Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

New Fort Smith instructor­s discuss progress of school year


FORT SMITH — Starting school in a new grade or a building can be a challenge for new teachers.

Andi Duhon-Piechocki and Jami Taylor are new teachers at Tilles Elementary School, working as a fourth grade teacher and a fourth- and fifth grade special education teacher, respective­ly.

The new school year brought unique challenges to both of them because they didn’t start off their careers in education.

Duhon-Piechocki went to school for media communicat­ion. She said she took a long-term substitute position at a Waldron Elementary School when the covid-19 pandemic started and found she enjoyed teaching.

“It was definitely trying, but watching the kids grow was just a lot more fulfilling than anything I had done before. So it made me realize how much I enjoyed teaching, especially when I’m able to teach about things I love, such as reading,” she said.

Taylor went to school for leadership to work in management before going to graduate school for mental health counseling. She said she realized she wanted to teach while doing mental health counseling at an elementary school last year and switched career paths.

Both teachers said their previous work has helped them with how they approach teaching.

Duhon-Piechocki said the quick pace of journalism has taught her to adapt quickly, and her online literacy has helped her when teaching parents how to find something on the district’s website or reach her through email.

“One thing about working in the media is we’re told to simplify our language, so reading these books that have words 15 letters long, being able to look at that or a complicate­d idea and simplify that down to what my students need is so helpful,” Duhon-Piechocki added.

Taylor said mental health is still a big passion of hers, so she tries to apply it to her teaching as much as she can.

Duhon-Piechocki said Taylor’s background has been very important considerin­g schools are still seeing the impact the pandemic had on students.

“Even though it may not have affected them personally, all that jostling of being told to go home, stay in, do this and seeing all of this scary stuff probably gave them some sort of trauma, some level of trauma,” Taylor said.

Being able to adapt to what the student needs emotionall­y has helped her be a better teacher, she said.

Both teachers attributed the pandemic to why students’ reading and writing skills are lower than they should be, whether that’s because they were working on computers, had distractio­ns at home while online learning, had parents that couldn’t help them with their work or a combinatio­n of factors.

Duhon-Piechocki said teachers are also dealing with behavioral issues because students aren’t used to being in classrooms or interactin­g with classmates.

“One of the things I love about Fort Smith district, and honestly every district that I had experience in, is they’re very aware of the struggles and they’re trying to find the right curriculum to address those struggles,” she said.

Both teachers said when preparing for their positions there were problems they anticipate­d that haven’t been an issue and challenges they didn’t anticipate.

They both spoke about how they heard horror stories about parents contacting them at odd hours because a student didn’t get an A on an assignment, or not being believed when talking to a parent about a behavioral issue with their student. They said they both have great parents that try to be aware of what their students are learning, even if they can’t engage with the content.

“I think that they’re open to understand­ing that we want their child to succeed just as much as they do, and we want to make sure that we’re helping them because we get their child eight hours a day, but the learning starts at home,” Duhon-Piechocki said.

“All they care is you’re taking care of their kid and trying to help them,” Taylor said. “And that sounds like low expectatio­ns, but at the same time that’s a big expectatio­n. Actually helping them and them seeing a difference in their kid, that’s a lot.”

Taylor said a challenge she didn’t anticipate was the language barrier with some parents. She said initially, the only way she could speak to the parent is by having their student translate, but that she’s started learning to speak Spanish.

“Here we have a group of teachers that are all doing Spanish Duo Lingo just to help us communicat­e with the parents better and help us communicat­e with the students better,” Duhon-Piechocki said about Tilles teachers, “and that’s something that I don’t think growing up I ever saw teachers really trying to do.”

The teachers said their school years are going well so far.

Duhon-Piechocki said at the beginning of every year she questions her decision to teach because of how stressful it is, but by New Year’s Day she’s sad the school year is almost over.

“When we start learning, and when you see the kids start reading more and answering questions, getting involved, talking to each other, working things out as a group, it starts reminding me,” she said.

 ?? (River Valley Democrat-Gazette/Caleb Grieger) ?? Andi Duhon-Piechocki (left) and Jami Taylor are new teachers at Tilles Elementary School. Visit for today’s photo gallery.
(River Valley Democrat-Gazette/Caleb Grieger) Andi Duhon-Piechocki (left) and Jami Taylor are new teachers at Tilles Elementary School. Visit for today’s photo gallery.
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