In the 1970s, Alcoa Elementary School was built in pods - meaning five to six classes meet in large rooms separated by book shelves or short partitions.
When architects were planning renovations for Alcoa Elementary School this year, they asked principal Merna Schott if teachers wanted more traditional, self-contained classrooms.
“They asked us if we wanted walls and we said, ‘Heck no,’” Schott said. “There were lots of schools built the way that changed, but we’ve made it work.”
Schott said when she first came to Alcoa Elementary; she thought the design was crazy. “I thought, ‘How in the world could they get anything done?’ Now I know. It is one of the most cohesive schools. They have to work together.”
That cohesiveness was evident this year with renovations beginning, because classes went on pretty much as usual whenever teachers had to temporarily relocate to the gym.
“We are undergoing this major renovation. When it’s time to renovate for a regular school, it would be traumatic to have to move classes to an open gym,” she said. “It’s no problem for us, we’re accustomed to an open space.”
Joyce Garmeson has taught at the school for more than 24 years. The Alcoa native’s husband was in the military, and she taught in Virginia, West Tennessee and North Carolina before coming back to Alcoa.
Garmeson said the current elementary school didn’t exist when she came through the system. “The old school burned, and they built this in the 1970s,” she said. But working in an open space wasn’t new to Garmeson. “I had done my student teaching at Clifton Hills in Chattanooga, and they had open spaces, so I had seen the concept when I came to Alcoa,” she said.
Garmeson gave personal testimony as to how quickly students adapt to the open classroom setting. “When I became a teacher here, I brought my daughters here. They were used to a traditional classroom, and it took them one day to adapt,” she said. “I’ve run into two or three students in 24 years who could not handle the sensory overload. Most them adjust within two or three days. I think it helps prepare them for real-world work situations.”
The veteran teacher said she enjoys collaborating with other teachers and the open classrooms make that easier. She teaches reading, language and science and fellow teacher Angie Bolton teaches math, creative writing and social studies.
“There are lots and lots of ways to work it,” Garmeson said of the open environment. “It allows for a lot of flexibility.”
If another teacher is using a new technique or approach, it is easy to watch and learn more about it and then adapt it to you own classroom situation, Garmeson said. “It helps you learn from each other,” she said. “It’s really good for new teachers.”
Garmeson said the only drawback in the open classrooms is that a teacher does tend to stick with their game plan, out of respect for the other things going on in the pods. Teachers in self-contained classrooms can spend a little more time on one subject one day and make it up on another day, she said.
In her pod there are two fourth grade classrooms and three third grade classrooms. The majority of teachers like the open pod classrooms or else they would’ve asked for walls when the renovations were planned, she said. “It’s designed for six but works best for five. We all like the collaborative thing. Some may not be as sold on it, but I’d say the vast majority of us are. Our teacher turnover rate is very low.”
Lauren Greer is one of the newer teachers at Alcoa Elementary. When she did one of her internships for school, she was a teacher in a more traditional classroom “with walls,” she said, “and I like the open classroom a lot better. I went to Maryville College there was a community-feel there and that’s what we have here.”
Greer said having the children together with different learning styles promotes a healthy learning environment. “They flourish and blossom. They build such good relationships, and they’re not limited to those students in their class.”
Critics would say hearing students in other parts of the pod would be distracting but Greer disagreed. “A lot of people think noise would be an issue, and it’s not. When I’m teaching, I don’t hear anybody else. It’s hard to think of any drawbacks. That’s why I wanted to work here.”