What's your education story?

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

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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.

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?

‘Everything is going to be great,’ he told his teacher. She wishes that was the end of his story.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Katie Speer shared her story at an event hosted by Indy Teachers Lounge.

Educators from across Indianapolis gathered to tell stories about the joys and heartbreaks of teaching at a storytelling event hosted by Teachers Lounge Indy. Chalkbeat sharing a few of our favorites, edited for clarity.

Katie Speer is a middle school teacher at KIPP Indy. For more stories about Indianapolis educators, see our occasional series “What’s Your Education Story?”.

This story centers around a student that I taught last year. He was in my homeroom, and this student was literally everyone’s best friend. He could meet someone and then they would be best friends. His smile lit up the room. His laughter was echoing in the lunchroom. Everyone loved him.

The problem was, I taught him at the end of the day. By the time he got to me at 2:50, he was worn out from just bringing joy to the world.

He’d come to my class, and he’d be like, “Hey Miss Speer!” And I’d be like, “Hey, how are you?”

And then five minutes into my class, he’d be (snoring), just out, out to the world. I would call his name out in my class. I’d walk over. I would tap him.

Then I moved his seat, directly to the left of me. And every minute, I would just poke him. Over time, he was immune to my pokes.

I was like, “OK. We got to figure this out. You are not passing my class, but you are brilliant. We have to fix this.”

So my solution was, I had to start calling home. His dad was great. He would be ready to answer the phone during my class. The second his head would start to go, I’d be like, “no, we are calling dad.”

And he hated it. It was the only thing that I could get to work. And he was like, “Oh, you are the worst. You are petty. You are lame. I hate you.” All of that.

I actually called his dad four days in a row, and he was so mad at me. But then, the next progress report came out and he was passing my class.

I’m like, “OK. I can do this. I can go home every day and feel like he hates me, but it’s working.”

At my school, we do this thing called shout-outs. We end every day on a positive note. The students have the floor, and they shout out someone in their homeroom.

He’s like, “I have a shout-out, I have a shout-out.”

He said, “Miss Speer, I would like to shout you out for always calling home. Even though I say that I hate it, I know that you do it because you love me, and I know that you do it because you want to make a difference, and that means a lot to me.”

The school year goes on, and he passes all of his classes. And it’s time for promotion. We always gather in homerooms to prep for promotion and go over the details one more time. And he shows up in suit pants, the nicest dress shoes, this beautiful suit vest and this bowtie and a bright yellow button-up.

And he’s like, “Miss Speer take a picture of all the boys. Miss Speer take a picture of the whole class. Miss Speer just take a picture of me, because I look great.”

The night comes to an end, and I’m literally standing on the sidewalk waiting for people to get picked up and I’m just sobbing.

He gives me a hug and he’s like, “Everything is going to be great. Thank you for being my teacher. Thank you for being great. You are going to be fine. We are going to be fine. I’m going to be fine. It’s gonna be good.”

I would love for that to be the end of this story.

But unfortunately, three weeks into summer, he was killed in an act of gun violence.

I think that although this story isn’t happy, it’s something that I want to share because everyday, I am pushed to be a better person and a better teacher. In his memory, sometimes I do the tough things or I go the extra mile, or I make those calls that I really didn’t want to make because I know that I’m going to hear it from the student, because I know that it matters. I want to continue to be that person.

Shout out to all the teachers who do that every single day, because it’s hard to make the hard phone calls. It’s hard to go the extra mile. It’s really hard to go home and feel like you are not on their side. But it matters. It makes a difference.

Shout out to him because he makes me a better person every single day.

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.