‘Nailed it’: Educator ushers in new teaching pedagogy

Dwain Hebda
Lance Nail has used unique approaches in his classroom at Woodrow Cummins Elementary School in Conway. (Mike Kemp photos)

by Dwain Hebda

There was never any doubt, as even he himself will tell you, that Lance Nail would grow up to be a teacher. 

“My entire family is made up of educators,” he said. “My dad teaches at the college level; my mom is a teacher at Hendrix College in Conway. My brother is a high school baseball coach and middle school math teacher at Ouachita High School near Arkadelphia. My grandparents on my mom’s side are both educators at the college level. My aunt is a middle school teacher.”

When you come from a stable like that, it’s hard to stand out. But that’s exactly what the 27-year-old third-grade teacher at Woodrow Cummins Elementary in Conway has done. 

First, there’s his gender. Depending on which source you consult, only about 11-13 percent of primary school educators nationwide are men. Nail said this statistic was more motivation than deterrent. 

“I know how prevalent divorce is and no fathers in the home, so having that positive male role model early on is important,” he said. “I’ve known since high school that I was going to be going into early childhood education.”

After graduating from the University of Central Arkansas, Nail taught first grade his rookie year at Woodrow Cummins, then switched to third grade. He said he favors teaching third-graders, “because they’re old enough to read and tie their shoes, but they aren’t at that age yet where they are back-talking their teacher and they’re too cool for school.

“That’s another reason why I wanted to become an elementary school teacher. I believe it’s really important to reach these kids and get them to love school early on.”

To this end, Nail has developed innovative teaching practices that challenge conventional ideas of how learning happens. Bucking generations of teaching pedagogy that demanded students adapt to rigid, almost militaristic formulas, Nail embraces bending both environment and content delivery to fit each student’s learning style. It’s a concept backed by research but also something Nail understands intimately. 

“I remember my second-grade teacher calling in my parents to have a conference about my inattentiveness in class,” he said. “That conference led to a series of events which enabled me to be diagnosed with ADHD. School was never easy for me as a kid. I was constantly fidgeting, getting in trouble and had poor impulse control.

“I felt I was called to be a teacher especially for those with similar struggles, because I have an understanding of what a lot of kids go through.”

Nail’s classroom philosophy starts at the most fundamental level – seating. There are no assigned seats in his classroom nor is seating limited to desks. Instead, he offers a range of options and lets his students decide where they are going to sit and on what. 

“In my classroom I have flexible seating, that is a new educational trend that allows students to get their wiggles out,” he said. “The analogy that’s been connected to flexible seating is the Starbucks-style classroom. In my classroom I have different sizes and heights of tables and with this I have yoga balls, wobble stools, I have floor rockers, benches, bar stools and crate seats.

“In addition to all those different types of seating, I have a group carpet that can fit all 25 of my kids where we do a lot of our whole-group learning. I have a couch, bean bags and some more little cushions as well.”

Nail combines this unconventional seating with technology. He moves around the classroom teaching from an iPad Pro, casting lessons and videos on dual 65- and 55-inch flatscreen televisions. He edits worksheets and marks paper with an Apple Pencil instead of being moored at a hard-wired PC, which makes him more efficient, too. 

“I’m really passionate about the technology that I use in my classroom,” he said. “I was able to get a lot of technology and all of this flexible seating from a donation my grandmother made to my classroom. Since she was an educator, she knows the struggles of funds in education. She saw my vision of what I wanted, and she decided to donate a pretty large sum of money.”

If all of this sounds a little touchy-feely, Woodrow Cummins parents don’t seem to care. Nail’s curriculum is challenging, but because he accommodates his students’ individual learning styles, he’s getting results. And, his tactics are starting to spread to other classrooms throughout the school. At his principal’s request, he taught his fellow educators to use the technology and then he went before the PTO to ask for additional hardware.

“I ended up convincing the PTO to spend some money to get 65-inch TVs, iPads, Apple Pencils and Apple TVs for almost every single one of the teachers at our school,” he said. “It was about a $14,000 presentation.”

For his efforts, Nail was named the 2019-2020 Woodrow Cummins Elementary School Teacher of the Year. It’s a nice award that he’s proud of, but not nearly as proud as he is of what’s happening daily in his classroom and throughout his school.

“I don’t see myself as just a teacher; my job title is ‘teacher-relationship builder,’” he said. “I believe building personal relationships with students is the cornerstone of having a successful classroom. Therefore, I am constantly trying to find new ways to build those relationships with students.”