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First Atkinson Scholarship winner revels in her first classroom

First-year teacher Claire Button's classroom is colourful and full of students' work. That's the way she likes it. She says it's important that her Grade 8 students feel welcome and safe.

Button is team-teaching in a French Immersion program at Earnscliffe Senior Public School in Brampton, responsible for English, French and mathematics.

She greets each student with a warm "bonjour" every day and has strung a paper banner across the front of the classroom, with an inspirational slogan in coloured block letters that reads, TEAM: Together Everyone Achieves More.

"It's important for students to realize we are a team," she says. "We have to help each other and create an atmosphere where we're all accepted."

Button, winner of the first Joseph W. Atkinson Scholarship for Excellence in Teacher Education, started her teaching career this September with 24 students and just a little bit of the excitement, fear and anxiety that is typical for a rookie teacher.

The annual scholarship, named for the Ontario College of Teachers' second registrar, awards $2,000 to a student enrolled in one of Ontario's faculties of education. Recipients must demonstrate high academic achievement at the undergraduate level and provide evidence of other achievement and experience that indicates a high level of preparedness for teacher education.

Button was a teacher education candidate in the concurrent BEd program at Queen's University. She received an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in French Studies along with the French Consul-General's Prize. She graduated this year.

"It's nice not to sit in front of a computer all day," says Button, 24. "The days go by so quickly. I really enjoy coming in. For right now, this is what I want to do.

"Being a first-year teacher has its challenges and obstacles but I'm having fun."

In March she learned that she had full-time employment with the Peel District School Board. In late April the board informed her she'd be assigned to French Immersion, Grade 8.

Her first day went well, even if she was nervous.

"I'm standing there with this line of children and you have no associate teacher telling you what to do," she recalls. "They're mine."

She'd received advice and warnings from friends and teachers, including "Don't smile until Christmas."

But Button was very well prepared. She had done a three-week placement during her training with the Thames Valley District School Board's staff development department, where she crafted a session for a conference on what teacher candidates would need to know before September. She pulled information from different resources and analyzed the different phases of the beginning teacher.

"It was almost everything I wanted to know," she says. "It was great."

On the first day of class Button read her students Oh, The Places You'll Go, by Dr. Seuss. She then asked them to complete the statement "By the end of Grade 8, I want to ." Their written answers on coloured sheets of papers are posted across the top of the wall at the front of the classroom.

"My plan was to read them on the first and last day," she says. She'll hand the sheets back at the end of the school year and have them reflect on what they had written in September.

At the back of the classroom, student responses to questions about respect dot the wall under the heading, "You are the author of your own life story." And she has plans for some creative student bio-poems. They will decorate a side-wall under the heading: Qui suis-je [Who am I?]. The activities help her get to know her students.

"I think it's important to have a classroom full of students' work," she says. "It gives them something to be proud of. It can also motivate them.

"I like it colourful because that's important to me. It makes for a good work environment."