Tara Hirsch, Third Grade Teacher

Tara Hirsch, a third grade teacher at Hyalite Elementary School, poses for a photo in her classroom on April 8, 2021.

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Tara Hirsch and her Hamilton-obsessed third grade Hyalite Elementary class were in the middle of a President’s Day discussion when one of her students asked why everyone said Barack Obama was the first Black president when Thomas Jefferson was Black.

Hirsch said it wasn’t a moment she was prepared for but, after taking a deep breath, she asked why the student thought that. After her student explained the Hamilton connection, Hirsch said it sparked a larger conversation in her class about how Jefferson was white but portrayed as Black in the award-winning Broadway musical.

“It was a really beautiful discussion of how we should be telling all of the stories of the past and not just one version or one perspective and maybe that’s why the creator of Hamilton chose to place those actors in the play,” Hirsch said.

A few weeks later, her class had a Zoom meeting with the actor Rory O’Malley, who plays King George III in the Hamilton musical.

For Hirsch, this moment was an example of a larger lesson she learned through the five-year process of passing the National Boards for Professional Teaching Standards certification: leaning into uncomfortable moments in order to meet her students where they are.

“What an uncomfortable conversation that somehow shifted into this amazing learning experience,” Hirsch said. “There are those moments in teaching that take your breath away.”

The National Boards for Professional Teaching Standards certification is a rigorous assessment that looks at a “teacher’s understanding of their students, content knowledge, use of data and assessments and teaching practice,” according to the nonprofit organization.

The assessment includes components that range from a written test to recorded lesson plans, self-reflection and assessment of students’ progress. Each component is scored and added to a composite total.

Hirsch said the support system in Montana “is pretty sparse” but there is an underground system of support in Bozeman from teachers who have already become National Board certified.

Throughout the process, Hirsch leaned on that group of teachers. They reviewed her written submission, offered advice and encouraged her during the hard times.

“They encouraged me in this is a worthy pursuit and also a very challenging and difficult pursuit,” she said. “And they were supportive in this is OK if this doesn’t work out. It doesn’t change who you are as a teacher or the quality of your teaching.”

Hirsch, who has taught third grade for nine years, said completing the assessment taught her to be aware of the individual differences between classes year-to-year.

“I know the rhythm of what a year should feel like,” she said. “But each group of kids is different and in that we have to be able to be ready to pivot and evolve all the time …. It’s the most profound takeaway for me that each year I have to evolve and notice those subtle difference in the kids and be ready to be uncomfortable to meet their needs.”

This year, that looked like slowing down in November when the elementary students returned to full in-person learning and reviewing single digit addition again, which is typically covered in the second grade.

Teachers going for National Board certification are required to complete the process in five years. Hirsch had failed three earlier attempts during that time frame.

“Last year would have been my last attempt, and then we went into lockdown,” she said.

To increase her composite score, Hirsch had decided to retake the written test and one of the recorded teaching components. But when the pandemic started, she decided to submit only the new written test. Without the second component, Hirsch felt certain her composite score wouldn’t be high enough to pass.

After completing a computer test in August, it was a six-month wait before Hirsch received her results.

“I had done this for five years. I had failed three times. I finished not how I wanted. And I didn’t tell my friends, I didn’t tell my husband and I didn’t tell my National Board peers when the scores were out because I couldn’t bear to tell them I failed,” she said. “… It turns out I passed in the middle of a pandemic.”

Hirsch said the accomplishment still hasn’t sunk in and she often has to remind herself of the hard work she put in to reach that point, adding, “It was such a worthy cause.”

Back in that third grade classroom, Hirsch’s students were able to ask O’Malley questions about acting and Hamilton.

“His explanation of why Thomas Jefferson was Black instead of white was that Lin-Manuel Miranda (the show’s creator) wanted to tell the story of America then as it is now,” she said. “And my class was so moved by this influential person saying this to them.”

The high point for the students, who often sing Hamilton songs together, was when O’Malley sang the song “You’ll Be Back” with them.

“It was such a magical gift for my class,” Hirsch said. “… You don’t often get to see those magical moments. It is so wonderful to see that love of learning and curiosity.”

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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