What's your education story?

‘I was a pebble in this guy’s shoe.’ How one teacher found his voice in the Statehouse

PHOTO: Provided by Patrick McAlister

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.

Patrick McAlister is the director of policy for Teach Plus Indianapolis, an organization that trains teachers to be policy advocates. He previously taught middle and high school English at Indiana Math and Science Academy-North, an Indianapolis charter school. For more stories about Indianapolis educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

I’d been teaching for a couple of years in my four walls by myself a lot of times. I was teaching middle school — you know the chaos. And I was trying to do my best.

A friend approached me and said, “I need you to talk with a legislator.” They were about ready to vote on something that I cared about (whether to leave the Common Core State Standards). And he’s like, “I need you to come speak.”

I thought, “Why me?” My energy, my life goes into this classroom to do what I can, and I don’t have anything to say to this guy.

He gave me some talking points, and he said, “Study those, and we will go in, and we will meet with the guy, and everything will be OK.”

We go to the Indiana General Assembly and meet with a state representative. I go into this guy’s cubicle and sit down. He’s not there yet. And on one wall, he has a bunch of Austrian economists, like (Friedrich) Hayek and all those guys. And on the other wall, he has all of the Founding Fathers, and then his picture in the middle. This was the guy that I was supposed to convince to vote the way I wanted him to.

It gets worse. He comes in, and he sweeps his coat back and sits down. And on his belt — this is in the Statehouse, by the way — on his belt is the biggest handgun I have ever seen in my entire life. Like, if the zombie apocalypse were to happen tomorrow, I would be standing behind that guy.

I’m positive this meeting isn’t going to go anywhere. So he comes in, sits back in his chair, spreads his legs, and he is like, “Alright, what have you got?” And so, in my head, my initial thinking was, I’m just going to read the talking points. But I have a choice to make, do I spend my time just regurgitating things … or do I talk to him about kids and my classroom.

I started talking about this lesson I taught with “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and I talked about how, we didn’t just read the novel, we looked at these images of the time that’s covered in the novel, we listened to blues and we listened to Billie Holiday. And he started nodding his head, and I talked about the other primary source documents that we read, the letters that we read.

(He) ended the conversation asking me questions, looking me in the eyes and hearing what I had to say. Now, at the end, he didn’t actually vote the way I wanted him to — he was afraid that the federal government was coming to take over this issue and couldn’t get past that in his head in order to support what I was trying to get him to support.

But he said, at the committee hearing where he was going to vote, “You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue, and I’m not going to to support it. But I talked to a teacher and this teacher made me think.”

I was a pebble in this guy’s shoe. I was one pebble, one person. … After I heard that, I realized, what would it be like if he had 10 pebbles in his shoe? What if his whole shoe was full of pebbles, and he couldn’t stick his foot in there. He’d have to do something different. That’s why I believe teacher advocacy is important when it comes to policy.

What's your education story?

This IPS teacher was afraid to ask for help, but the courage it took was worth it. Her mentor made all the difference.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Melissa Scherle is a second-grade teacher at IPS School 14.


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.

Melissa Scherle is a second-grade teacher at Washington Irving School 14 in Indianapolis Public Schools. She’s been an educator for 13 years.

I grew up in southern Indiana, and I moved to Indianapolis for my teaching job (at School 14).

That first year, in October, I can remember just kind of wondering what in the world was I doing because I was raised in southern Indiana.

I thought, “What am I doing?” because I’m really having difficulty relating to these students.

It took courage to ask a veteran teacher for help. And she was top-notch, high quality, and I was intimidated by her, but when I went to her, she had an open heart she was kind and caring. She mentored me and took me under her wing, and and taught me so much that I could never repay her. How to connect with the kids, how to connect with the community and the parents.

My first year teaching, I wish I would’ve had a longer student teaching experience, not just the last semester of senior year. Education has changed so much over 13 years. You’re having kids come in with more intense needs.

Before you can teach, you need to have classroom management, but before you get classroom management, you also need to get to know your kids. Know each and every kid. What ticks and tocks with them, what their strengths are and what maybe they need extra help with. Treat every student as an individual, but they’re all equal as well.

I tell people, you don’t really learn anything in college until you step into that classroom. There’s still stuff that goes on every day that I’m like, did that just happen in my classroom?

I just see so much of the policy and laws affecting classroom teachers, and I feel like teachers need a voice and that teachers need to be able to relay their experiences when they want to have a voice. There are great things going on in the law, but there are also other things that need to be fixed and changed.

I’ve been in a classroom for 13 years and have just seen so many different people come in and out of the building and just having friends leaving education. A lot of colleagues have said, “You know, if I would’ve had more experience in a classroom, or if I would’ve known this in my program, I wouldn’t have left education.” And we see a lot of first- and second-year teachers leave, and a lot of them are just overwhelmed.

They wish they could’ve had more field experience in the classroom or more mentoring. If we can work with districts and policymakers all working together, we can keep teachers in the classroom and have teachers providing quality instruction for the kids as well.


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.