How I Teach

Harsh realities of growing up poor pushed this Colorado teacher to connect with her students

Teacher Natalie Mejia, right, with students from Atlas Preparatory School on "Nerds Rule the World" day last fall.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Natalie Mejia, a math teacher at Atlas Preparatory School in Colorado Springs, knows the challenges many of her students face. She grew up poor in Los Angeles, navigating an education system that didn’t reflect her culture or background.

It’s the reason she’s determined to show her seventh- and eighth-graders how much they matter.

“They won’t care what you know, until they know that you care,” she says.

Mejia is one of 24 teachers selected for the 2016-17 Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship, an initiative of the national nonprofit America Achieves. The program, which also includes principals, aims to involve educators in policy conversations and decisions.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I believe our kids deserve to be surrounded by people who love them and believe in their tenacity to succeed. Growing up low-income in Los Angeles exposed me to many harsh realities that motivated me to pursue higher education. Additionally, as a first-generation high school and college graduate, I can relate to the adversity my children face on their pursuit to learn and navigate within an institution that wasn’t built with their social or cultural identity in mind.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is split into three sections — pink, blue, and orange. In the pink section, eight students are receiving direct instruction. In the blue section, eight students are reviewing prerequisite skills for upcoming lessons and in the orange section 16 students are working on online lessons on the Khan Academy website. The students rotate every other day through the sections so that all 32 scholars are working directly with me, in pairs, or independently to master the content.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ____________. Why?
My smart board. I absolutely love the white board in the classroom because it makes it easier for students to follow along as I teach. Additionally, the colored pens allow me to differentiate or emphasize notes within the lesson.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
I enjoy teaching my students our statistics unit because this is the place where they can be the most creative. My school takes a traditional approach to learning. However, in this unit students are encouraged to create their own statistical questions and gather data. This unit I believe allows them to personalize the learning and justify their thinking.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
If a student shares that he/she doesn’t fully understand a concept or demonstrates gaps on the three-question assessment they turn in at the end of the day, I do any of the following:
– Provide one-on-one instruction before school, during lunch, or after school.
– Modify the upcoming lesson to provide better scaffolding and support.
– Pair the student with someone who’s mastered the concept and can serve as a peer tutor.
– Follow up with parents directly about how they can support the student at home.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
My strategies vary from class to class and student to student. If one or two students are off task, I am more private in my approach to redirect their behavior.

If an entire section in my class is off-task, I walk over and provide a countdown to get their attention. Once I have their full attention I restate expectations and narrate positive behaviors.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
First and foremost, I approach my students and my work with the utmost humility and appreciation. I tell my students early on and often how much I love them and how their presence brings joy to my life.

I continue to demonstrate my commitment to them and their education by establishing academic and social goals for the year. I challenge them to be present in class and to own their learning environment by supporting one another. In addition to our time in class, I try to attend our students’ games and family events in the community. In doing this, I can foster deep relationships with my students and their families. Collectively we work throughout the year to be advocates for their students’ academic and socio-emotional success.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I met Mr. Senior in the summer of 2011 in Baltimore. He was a single father of two middle school-aged boys and attended our pre-school conference. This meeting was an opportunity for us to check-in as student, parent(s), and advisors prior to the start of the school year to establish academic and social goals for the year. Throughout the year, Mr. Senior demonstrated unwavering commitment and love for his children through his active participation and involvement in our school.

His persistence in advocating for his children challenged the unknown bias I had toward fathers being passive participants within education. We’ve stayed in touch over the last six years and it’s such a pleasure to see the joy and pride he has for his sons and their long-term success.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I am currently reading “Drown” by Junot Diaz. It is a goal to immerse myself in more Latino/a literature.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
A few months ago, I was reading, “The Bridge to Brilliance: How One Principal in a Tough Community is Inspiring the World” by Nadia Lopez. In her text she wrote, “This is not a Third World country. This is real life in the United States of America, and the qualities in these kids that frustrate teachers are the very same ones that help them survive every day.”

Her sentiments resonated with me because I love and respect my students’ ability to face the adversity with authenticity and courage. Approaching my work with this mindset inspires me to be the best mentor and educator for my students and their families.

How I Teach

As a first-year teacher, he wanted to quit. Watching ‘the greats’ helped him stick it out.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

A few months after Kevin Vaughn took his first teaching job in a third grade classroom in Arizona, he decided to quit.

“Teaching was way beyond me,” he said.

Vaughn went to his principal and apologized profusely for his imminent resignation. But then things went off-track. His principal told him to calm down and suggested he visit other classrooms in the building to see what good teaching looked like.

Vaughn, now an art teacher at Dolores Elementary School in southwest Colorado, agreed and ultimately stuck with the job. He talked with Chalkbeat about his habit of “stealing” ideas from other teachers, the challenge of getting to know students he sees once a week and his love of fidgeting.

Vaughn is one of 20 educators selected for the state’s new Commissioners Teacher Cabinet. The group will provide input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education on the impact of education policies in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
At the age of 30, I gave up a career in the food and beverage industry when I realized after 10 successful years I was just feeding people. It might have been a wonderful dining experience for them with some great food, but it was no longer something I could hang my hat on. I wanted something more. I wanted to make a difference in somebody’s life.

What does your classroom look like?
I like to run an organized classroom, so even though there is a great deal of creativity and energy in the room, I’d say the students are rather focused on their work while music from the era we are studying plays in the background.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
Fidget. Yes, believe it or not, I’ve always had a fidget — even before it was a fad. For the 20 years I’ve been teaching, I’ve played with clay, rubbed a rock, squished a sponge, rubbed a piece of cloth all the while providing instruction or walking around assisting students as they work. It keeps me calm and collected. It is great to be able to model for students how fidgeting should really look. It doesn’t need to take away one’s focus from the teacher or cause distraction to other students.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

I’d have to say my current favorite lesson since becoming an art teacher is one in which I teach the kindergarteners about Wassily Kandinsky. We look at some of his work, discuss his style and his use of color, and then create our own using shaving cream and food coloring. The work is so individual, and almost instantaneous as it is revealed, that the kids just beam about the art they have produced. As with so many other lessons, I found this one online and just tweaked it to fit my personality and teaching style. There really are a plethora of high quality teachers out there willing to share their ideas.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
When a student doesn’t understand a lesson, I’ve always just taught it again, and again, and again — with different examples and from different perspectives. With art, it is usually the technique that troubles the students as it is often the first time some students have used a particular medium. So, sitting down with students and breaking it down into smaller steps usually works well.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?

Rarely is the whole class off task, but usually when a student is off task I slowly walk by and refocus attention with a soft comment. However, if I need the attention of the whole class I’ll call out the first name of the artist we are currently studying, and have them call back — in chorus — the last name of that artist. Me: “Leonardo,” Students: “DaVinci.” They know that is the time to put down their tools and put their eyes on me.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
It was so much easier when I was a classroom teacher to build relationships with the students. I saw the same students on a daily basis and could slowly develop that relationship as I learned more about their personalities and academic needs. Now, as an art teacher, I only see my students once every six days, so I have to make an effort to engage them outside the classroom as often as possible as well as in the studio. The cafeteria, in the hallway, at recess are all good times to just get to know the students.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I started my teaching career on the Navajo reservation and later moved to a small migrant community in Oregon. In both of these areas I was working with students of very different cultural backgrounds than the one I came from. I wouldn’t necessarily say that meeting the families of my students changed my perspective or approach, but it certainly gave me insight into my students lives that I could use to help me be a better teacher for them.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
The first book this summer I picked up was “The Generals: Patton, MacArthur, Marshall, and the Winning of World War II” by Winston Groom.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

My first principal and mentor, Ron Mansfield, told me to, “Watch the great teachers and learn.” Everything I know and do as a teacher I stole from someone else. I have my own personality and ways of doing things for sure, but being a good teacher has come by seeing how it is done by the best. Over 20 years I’ve had the opportunity to work with some tremendous people, and I’m so thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to learn the art of education from each and every one of them.

How I Teach

Why this Memphis Spanish teacher loves to teach about the evolution of the piñata

PHOTO: Kylie Cucalon
Students show off their homemade piñatas in Kylie Cucalon's Spanish class at Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary, a charter school operated by Memphis Scholars.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a series we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

Kylie Cucalon, or Señorita Cucalon as she’s known to her students, grew up in the United States, but was content to teach English in Spain until she began hearing concerns about political changes happening in her homeland.

“(I) was heartbroken by everything I was seeing in the news about my country, so I applied to Teach For America in attempt to do my part,” Cucalon recalls of her return to America last year.

Teacher Kylie Cucalon poses with several students.

She wound up teaching Spanish at Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary, a charter school operated by Memphis Scholars. The opportunity is unique in Memphis, where foreign languages typically aren’t taught at the elementary level and most of her students come from low-income backgrounds.

In this installment of How I Teach, Cucalon talks about how she’s using language to introduce students to a world beyond Memphis, why “uno, dos, tres” are the magic words in her classroom, and how piñatas can be a tool to encourage good behavior.

Why did you become a teacher?

In 2014, I had been working a desk job as a Spanish-English translator and realized that was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So I picked up and moved to Madrid to work as a native English-speaking classroom assistant.

I fell in love with the country and did a bit of traveling. After a trip to Barcelona, I moved there and worked as a private English tutor. During that time, people from all over Europe enjoyed engaging with me and other American friends on issues such as politics and current events. Whenever we would discuss the difficult topics about the faults in some of the systems of our country … my friends would say, “That is why I am never going back to the U.S.”

It broke my heart that people I was surrounded by were ready to run away from the issues that our country faced instead of being a part of the solution. I had one really good friend who had just been accepted to Teach For America Memphis and he encouraged me to apply. I was also accepted and placed in the same region as him. It seemed like fate, and I never once looked back.

What does your classroom look like?

My classroom, aka Señorita Cucalon’s Zoo, is decked out in an animal theme. Every day I have a “Zookeeper” who wears the safari hat and binoculars and helps me with tasks such as passing out and collecting all papers and pencils.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

Administrators and other teachers. They say it takes a village to raise a child, so what does it take to raise a village?

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

I teach a weekly culture day, and my favorite lesson is the week we make our own piñatas.

A lot of people believe that the piñata is solely a Mexican tradition, but the first known piñata was found in China. Through the travels of many explorers, it was brought to Spain and then Mexico, where it became a fun party game that we even play today in the U.S. I like my children to see that different cultures can learn from one another and even share similar traditions.

As part of the lesson, we make our own piñatas out of toilet paper rolls, streamers and string. It is a fun hands-on activity that I use as an incentive for my students for good behavior. Every day that they come to class and follow all of the rules that week, they get a check mark. On Friday, I hand back the piñatas filled with one candy for every check they got. Students with great behavior go home with a piñata full of treats. As many teachers do, I got my inspiration on Pinterest.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?

If the students hear me say “uno, dos, tres,” they stop what they are doing and say “las manos y los pies,” which means “my hands and my feet.” I follow up with “uno, dos” and they respond “los ojos” (their eyes). This gives them time to check where their hands and feet are and then are reminded to track the speaker.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

I begin every class by personally greeting every student with a handshake and asking them in Spanish how they are doing. I have a sheet of emotions in Spanish on the door for them to pick from. This gives them the opportunity to practice using the target language, and if they say they are sad or upset, it gives me the opportunity to follow up with them about what’s going on in their lives.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

I called a mother because her daughter was refusing to complete her work. To me, her reluctance to finish the sentences I had on the board was defiant and frustrating.

Her mom informed me that her daughter had left her glasses at home and could not see the board without them. My student must have been too embarrassed to tell me and instead acted out. From that point on, I have taken my time to really dig in and figure out the issues behind the reasons my students are acting out so that I can better accommodate them.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

A coach of mine once said, “If you do not have a plan for the students, they will have a plan for you.” Boy, was he right! You would not imagine the things that can happen in your classroom during the 10 seconds you turn your back to write on the whiteboard.