach their full potential. If she can teach “the whole student,” that’s when they’ll truly flourish.
“Every child has his or her own ability level, and they should be held to that,” Shaidaee said. “I require the best from my students, and that ‘best’ may be different for each student. Each student has the ability to learn, and I have to take time to help them do that. You do that by treating them as an individual student, not a group of students.”
Teaching the “whole student” has always been the goal for Shaidaee, a fourth-grade ELA and social studies teacher at Live Oak Elementary who was named the Livingston Parish Public Schools Elementary Teacher of the Year.
Practically stumbling into the profession 14 years ago, Shaidaee was recognized for the innovative changes she’s brought to her classroom, which include flexible seating, cooperative learning and a stronger focus on in-class technology.
For a new generation of learners, Shaidaee feels it’s the only way she can effectively teach.
“We have to meet the kids where everything else in their lives are,” Shaidaee said. “If you’re still teaching in a desk or rows, it doesn’t mean you’re not effective, but for me personally, I find it is easier for them to relate to the things we’re doing and be more creative if they don’t have those barriers.
“Flexible seating and technology helps them get out of their comfort zone to make sure they’re all working together, and they’ve really thrived in this environment.”
From the newsroom to the classroom
Unlike most teachers, Shaidaee never aspired to spend her days standing in front of a classroom.
Instead, she always dreamed of being behind a camera.
At LSU, Shaidaee majored in broadcast journalism and graduated Summa Cum Laude in 2003. Her dream was to be a producer for a big-time news station, and she immediately began working toward that goal after getting her degree.
In 2003, NBC’s local news affiliate Channel 33 hired Shaidaee as an executive producer. She produced the morning news show and filled in on camera when anchors weren’t unavailable. She also led a weekly cooking segment that featured local restaurants and demos on how to prepare their signature dishes.
In 2004, Shaidaee left that position to pursue her master’s degree in mass communications. To make ends meet, she took a job teaching in Pointe Coupee Parish.
That’s where Shaidaee’s life took a drastic, career-altering turn.
Over the next two years, as she taught French, speech and drama to high-schoolers at False River Academy, she’d come to realize that a return to the news station was no longer what she wanted.
Now, she wanted to stay in the classroom — where she felt she could make the biggest impact.
“I just couldn’t leave it,” she said. “I never finished my master’s.”
Instead of finishing her master’s, Shaidaee entered the two-year Teach Baton Rouge program to get her teaching certification. She started out teaching third-graders at Greenbrier Elementary in Baton Rouge before being hired at Live Oak Elementary in 2008.
She hasn’t left since.
“I’ve been here ever since, in this same classroom, teaching fourth grade,” she said before jokingly adding, “They won’t let me out of here.”
Couches, touch-screen laptops and group discussions
Much has changed in the world of teaching since Shaidaee started at Live Oak Elementary, but she has embraced those changes with open arms.
She was one of the first teachers in the parish to employ flexible seating, which ditches the traditional classroom setting in favor of an innovative, relaxed learning environment. In Shaidaee’s classroom, students sit on couches, pillows and recliners, bean bag chairs, and cushioned seats as they complete the day’s assignments.
In addition to flexible seating, Shaidaee’s classroom is stocked with touch-screen laptops and tablets, computers, engaging learning stations, and a wifi projector. Her hallway also has three smart boards, which Shaidaee secured with a grant shortly after coming to Live Oak Elementary.
“The journalist in me had to have [the smart boards],” Shaidaee said. “Since then, I’ve tried to adopt whatever new technologies for the classroom come out.”
Besides the flexible seating and technological advancements, Shaidaee has also focused on cooperative learning.
Students in Shaidaee’s class work together throughout the day, discussing the material in small groups before presenting in front of the class. And in Shaidaee’s classroom, it’s okay if you get the wrong answer — what’s important is discussing and learning why that answer was wrong.
“I find that having flexible seating and the technology pushes them out of their comfort zone and makes them more open to receiving help,” she said. “Before, they might’ve tried to hide getting an answer wrong, but now they know everybody’s gonna know anyway and that it’s okay to be wrong.
“You’re gonna be wrong a lot, but the point is finding out why the answer was wrong. They have to trust each other, and flexible seating helps with that. They learn how to share work with each other and how to correct each other. That’s when they learn a lot.”
Though students work together for most of the day, they aren’t allowed to sit next to the same person twice — a rule Shaidaee believes can facilitate a greater and more well-rounded level of understanding.
“Whenever they switch, they have to sit next to someone different, and that gives them a different perspective,” she said. “If you’re always sitting next to the same person, then you’re always talking to that same person, and eventually you have nothing new to share.
“But if you sit next to someone else, what that person says may be something you’ve never heard before, and that helps everybody grow because it activates a higher order thinking in their minds.”
As the academic requirements for fourth-graders have changed, Shaidaee has made sure to follow suit.
She’s attended more professional development programs than she can count, and she’s constantly looking for something new and engaging to add to her classroom. Simply put, Shaidaee is always trying “to learn more, do more and participate in more things that will make me better” — and she expects the same from her students.
“If I’m not worried about making myself better as a teacher, how do I expect the kids to do it?” Shaidaee said. “So anything that has ever come about, I try to embrace it with a positive attitude and go all-in, and I expect [my students] to meet me all-in every day.
“To do that, you have to embrace everything that comes along.”
This year, Shaidaee secured a grant from the LSU AgCenter to build a raised garden bed at Live Oak Elementary, hoping to teach students how to raise vegetables “from seedlings to plants.”
Last semester, she introduced the “Super Science Day,” where students engaged in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) activities that covered everything from fossil observations to basic binary coding.
She’s also held social studies workshops to inform the parents of the changes in LEAP testing, and when the school system unveiled its STEAM Express last semester, Shaidaee was the first teacher to book a visit.
Livingston Parish Public Schools officials have taken notice: When representatives from ELMO USA Corp., a global leader in education technology, visited the parish last year to catch a glimpse of the new Learning Spaces Initiative at work, school officials brought them to Shaidaee’s classroom.
Shaidaee has also utilized a website called Seesaw, which she described as “Facebook for kids.” On Seesaw, students can upload their work — PDFs, powerpoints, voice recordings and short video presentations — for their parents to see in a private forum. Students can also comment on each other’s work as it appears on “the journal” (similar to Facebook’s news feed).
“It’s eye-opening for their families to see,” she said. “Their children can make a Powerpoint and turn it into a PDF; they can type an essay and submit it online. Some parents can’t even do that. But to keep up with today’s society, children have to be able to do these things.”
LPPS officials visited Shaidaee’s classroom last December to present her with the Teacher of the Year award — something she never envisioned when she was studying to become a news producer.
But now, Shaidaee said she can’t envision leaving the classroom.
“I feel like this is where I’m needed most,” she said.
When the banner was presented to Shaidaee, her students were more excited than she was, erupting in applause and shouts of “congratulations” and “we did it.”
This was perfectly fine with Shaidaee — to her, the students had as much of a hand in her receiving the award as she did herself.
“The kids started screaming and saying, ‘we won,’ and it’s true,” Shaidaee said. “A good teacher is only evident by the results of the students. If my students weren’t successful, then no one would realize the work that got into it. They are the product of that.
“The kids know if we work hard, they’ll be rewarded. It doesn’t matter if you make straight A’s — it’s about developing the whole child and all the parts. Eventually, that’s what’s going to make a kid successful.”