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 Teacher 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?

This teacher got her student to listen by bringing down the wrath of ‘Nana’

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

Dozens of educators gathered to tell stories of the challenges and joys of teaching at Ash & Elm Cider Co. The event was organized by teacher Ronak Shah and sponsored by Teacher for America. In the coming weeks, Chalkbeat will share a few of our favorites, lightly 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 did not go to school to become a teacher. I went to undergrad, graduate school, got my doctorate, worked in the nonprofit world and then joined (Teach for America). For my TFA career, I was placed at an all-boys middle school.

This event happened my second year teaching. One day, they are supposed to be doing a research paper on the Underground Railroad. And I had just finished explaining to them what the assignment was and what they were to be doing.

They are all working silently, and I’m thanking the lord that I finally got them quiet for a little bit, and we are actually getting some work done. Then I hear, “psst, psst …” You know, that whisper that starts to happen, that you know is going to grow louder and louder if you don’t get control of it.

I give what has been dubbed the “Anita stare.” I give the stare to tell him, “Get your act together.” Then I use my non-verbals. I go closer. I give him the look.

He was quiet for a little bit, and then all of a sudden, I hear this: sniff. sniff.

It’s the same kid that had just been talking, wiping his nose with his sleeve.

For about the next 5 minutes, he’s talking and snorting snot. I’m thinking, well, sending him to the office, I’ve been there with him before on this. And going to the office really doesn’t faze him very much. I know, though, if I call his mother, then that’s going to fix it.

So I pull out my cell phone, dial the number. I got mom on speed dial, because you have to do that with a couple of students.

Phone rings, and someone answers, and I say, “Hello, good morning. This is Dr. Saunders from the school, and I’d like to speak with Jonte’s mom.”

This voice comes back: “Well, she’s not here right now. What can I do? What’s going on?”

I said, “Who is this?”

“This is his Nana.”

I said, “Well ma’am, he’s having a little bit of a struggle in class right now. He’s talking, and he won’t stop.”

She said, “What is that boy doing?”

I said, “He’s talking,” — and I’m looking right at Jonte — “he’s talking, and he won’t stop.”

She said, “That boy knows better than to do that. We take him to church every Sunday. He knows he’s supposed to be respectful, especially at school.”

I said, “Well ma’am. I know you do a good job, you and his mama do a good job. But the lesson in church is not getting through. Maybe he needs some more church. Do you guys go to Wednesday meeting?”

She said, “His mama and I go, but he’s got basketball practice on Wednesdays.”

I said, “Well you know what” — and I’m looking at Jonte — “maybe he should miss basketball practice.”

He’s shaking his head, She’s talking to my Nana! She’s talking to my Nana! And I’m still looking at Jonte, and she said “Really, you think that’s best?”

And I said, “Yes ma’am I do. I think he could gain from more church and less basketball. Another thing. He seems to be a little ill right now. He’s snotting and everything.”

I said, “I’ll see if I can get him to blow his nose a little bit, maybe send him to the nurse, but as long as he stops talking for right now, that’s going to be enough for me right now. You let his mom know that I called.”

She said, “Well you think maybe, so I should take him to church? Should I give him some medicine when he gets home?”

I said, “Well, that may not be a bad idea: A little more church, a little more medicine.”

She ends the conversation with, “Well, you the doctor.”

What's your education story?

A mouse on the loose, scared students and an unexpected teaching moment

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Chelsea Easter-Rose

Dozens of educators gathered to tell stories of the challenges and joys of teaching at Ash & Elm Cider Co. last week. The event was organized by teacher Ronak Shah and sponsored by Teacher for America. In the coming weeks, Chalkbeat will share a few of our favorites, lightly edited for clarity.

We start with a story shared by Chelsea Easter-Rose, an eighth-grade English teacher at Indianapolis Lighthouse Charter School. For more stories about Indianapolis educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

I want to talk to you today about a mouse and my kids.

I work at an urban school, as they are called. All of my middle school students love hot chips. And what we started to realize was, the mice love them too. The kids would eat, and they would brush the dust off, because you don’t want to get it on your paper. And they would eat and the bag would spill and some would get on the ground. And then the mice would come out to the class.

We have one mouse that at this point could be the salutatorian because he’s like raising his hand like he’s in the class. And the mice became part of existence, our day-to-day life. When I hear a squeal, it’s one of two things: It’s a mouse or maybe children might be about to fight. I’m always ready to either catch a mouse or break up a fight.

(One day) I’m doing my uniform check, and I hear a squeal, and I run into room 301. And I’m like, “Hold strong, I’m ready to break up this fight!”

And this is a mouse.

“Miss Easter, get the mouse!” It’s over there, and I see 23 eighth-graders … and they want me to get the mouse. And I’m like, “I don’t see it,” and they’re like, “because it’s dead!”

I look at the mouse, and it’s smashed against the wall. Now I’m thinking, “One of my kids killed a mouse with a dictionary, and now not only do I have to pick up the remains of a dead mouse, now I have to investigate which one of you is about to be a serial killer.”

I walk a little closer, and I realize that something is happening. And I tell (my students), “I need you to be silent right now.” And of course, the only thing a 14-year-old can do when you say be silent is ask, “What’s going on? What’s the problem?”

I’m blocking them. “I need you to be silent right now!”

(Then a student interjects.)

She has some new information she wants to tell me. And she says, “Teacher, I want to tell you something about the mouse…”

I look at the mouse, and it does a little shift … and then the mouse unfurls its wings and takes flight. And the room is silent except for (a student) who says, “Oh s***, that mouse can fly!”

So now, I don’t know what to do. There’s a mouse flying — this is obviously a teaching moment, right? The kids are now running around the room because the mouse is flying, they are freaking out. Mr. Hernandez walks in, knocks the mouse down into the trash can and leaves, so we can all be quiet.

Then Karen: “Hey guys, what I was trying to tell you about the mouse is … I think it’s a bat.”

Here are the next three things I hear children say:

“Karen, bats aren’t real!”

“What is a bat?”

“Hold up, you trying to tell me there’s been a vampire up in this school?”

So we get back to our seats. And that’s when I walk towards the board with our objectives: “Students will be able to identify theme in the story The Lottery.”

The only thing I can think to write is: “Students will be able to know what a bat is.”