Pleasant Hills teachers become students for a day

| Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012, 12:52 p.m.

Lina Vetter left her sixth-grade science class with a smile on her face.

“I'll have my homework for you first thing in the morning, Mr. Benedek,” she said, as she walked past her teacher and rushed down the crowded hallway to her next class.

Dressed in a rolled-up pair of blue jeans and tennis shoes, Vetter nearly fit right in with her classmates at Pleasant Hills Middle School. She eagerly raised her hand in class and laughed with other students as they completed their in-class assignments.

She even forgot to bring one of the most important tools with her to class, a No. 2 pencil, and had to borrow one from a classmate.

Vetter, though, was far from a normal student. She was a teacher, living the life of a student for the day.

Forty-seven teachers, guidance counselors and administrators at Pleasant Hills Middle School spent the last two weeks participating in “A Day in the Life,” when, instead of carrying out their normal duties, they followed the schedule of a student: going to class, taking tests and playing badminton.

“The point was to look at yourself,” said Principal Dan Como, who came up with the idea in an effort to get staffers at the school to consider each day what students are going through. “We're trying to take our frame of reference and look at it from the eyes of the students.”

A plaque with the West Jefferson Hills School District mission statement, framed with black matting and gold paper, sits at the edge of Como's desk. This year, that statement is the focus of education at Pleasant Hills Middle School, Como said.

Four lines from the district's mission statement have been pulled out into a smaller box on the plaque, the first of which is the opening line of the West Jefferson Hills declaration, “students are the primary focus.”

“A Day in the Life” is a way to bring that line to life and give teachers an opportunity to see what their students are going through on a daily basis, Como said.

Substitute teachers were hired by the district to fill in for the staffers as nearly six a day lived the life of a student. And they're learning valuable lessons, such as seeing how structured the day is for students and the constant movement there is from task to task, Como said.

“You take for granted that kids want to be here,” said sixth-grade science teacher Jim Benedek. “Everyone has different likes or dislikes or gifts, and it's our job to bring them out.”

Belting out tunes alongside the youngsters in music class or taking a test with them, Benedek said, he was able to see how his students learn. And each student learns differently, he said.

“I love sitting here, down on their level,” Vetter said. “I'm just putting myself into the mindset of a sixth-grader.”

For some teachers, it has been many years since they've been in middle school, and things have changed.

“I wish that I got to go through these years of school like they do. It's completely different,” said Benedek, who attended McKeesport Junior High School 31 years ago.

Watching the fast-paced day of the students, who barely have time to slow down, was eye opening for the teachers, they said.

“It helps me understand that when the kids come to me, they have all that other stuff on their minds,” said applied engineering and technology teacher Matt Betler. “Just being out of it for so long, it helps you get back into the mindset of what the kids are going through.” There were things to take away from watching other teachers, as well.

“I see how different teachers connect with their kids, and you walk away with different approaches,” said Vetter, a world-language teacher.

Health and physical education teacher Jill Startari said she enjoyed seeing the different ways teachers present lessons and discipline their students. She also got to see a different side of those rambunctious students she typically has in physical-education class who sat quietly in class to take a test or watch a film.

“It is a great reminder of what the kids go through,” Startari said.

The teachers also learned that they're not perfect. Tests are challenging no matter what your age or level, and those decimals, they don't get any easier. Try remembering the difference between proper nouns and common nouns after teaching technology for years — it takes time, but it will come back to you, Betler said.

“There are definitely things that I've forgotten,” said Betler, who is certain he “aced” his eighth-grade English test and proudly proclaimed that his team won every game on the badminton court.

Not everyone teacher had the same success, though.

“The test scared me a little bit, I'll be honest,” Vetter said.

She was proud to share that she got an 88 percent, or a B+, on her math test. And she did this with no studying.

Even the test was a lesson, though, she said.

“I should have gone over my work,” Vetter said. “I always tell my students to make sure they go over their work and I didn't. I was too confident in my answers.”

Still, Vetter said, she hopes to have her test hung on the refrigerator in the teacher's lounge.

Students at Pleasant Hills Middle School enjoyed watching their teachers go through the day alongside them.

“I think it's really cool,” said sixth-grader Remy Zandier, 11. “They get to see what we do in each class and what we're learning.”

The youths said they hope their teachers are getting new ideas to bring back to the classroom and an overall understanding of their lives.

“I'd like them to see how we feel,” said sixth-grader Julia Fiedor, 11.

Ty Antonelli noticed a difference in his teachers the day after they went through the program. One teacher changed her grading system based on what she saw another teacher do to make it easier for the students, he said.

Students across the school are supporting the program, he said.

“It's really nice to do. I think all schools should do it,” Ty said.

Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or

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