"When you build a relationship with students, academics happen naturally."
Each day, when Riley Barton walked into Mrs. Julie Dooley’s fourth grade class at Hagemann Elementary School in St. Louis, Missouri, the first thing she saw was Mrs. Dooley, standing in the doorway, asking her if she wanted a hug to start her day. Riley always said yes.
The second thing she saw was a variety of chairs. In Mrs. Dooley’s room there are office chairs, bar stools, Busch stadium seats, bouncy balls—almost any kind of chair you can think of. There’s nearly as large a variety of tables, too—round, square, high, low, and even tables with whiteboard tops so that students can write on the surface. Each morning, after they are greeted with the offer of a hug, Mrs. Dooley’s fourth graders are allowed to choose their seat for the day. This flexible seating model is one of the many methods that Mrs. Dooley uses to inspire, empower, and engage her students, including Riley, who particularly loved to learn while sitting in the Cardinals Chair, because she thought it was the most comfortable.
But flex seating wasn’t just a way for Mrs. Dooley to make sure that Riley and all of her classmates were comfortable. It was a chance for Mrs. Dooley to impact her students on a deeper level. “We have class meetings about how to choose flex seating,” Mrs. Dooley said. “We talk about how to make good choices, how to be responsible for having the best day.”
Personal responsibility is something that Mrs. Dooley stresses in her room. She has a classroom economy that revolves around two different monetary systems: Talon Tickets, which are a school-wide system for discipline that reward and promote positive behavior, and her own Dooley Dollars, which students can earn in the classroom for completing their daily jobs, and then trade in at the classroom store for privileges. “I use them as incentives,” said Mrs. Dooley.
And incentives they are. With enough Dooley Dollars, students can buy things like a Stinky Feet Pass, to take off their shoes in the classroom, or a Switch a Class Pass, so a friend from another class can spend the day with them in Mrs. Dooley’s room. They can even buy a Sit at the Teacher’s Desk Pass or, Riley’s favorite, the Sit with the Guinea Pig at Reading Pass. “I loved it so much,” Riley said, “because the guinea pigs were so cute and cuddly. Nobody else has guinea pigs. It was great to look forward to with Dooley Dollars.”
Rewarding kids is rewarding to Mrs. Dooley, too. “We know a portion of why they come to school is to learn,” Mrs. Dooley said. “And when I have them so engaged…I just love it. I’m making a difference, and they don’t even know it.”
“Heroes have apples on their desks and dry erase markers in their hands. Mrs. Dooley is a guardian of childhoods and hopes for the brightest of bright futures.”
Amber Barton, Riley's mother
At the beginning of the school year, Mrs. Dooley asked her class of twenty-three students what their worst subject was. Sixteen of them, including Riley, said “math.” So Mrs. Dooley spent the year making math as engaging as she could. At the end of the school year when Mrs. Dooley asked about math again, those same kids said it was now their best subject. “My daughter struggled with math,” Riley’s mother, Amber Barton said, “and Mrs. Dooley’s way of teaching made it possible for her to overcome that wrinkle in education!” And that’s just how Mrs. Dooley intended it. “I’m selling them something,” Mrs. Dooley said, “but they believe in it as well. When I can get them engaged, they have that thirst for knowledge in a subject they didn’t even think they were good at. I was able to change their mindset about math.”
According to her school’s principal, Julie Dunham, Mrs. Dooley is a teacher leader in the building, always bringing new ideas and concepts to the staff to share. She is extremely student-focused and wants all of the students in her classroom to be the best they can possibly be. And that makes perfect sense, because Mrs. Dooley has been preparing to be a teacher ever since she was a child herself.
When Mrs. Dooley was an elementary school student, she used to sit in her garage, her stuffed animals lined up in rows in front of her (she hadn’t known about flex seating then) and teach them. “I’ve always wanted to be a teacher, ever since I was a little kid,” she said, “I always had a passion to teach children and to help them.”
As Mrs. Dooley grew up, she stopped teaching stuffed animals and started teaching her younger sister. Nine years older, Mrs. Dooley had a lot of knowledge to impart. “I made sure my sister learned her address and phone number before started kindergarten,” Mrs. Dooley remembered.
While she was teaching her sister and babysitting at home, Mrs. Dooley was soaking in knowledge at school—but not simply facts about history or language arts or how to solve mathematic equations. She was learning how to be a kind, caring, inspiring teacher, one that would have a positive impact on so many students, like Riley. Her physical education teacher, Greg Pelster, was the one who made the biggest impression on Mrs. Dooley in elementary school and unknowingly gave her the blueprint of who she wanted to be and how she wanted to act when she got older. “He always made you think about life lessons,” she said. “He would make stretches fun and engaging and talk about how to help people around Thanksgiving. He would collect canned goods and talk to us about families in need. He would remind us that we should help and do good things for others.” He also encouraged his students to appreciate their families and make sure their parents, grandparents, and cousins knew how much they were loved. He was a passionate teacher who took his students and his role as a teacher seriously.
“Mr. Pelster was a good person and really tried to bring out the character in children; not just their athleticism,” Mrs. Dooley said. “He instilled something in me that goes beyond the classroom walls. The relationship part of being an educator—I’m not just their teacher. I’m someone they can go to, someone who cares. It’s not just about academics. When you build a relationship with students, academics happen naturally. And those relationships carry through over time. When I get a text from an ex-student who wishes me a happy birthday or when students come back and visit, I know that I’ve impacted their life somehow, without it even being said, and I’m thankful I was able to do that for another human being.”
“I don't think it pays very much, but it is rewarding and would make me sleep well at night knowing I can help other kids like Mrs. Dooley has helped me.”
Riley Barton, on wanting to be a teacher when she grows up
Riley Barton, whose mother nominated Dooley for the Honored award, is one of the human beings that Mrs. Dooley has made a huge impact on. She was one of Mrs. Dooley’s fourth graders in the 2018-2019 school year, and, according to Mrs. Dooley, was “one of those kids who touches your heart. She has such a good heart, and it’s always in the right place. I always wanted to make sure she felt the same from me.”
And Riley did. “She always had a lot to say about Mrs. Dooley,” Ms. Barton, said. “If Riley would forget a snack at home, Mrs. Dooley would always have one for her. Mrs. Dooley greeted her with a hug every morning. And Riley knew how much she cared about everyone and how selfless she was. There was one time where it was a holiday party and Riley had forgotten her money at home. Mrs. Dooley gave Riley $20 out of her own pocket so Riley could shop at the Holiday House they had at the party. Riley always said how sweet she was and how she listened to kids when they needed something.”
For Valentine’s Day, Riley wrote Mrs. Dooley a letter. “You’re a wonderful fantastic, loving, amazing teacher!” it said. “Did you know that I always love when you give me hugs in the morning? It makes me feel comfortable and ready to start the day! You have always encouraged me to work my hardest and do my best! I think you’re BOOTIFUL inside and on the outside! It’s like you have some kind of teacher superpower for what you do! But I know it’s really just you and your HUGE heart! You are perfect the way you are! I love you Mrs. Dooley! Xoxo Your caring student, Riley B.”
The fact that Riley wrote this note and felt this way meant a lot to her mother. Ms. Barton explained that at the beginning of the year “Riley was uneasy, shy, self-conscious and going through some things at home which made the start to the year emotional and stressful… If it had not been for Mrs. Dooley this past year, Riley would have hid under a rock and shut out the world. Mrs. Dooley has encouraged and led by example to help Riley not only exceed our expectations but help shape the rest of her life in such an incredible means.”
The feeling was mutual. Mrs. Dooley can’t say enough about Riley. “She’s very bright,” she said. “She would always go the extra mile for any assignment. If I said you needed 6-8 Google slides for a presentation, she gave me 15. She’s a beautiful writer with a great imagination. She would explain answers to the nth degree. She’s a beautiful artist and has a beautiful singing voice. I just never wanted her to be sad because of everything she gave.”
Riley clearly felt her teacher’s love. Ms. Barton said that since being in Mrs. Dooley’s class, Riley has smiled more, has faced her fears, and learned to stay positive and brave, even in the face of failure. And Mrs. Dooley has also given Riley a dream: to become a teacher herself one day. Riley told her mom that she wants to be a teacher at Hagemann Elementary in particular and hopes that Mrs. Dooley will still be there so they can teach together. Riley told her mom, “I don’t think it pays very much, but it is rewarding and would make me sleep well at night knowing I can help other kids like Mrs. Dooley has helped me.”
"When I get a text from an ex-student who wishes me a happy birthday or when students come back and visit, I know that I’ve impacted their life somehow, and I’m thankful I was able to do that for another human being.”
Mrs. Dooley said that her teaching philosophy is about creating relationships with students and helping them achieve their dreams and their goals. But just like her own experience with Mr. Pelster, Mrs. Dooley isn’t just helping them achieve dreams, she’s a role model, providing a blueprint for her own students to follow as they grow up. She inspires them to create dreams and to emulate her own generous, giving spirit.
“Heroes,” Ms. Barton said, when talking about Mrs. Dooley, “have apples on their desks and dry erase markers in their hands. [They’re] not just flying around in capes or wearing dog tags. Mrs. Dooley is a guardian of childhoods and hopes for the brightest of bright futures.”
And because of Mrs. Dooley, Riley’s future will be brighter. But more than that, so will the futures of all the people that Riley touches as she grows up, and the futures that those people touch as well. Because of her students, Mrs. Dooley’s impact on the world will continuously grow and expand, in the same way that the impact of her own favorite teacher, Mr. Pelster, expanded because of her. Love begets love, and that’s something that, at ten years old, Riley Barton already understands.
Photos by David Carson
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