What's your education story?

One small but diverse school prepared him well for all that came after

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Andrew Pillow teaches fifth grade social studies at KIPP Indianapolis.

Chalkbeat journalists ask the people we come across in our work to tell us about their education stories and how learning shaped who they are today. Learn more about this series, and read other installments, here.

Andrew Pillow is a fifth-grade social studies teacher at KIPP Indianapolis, a charter school where he has taught since 2011. He grew up in Louisville and graduated from the J. Graham Brown School, which bills itself as “a classic liberal arts experience in a small learning community.” It was Kentucky’s first magnet school when it opened in 1972. Today it serves about 650 students in grades K-12 and its magnet theme is “self-directed learning.” Pillow studied political science and journalism at the University of Kentucky and earned a masters degree in teaching from Marian University. He came to Indianapolis through Teach For America. We met him at the showcase for projects by Teach Plus fellows earlier this month.

Here’s his story:

I went to a public school in in Louisville in (Jefferson County Public Schools), which has very good public schools. And I took that for granted. People back home say “this school is terrible,” and I say, “No, you don’t understand. Our worst school would probably be one of the best schools in Indianapolis.”

I went to a magnet school, The Brown School. It was a K-12 school. I went through the whole school. I was there the whole time. Then I went to the University of Kentucky. It worried people, who thought I wouldn’t be able to adjust to such a big atmosphere. I only graduated with 35 people. But it was fine.

The honest truth is that you do gain a lot of insight going to school with the same people for 12 years. The school had people from every zip code. So when you know people from different parts of the city for 12 years, you really gain an insight about diversity that most people just don’t have. I feel like if I went to a traditional inner-city school I might have difficulty interacting with white folks. I’ve never had trouble interacting with different people.

It was a really good high school, and I didn’t realize it until I got to college. College was really easy for me. I got a better GPA than I did in high school. I knew something was up. I didn’t always get great grades in high school, but I got great grades in college.

I was worried about finding a job so I found out about Teach For America on the web. I fell in love with teaching. Louisville and Indianapolis are very similar — they both kind of feel like small towns. I see people I know all the time. I thought it would feel a lot bigger. But it is, a lot of it, the same.

What's your education story?

This IPS teacher was afraid to ask for help, but the courage it took was worth it. Her mentor made all the difference.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Melissa Scherle is a second-grade teacher at IPS School 14.

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Chalkbeat journalists ask the people we come across in our work to tell us about their education stories and how learning shaped who they are today. Learn more about this series, and read other installments, here.

Melissa Scherle is a second-grade teacher at Washington Irving School 14 in Indianapolis Public Schools. She’s been an educator for 13 years.

I grew up in southern Indiana, and I moved to Indianapolis for my teaching job (at School 14).

That first year, in October, I can remember just kind of wondering what in the world was I doing because I was raised in southern Indiana.

I thought, “What am I doing?” because I’m really having difficulty relating to these students.

It took courage to ask a veteran teacher for help. And she was top-notch, high quality, and I was intimidated by her, but when I went to her, she had an open heart she was kind and caring. She mentored me and took me under her wing, and and taught me so much that I could never repay her. How to connect with the kids, how to connect with the community and the parents.

My first year teaching, I wish I would’ve had a longer student teaching experience, not just the last semester of senior year. Education has changed so much over 13 years. You’re having kids come in with more intense needs.

Before you can teach, you need to have classroom management, but before you get classroom management, you also need to get to know your kids. Know each and every kid. What ticks and tocks with them, what their strengths are and what maybe they need extra help with. Treat every student as an individual, but they’re all equal as well.

I tell people, you don’t really learn anything in college until you step into that classroom. There’s still stuff that goes on every day that I’m like, did that just happen in my classroom?

I just see so much of the policy and laws affecting classroom teachers, and I feel like teachers need a voice and that teachers need to be able to relay their experiences when they want to have a voice. There are great things going on in the law, but there are also other things that need to be fixed and changed.

I’ve been in a classroom for 13 years and have just seen so many different people come in and out of the building and just having friends leaving education. A lot of colleagues have said, “You know, if I would’ve had more experience in a classroom, or if I would’ve known this in my program, I wouldn’t have left education.” And we see a lot of first- and second-year teachers leave, and a lot of them are just overwhelmed.

They wish they could’ve had more field experience in the classroom or more mentoring. If we can work with districts and policymakers all working together, we can keep teachers in the classroom and have teachers providing quality instruction for the kids as well.

 

What's your education story?

How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate

PHOTO: Provided
Jean Russell

Jean Russell is on sabbatical from her work as a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School in Fort Wayne after being named the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year. Her work as 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year ignited her interest in education policy, and she is in the first cohort of TeachPlus statewide policy fellows. Nineteen other teachers from urban, suburban and rural areas are also members of the class. Below is Russell’s story condensed and lightly edited for clarity. For more stories from parents, students and educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

When I started this January as the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year, my overarching goal for my year of service is to focus on recruitment and retention of great teachers. One of the things that came up was the opportunity to serve on the ISTEP alternative assessment panel. (The committee was charged with choosing a replacement for the state’s exam.)

I definitely felt like that was something that is affecting recruitment and retention of great teachers in Indiana, and yet I was reticent about whether or not I was equipped to really be a part of that and to be a helpful voice at the table because policy is not something in my 26 years of teaching that I’ve had anything to do with before this.

The first couple of times that I went to those meetings, I like I just was out of my league, and I didn’t really feel like there was much I could contribute. And I think it was the third meeting, there came a point where a couple of people were saying things where I just felt like having the inside-the-classroom, in-the-trenches voice would really help the conversation.

I was so nervous. I remember, I was shaking, and my voice was cracking. The meetings were in the House of Representatives, so I had to push the button and lean into the microphone, and I’m like, “Hi, I’m Jean Russell.”

But I said what I knew, “I’ve been giving this test for 25 years and these are my experiences, and this is what I think.” I think the biggest surprise in that moment — I won’t ever forget that moment — was that they listened. And I knew that because they were asking good follow-up questions and making references back to what I had said. It sort of became a part of that conversation for that meeting. I never became very outspoken, but I think at that point, I realized that there is most assuredly a time when teacher voice at the table is important to decision making.

I feel like the four walls of my classroom just blew down, and suddenly I realized how many stakeholders there are in my little classroom, in my little hallway, in my little school.

(In the past, policy) just did not make my radar. I think I just felt like, nobody was really interested in what I thought. The work of the classroom is so intense and there’s such a sense of urgency every day to move everybody forward that this broader idea of education, I think I just thought it was something that happened to you and you just work within those parameters. For the first time in 26 years, I’m realizing that that’s not necessarily the case.