What's your education story?

Leaving finance was easy, teaching was hard, but this educator realized: ‘I’ve got to figure it out.’

education_story_graphic

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.

Tom Hakim is now an assistant principal at Cold Springs Elementary School in Indianapolis Public Schools. He’s been an educator in Marion County for eight years.

I worked in corporate finance for four years — I was a finance undergrad — in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I was always involved and volunteered a lot in high school and college and did a lot of things in the community … (As an adult), I was a big brother in Big Brothers, Big Sisters, and I was coaching rec league basketball, I was teaching Junior Achievement, so that was actually my first experience going into a classroom teaching kids.

But through all of that, (those activities were) what I was really getting excited about in my days, not so much the day-to-day work I was doing in my current job.

So I just started looking at education and what options might be out there. And I read an article in the Detroit Free Press about Teach For America, and I had never heard about it prior to that. This was a chance for me to transition very quickly into a career that I think I may want to do, and that happened.

Even in a program like that, where you get the “meat and potatoes” of training of how to be a teacher, your first couple years, it’s just so hard.

But there was more of an idealistic commitment to it. This is what I think I really want to do, so despite the challenges, I’ve got to figure it out.

I was part of the 2009 (TFA) corp, taught in the charter world for five years here in town, and then had an opportunity three years ago to move to Washington Township. It’s actually the only place I’ve ever lived in Indy, and it was kind of the right fit at the right time.

I was a department chair at one of their middle schools. It was one that was the lowest performing at the time, Northview.

I think for the first time in my teaching career, I felt, in addition to working really hard and wanting to provide a great education for the kids of the school I was working in, I also felt that bigger commitment of the community because that was where I was living. My own children are going to school (there).

So it made it even more real for me, the “why” behind what we do.

I grew up outside of Detroit. When you really look at it, some of the issues that plague Detroit Public Schools are some of the same things we see here in Indy. My experience was not comparable to what I see some of our kids going through on a day-to-day basis.

So I think there’s the initial shock of that, but then there’s this next phase, where if I’m really going to be a part of this, I’ve got to understand all the factors that are really involved and going on here, and it’s not easy. It’s not easy work.

Over two years (at Northview), we went from lowest performing to highest math (test scores) in the district in my time as the department chair, which I primarily attribute to the team I had around me.

I was teaching one grade level, but again, it gets back to this idea that when you get the right teachers on board, growing in the same direction and pushing for the right things, pretty great things can happen.

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.