BY LUKE ERIKSEN ‘22.
There aren’t many educators like Tricia Fellinger.
Fellinger, a German teacher, has taught at Upper Arlington for all 23 years of her education career. She started as a German teacher at Jones Middle School but soon migrated to UA High School.
Despite her long standing as a teacher, Fellinger originally had no aspirations to be one and never really liked school.
“I didn’t feel like I fit in. I didn’t feel connected to any teachers. I just assumed that’s how school is,” she said.
Fellinger admits that as a student, she didn’t want to spend any more time at school than was needed.
“When I was in grade school. We had reading groups based on each level. I was the lowest. I was definitely treated differently than the kids at the highest level. We didn’t receive the same level of encouragement and support as t
he other kids,” Fellinger said. “As it turned out, it was that I needed glasses. I had trouble seeing; I was nearsighted. So once I had glasses, I really excelled. Once I started excelling, then kids made fun of me and called me names. It wasn’t cool to be smart or be in the lowest group. I really didn’t feel connected.”
Fellinger said she believes her experiences throughout her time as a student influenced the way she teaches. She emphasized the importance of developing students as humans before anything else. She strives for students to realize the importance of being kind and welcoming to one another.
Fellinger also explained the importance of a healthy class environment.
“When I think of my role as an educator, before even preparing students to be communicators in German, I feel that my first responsibility is to help them develop as human beings. These are all really important skills that they need,” she said. “It’s a sense of responsibility. Students are all over the place in the way that they learn. If there is not a safe environment in a classroom, then learning is more difficult. I truly believe students will learn better if they feel more comfortable.”
Considering this emphasis on these values, her way of teaching is somewhat unique in Upper Arlington.
In her classroom, there is scheduled time each week for students to share their thoughts and build relationships with each other which she refers to as “circle time.” During a normal school week, Fellinger dedicates one day to this time to create a community in class where students feel comfortable sharing with each other.
“The most important part of circle is that you are building a community. Once you have that community, you can return to the circle to talk about something that’s happening—work together to find a solution,” she said.
Fellinger was introduced to circle time while on a trip with FullBright, a cultural exchange program in New Zealand.
“At the beginning of the class we would sit in a circle. There was a talking piece and we would pass it around. The person with the talking piece could share anything they wanted. I wondered if I could use this with my students,” she said. “They are officially called restorative circles. Restorative circles are based on many indigenous cultures.”
The idea of a restorative circle in class excited Fellinger. She introduced the idea to her class as soon as she could. Although it wasn’t perfect, after some tweaks and adjustments, circle time was a hit with her students.
“My teaching has improved so much because of circles. The number one thing I get is being able to gauge what needs you have, how you’re learning, how the workload is for you, so I can become a better teacher by getting that feedback from you,” she said. “I also feel like it builds more trust among students. Nobody is afraid to ask questions. Trust has been built from the circles so students are more willing to speak up and practice.”
A few teachers have started using circle time during their classes, but it is still rare. Fellinger believes that every class should have some type of circle time
“I don’t think that everyone needs to spend every Friday doing circle time like we do. I feel like even five minutes a week could make a difference. I would encourage teachers to use circles as a curricular item. You can use a circle as a check in, practicing, discussing a novel or content questions,” Fellinger said.
While COVID-19 cases rose during the fall, Fellinger increased circle time with hopes of giving students a stress-free class period. She noticed that some students were having trouble focusing during class, too. Fellinger took it upon herself to write each one of her students a handwritten letter that was delivered during winter break.
“I wanted to let each student know how much I appreciate them,” Fellinger said. “All teachers care about their students.”