Writer Joseph J. Airdo // Photography Courtesy of Cave Creek Unified School District

Kristine Paul, who is a kindergarten teacher at Desert Sun Academy in the Cave Creek Unified School District, believes that each step in school — from preschool until senior year — is a new adventure filled with additional aspects of growing up.

“Every child is unique and you will find that levels of confidence, attitude and transition vary from sibling to sibling and neighbor to neighbor,” Paul acknowledges. “I love the quote that reminds us that cookie cutters are excellent for baked goods, but not for living beings.”

Every year is also unique, presenting a new roadmap for teachers, students and parents.

“Expectations and experiences are often adjusted and need flexibility,” Paul says. “That was certainly evident in March 2020 for both teachers and students; but we gained a lot of strength and innovative ideas as we worked together. Some years can be more stressful than others, but that is how we grow, learn and mature. We process and choose things with more depth in our future with hurdles and possible struggles along the way.”

This summer, Images Arizona invited four celebrated teachers in the Cave Creek Unified School District to share their tips for parents and students as they approach yet another school year.

“The teachers in the Cave Creek Unified School District strive to be highly qualified and involved in ongoing training to differentiate in the classroom in order to meet a variety of levels and needs,” says Paul, who was a recent recipient of the CCUSD Inspire Excellence Award due to the dedication, passion and excellence that she brings to her instructional practice and our school community.

“It is a complete joy to be an educator and watch my students learn, grow and fill the planet with successful adults. I love building relationships and making a difference through having the best job in the world. As a teacher and a parent of two children who have traveled through Cave Creek Unified School District from preschool through Cactus Shadows High School, I can genuinely say that this time flies by very quickly; so soak up and appreciate every moment!”

The 4 Cs
When it comes to back-to-school tips, Paul subscribes to a notion that she refers to as her four Cs: connections, challenge, confidence and calendar.

“Help your child make connections with the world around them as they enjoy playgroups, church groups, gym classes, park visits, sports outings and possibly helping neighbors or community members in need by volunteering,” explains Paul, noting that her college-age daughter still displays the word “connections” in her apartment.

Fostering a sense of community among her students as she encourages them to collaborate with and support one another, Paul also provides them with numerous real-world experiences and guest speakers to help them make connections to what they are learning in the classroom.

“It is important to give your child a variety of experiences with smaller and larger gatherings,” Paul says. “Sympathize, empathize and take on different roles as a family. Schedule time for meaningful and positive conversations of, ‘Remember when…’”

She adds that in challenging your child to be the best that they can be, they will often exceed your expectations. Moreover, talking to your child about things to expect as they learn and grow helps them to build confidence.

“Remind them that making mistakes helps them gain success,” Paul explains. “Losing at a family Uno game helps us build strategies for the next time and a joyful heart for others who win.

“Finally, get a large magnetic calendar for the fridge as well as some fun stickers and colored pens. Plan out each month on this written document so it can be a visual for your child to plan thoughts, feelings and activities. The calendar should also be a reminder to be responsible, present and on time.”

Reinforce Routines
Amanda Barnes, who teaches second grade at Black Mountain Elementary, says that parents hoping to help their children start the school year off on the right foot should establish strong routines and reinforce them daily.

“Get your child into the habit of laying out their clothes and packing their bag the night before,” she says. “Having a routine of waking up, getting dressed, eating breakfast and brushing their teeth will be so beneficial to their success — and your sanity!”

A recent recipient of the CCUSD Inspire Excellence Award in connection with her dedication to teaching, leading and culture-building, Barnes adds that organization works hand-in-hand with routines to ensure success as students start a new school year.

“Encourage your child to have one home-to-school folder and organize it with papers that go to school on the right (“right” back to school) and papers for home on the left (“left” at home),” she explains. “This helps mom and dad know what can be pulled out and what your child needs to keep to take back to school. It also helps prevent the inevitable “lost papers” in the bottom of the backpack.

“Encouraging organization and routines are habits that will follow your child forever — and it is never too early to start!”

Eat a Healthy Breakfast
Tiffani Simmons, who teaches third grade at Lone Mountain Elementary, agrees that setting and reinforcing routines is a key component of a student’s success in school.

“Setting routines with bedtimes and waking up earlier is one great way to be prepared for school to start,” says Simmons, who is also a recent CCUSD Inspire Excellence Award recipient. “Another benefit is ensuring your child eats a healthy breakfast before school every day. Research shows it helps improve memory, concentration, mood and alertness.”

Be Involved
Finally, Antonella Nechtman, who teaches fifth grade at Black Mountain Elementary, says that parental involvement is essential.

“Check in with your child and their backpack every day,” explains Nechtman, who — in addition to being named a 2023 Teacher of the Year — was recently recognized for having 25 years of service to Cave Creek Unified School District at this year’s Inspire Excellence Awards.

“Ask them specific questions about their day — not just, ‘How was your day?’ — and stay on top of any communication (emails, notes, texts and phone calls) that you receive from their teachers.”