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?

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.

What's your education story?

This high schooler broke out of his shell with the help of 3D printing

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Jason Brewster

Indianapolis Public Schools opened a makerspace in Arsenal Technical High School last year in partnership with 1st Maker Space, which runs after-school programming and drop-in hours for students. Students can build creative projects — and hone their problem solving and technical skills — with tools such as sewing machines, laser cutters and 3D printers.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
A 3D printer at Arsenal Tech 1st Maker Space.

We met Jason Brewster, a 1st Maker Space staffer, during drop-in hours in December. Brewster graduated from Arsenal Technical High School last year and plans to attend Ivy Tech Community College. Below is his education story condensed and lightly edited for clarity. For more stories from parents, students and educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series

My neighborhood school was Manual High School. I chose Arsenal Tech because of the math/science magnet. I thought I was interested in math, science, engineering. But ultimately I figured out I wasn’t. With numbers, there’s a certainty to it, and I loved that. (But) the pressure that the math side put on you — you had to be the perfect student. I didn’t like all that pressure.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Two pieces of a sword an Arsenal student is building with a 3D printer.

I switched to (career technology education) my sophomore year. (My focus was) visual communications and printmaking. I thought 3D printing would be in the same realm as like screen printing. I did camp with 1st Maker Space, and they gave me a scholarship, and I became very involved with them. I was helping them run teacher training. Eventually they just hired me on.

I remember getting a text from (1st Maker Space president Kim Brand), and he was like, “How would you like to work for us?” I was like, “Yeah. I would love to.” We met here at Tech, and I started working that day.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Another student is creating a Pokedex, an electronic index of species from the Pokemon game.

Not to be morbid, but I think I’d be very depressed (without art and 1st Maker Space). Before all this, I was depressed, I was sad, I was down and out. And I think I’d be still in the same sort of situation.

I was not happy with where I was at. I had maybe three friends, and I didn’t have an outlet, so I became an artist. I broke out of my shell being an artist. I talked to people more. I got involved with a lot of things.

I never thought I would see a 3D printer in person for like the next 10 years, let alone ending up working with them and building them and repairing them. It’s crazy. I sew. I embroider. I want to get into glass blowing — I think that’d be really cool.

I would consider myself pretty happy with life.