Cougar Academy’s Teacher of the Year Finds Success through Building Relationships
Traci Baran, Camelot Education’s Cougar Academy teacher of the year, wears a lot of hats across all three Camelot programs located in Harrisburg, PA.
Baran has taught English at Cougar Academy since it opened five years ago. She is dual certified in English and History and runs two completely different classrooms, one designed for middle school students and the other for high school students. Baran says it was Camelot’s mission that attracted her from the start.
“I was attracted by the opportunity to work one-on-one with students, to give them a safe environment and show them they can get past the obstacles and struggles and learn how to be successful in and out of class.”
“She’s super passionate,” said Executive Director Jim Snyder. “She cares a lot about the students. She stands firm with her expectations, and she challenges our students daily. She’s a great leader in modeling behavior and takes on any role asked of her within the building.” Baran concedes that, at first, there were a lot of things about the urban setting of Harrisburg and the culture of the local community that she didn’t understand, making her first year a growing experience.
“I asked the kids a lot of questions,” she said. “I let them know that I was interested in learning about their lives and where they grew up. I relied on my co-workers, who had been in the urban setting, to give me some insight into this whole new world. Being open with the students was the biggest thing, talking to them about the differences.”
Cougar Academy partners with the Harrisburg School District to aid students that can benefit from a smaller classroom setting as well as Camelot’s specific school design model. The school offers both a transitional program that provides students instruction to support academic remediation and help get them back on track for grade promotion and graduation, as well as an accelerated program, a Harrisburg School District school-of-choice for students who have fallen behind in their studies at the high school level. As a teacher in both the transition and accelerated programs, Baran is able to witness a student’s progress from one program to the other. It gives her a unique perspective.
“That’s usually where I see the biggest changes in their outlook and dedication to their work,” she said. “I have worked with so many students who come into the transitional program with the expectation that they won’t have to apply themselves fully, but then when we show them we’re not going anywhere, we really do care, and we tell them that, with hard work, they can graduate, they begin to understand our mission. I’ve had so many students come to me and say, ‘Ms. Baran, I just want to thank you for not giving up on me. I put you through a lot, and you didn’t budge.’ Now they know what they want to do after high school, and they are comfortable asking for assistance with research, resumes, college applications, and more. Seeing that change is the most rewarding part of my job.”
“Because we offer a smaller setting, we’re able to nurture the students differently and really allow their abilities to flourish. I have students who tell me they never liked to write before they came to this school because they couldn’t write what they wanted to. Others say, ‘you really helped me discover that I like to write,’ or ‘I like to read this type of book.’ We give them the chance to flourish as themselves and as a student, whereas sometimes they didn’t have that in the larger classroom setting.”
Baran sees building students’ confidence being just as important as academics.
“The mission with our high school students is letting them know they are capable of whatever they want to do once they graduate. A big component is helping them prepare for when they no longer have the daily support from the school,” she noted. “With middle school, the work is more toward building their foundational skills, especially for English, which they’re going to need to be successful throughout middle school and high school. With middle school students, we want to give them the courage to be able to volunteer in class and want to read out loud. A lot of it goes beyond teaching the material to teaching them these life skills that they can use outside the classroom as well.”
Baran earned her principal certification last May and hopes to become an academic coordinator as her next step, with her ultimate goal to become a school principal with Camelot.
“I see myself becoming a teacher of teachers in some capacity,” she said. “I love being in the classroom and still want to learn from my mentors, but even when I do move up, I want to maintain my ties to the classroom. I always want to keep my focus on the fact that our students come first. This is why we’re here. This is why we get into education.”
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