What's your education story?

This teacher was a ‘class terrorist’ as a child. Now he uses that to understand his students

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Andrew Pillow

Dozens of educators gathered recently to tell stories of the challenges and joys of teaching. The event was organized by teacher Ronak Shah and sponsored by Teach for America. In the coming weeks, Chalkbeat will share a few of our favorites, condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Andrew Pillow teaches technology and social issues at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle. He grew up in Louisville and graduated from the J. Graham Brown School. For more stories about Indianapolis educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

This story starts way, way back in Louisville Kentucky. I went to the Brown School, and the Brown School is the very best school in the state of Kentucky. That’s not hyperbole. That’s objective fact.

Within the Brown School, even though it was a very good school, they actually have different tracks of students. They had me take this test. After I took that test, lo and behold, I was in one of the higher tracks.

When people would go to class, the regular kids would go to (one) class, and I got to go to another class where we got to do higher-level stuff. We’re walking around. We’re measuring stuff. We’re doing projects around the school. I’m feeling very, very good about myself.

There was this girl at the Brown School, her name was Crystal. Crystal was the apple of my eye. She was my crush for essentially 12 years. She had this caramel skin, long, natural hair. She was the real deal.

(One day) we’re walking around. I’m with my eyeglass, doing all the math and stuff like that. I’ve got this really big ruler, which was probably a yardstick looking back at it. I’m in sixth grade, seventh grade.

Crystal’s in the hallway with her class, and then she turns to her friend Ashley as we’re walking up — she turns around in her loud cackling voice and says, “Here come the retarded kids.”

I just stopped. I’m like, Oh my god. Is that what this is? I’ve heard about such things at other schools, but surely that’s not this.

I went home and asked mom. She’s like, “Yeah, you have an (individualized education plan), but that doesn’t mean anything.” She said a bunch of stuff that probably sounded really good to her, but when you’re in middle school and you find out that you’re not in the class that people think highly of, there’s really nothing anybody can say.

From that point on, I disrupted class at every possible point. I became the class clown, or as what I overheard the teacher in the lounge say one time, the “class terrorist.”

I didn’t feel confident about answering questions, so when people would answer questions and they would get them wrong, I would sing, “He’s a smart guy.” It spread to every grade in the school, and it had the intended effect because everybody was afraid to raise their hand, just like me.

Let’s fast forward to my second year teaching at KIPP. I’m going through and we are in my history class and there’s like 30 questions so every student has to answer a question. And I have a kid and he is (dancing) every two seconds. As we get further down, his dancing gets worse and more provocative. (Then he gets the whole class dancing.)

I told my mom about this, and she said, “It sounds like (the student) is a lot like you. The way he got worse, as he got closer to having to answer the question tells me he was doing the exact same thing that you were doing.”

What I realized is that he didn’t want to have his “Here come the retarded kids moment.” This changed the way that I’ve looked at every student in the classroom. That was the day that I learned to embrace the people and the students that I saw myself in.

What's Your Education Story?

The story of Black Santa: How creative discipline tactics got this student from disruptive to most improved

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Black Santa rests on a folding chair at a Teacher Story Slam event last month.

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Dozens of educators gathered to tell stories about the challenges and joys of teaching at Ash & Elm Cider Co. The event was organized by teacher Ronak Shah and his organization, Teachers Lounge Indy. In the coming weeks, Chalkbeat will share a few of our favorites, edited for clarity.

Anita Saunders works with programs for young children at Indianapolis Public Schools. This story takes place during her time teaching at Tindley Preparatory Academy. For more stories about Indianapolis educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

I was placed at an all-boys middle school. So in the year 2015, it’s my second year there. They decided to add fifth grade to the all-boys school, and they decided to make me the special education teacher.

I was given my own classroom, affectionately known as Room 402, and my own pupils. Now one student, he was known as Double D, was a fifth-grader. He had to stay with me all day.

So Double D and I spent our days together learning fifth-grade curriculum. Usually he was patient, he would do his work. Whatever I put in front of him, he’d try his best at it. I could send him to the office with a note, and I didn’t have to worry about him playing around in the restroom — stuff like that.

Anita Saunders poses for a photo after telling her story at the Teacher Story Slam last month.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Anita Saunders poses for a photo after telling her story at a Teacher Story Slam.

But as teachers know, every student has a honeymoon, and that honeymoon usually lasts from August/September to October/November.

Double D was soon to come to the end of his honeymoon.

I had been lulled into this false sense of complacency. The next thing I know, Double D is refusing to work. He’s falling asleep, he’s talking back, he’s yelling at me.

I need to figure out how to get my sweet Double D back because I miss him, and he was making progress when he was cool and laid back and listening. He wasn’t making any progress talking back and yelling.

So one day we get to school, and he’s just pacing the classroom. Pacing and refusing to work.

I said, “Double D, you know it’s almost holiday time. If you don’t get to work, Santa’s not going to bring you something.”

He was like, “That ain’t real.”

I was like, “What do you mean Santa’s not real? What are you talking about? … I know where you’re mistaken. You’re thinking about that puffy white guy that’s on TV. That’s not the one I’m talking about. I’m talking about Black Santa.”

And because Double D was a fifth-grader, he had not yet lost his sense of wonder.

At Target I found this Black Santa. And he had a list, and this list contained the names of some of the very boys in our school that Double D knew.

“Are you on this list?”

He looks the list up and down.

“No, I’m not on that list.”

I said, “Well what do you think you need to do to get on Black Santa’s list?”

“Well you’ve got to text him and tell him put me on there!”

I said, “Hey, I cannot lie to Black Santa. He will want to know if you’ve been doing your work and following the rules at home and at school.”

That afternoon, he was great. It was like sweet Double D was coming back. I put black Santa high up on the shelf on top of the smart board where the video camera is, way up there. I told him this is how Black Santa monitors us, and I’m texting him and emailing him — that’s how you know he’s real.

So our days go on like this, and he’s gaining back my trust. At the end of the day, we check back in with Black Santa. And you know, I’m thinking, “Yes! we’re going to make it to winter break. It’s going to be OK.”

The magic of Black Santa stuck for quite awhile.

So it’s the day before winter break and we have what’s called a community meeting where we gather the entire school together and we have a nice inspirational speech from our principal.

On this particular day, the principal has an announcement to make. They have found two boys in this school who have improved the most academically and behaviorally, and they are going to get extra gifts.

So I said, “Well, it can’t be my 402 boys. No one pays attention to my 402 boys.”

And then the next thing I know, the principal said, “…and from the fifth grade, as most improved, our very own Double D! Come on down!”

And I’m jumping up, cheering.

I’m helping him take his armload of presents out to his mom’s car. We get to the car, and as his mom is getting ready to drive away, I said “Yo, Double D — I guess you made the list”

He’s smiling.

What's your education story?

This educator sees ‘the power in being bilingual’ — and she wants her students to see it, too

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Liset Gonzalez-Acosta is a the director of dual language at Global Prep Academy.

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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.

Liset Gonzalez-Acosta is a the director of dual language at Global Prep Academy, an innovation school housed at IPS Riverside School 44. She is part of the first round of local fellows selected to participate in a principal training program run by Relay Graduate School of Education.

I’ve been an educator now for 20 years. I was born in Cuba, and that’s where I got my bachelor’s degree. After that, I moved to Africa. My mom is a doctor, she’s a psychiatrist, and she was sent there for two years. I saw the opportunity to teach in a different place. I met my husband there, and we were married in Cape Verde, and I taught there for six years.

In a poor country like Cape Verde it was really hard for me to continue my studies because there wasn’t a university. So I started looking outside the country, and I was really fortunate to find a university in Vermont where part of their goal is to find international students who wanted to study there and were able to bring that cultural awareness to the rest of of the school.

It was an incredible experience because it was so diverse and you were able to work with people from all over the world. After that, I started looking for a (job). A school in Oregon was looking forof bilingual teachers … and that’s how I got involved in dual language, and it’s been my passion forever.

I see the power in being bilingual, and I want students to recognize you are very powerful when you can speak, write and read correctly in two languages — it’s an advantage for you.

That led me to find Mariama (Carson) by accident. We went to a conference, and I met her. She talked about this project (Global Prep Academy), and it was very interesting. Well, you know how it happens at a conference, you meet people, you say goodbye to people.

I went back to Oregon and forgot about it, and it was kind of … meant to be. I came back to a second conference, and the first person I saw was her. The last day of the conference, I called her, we sat down and talked.

So I came with my family (to Indianapolis). I really loved that the project was in the beginning because it was an opportunity to start something from the beginning. I never saw a new (dual language program) from the ground up.

One of the things that really caught my attention is how different urban education is. The real challenge started when I met the kids. They are so smart, all of them, but they come with so much baggage. It requires a lot of patience, a lot of commitment — believing that they can do it.

I would like to be more in an administrator role, with more administrator responsibilities in that sense because I see the need we have in the school. We have great teachers, but we have teachers who need to be switching their minds around to meet the needs of the kids.

I see education as the greatest equalizer for any student. It doesn’t matter where you are coming from, but if you have an education, you can achieve.

I don’t have all the answers. I have a lot of experience, but I still need to continue learning and growing as an educator. I see myself in 20 years continuing in this career path, but with more experience so that the people that I work with can reach whatever they want to reach — not just the students, but also the educators.