Building Better Teachers

How this teacher lost it in homeroom and still managed to win her student’s trust

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
KIPP Indianapolis teacher Katie Johnson, left, with her former student Ronasiea Holland, a freshman at IUPUI.

Educators from around Indianapolis gathered to tell heartbreaking and inspiring stories from the classroom earlier this month at an event hosted by Ash & Elm Cider Co. and Teachers Lounge Indy, a new group that organizes social events for educators.

In the coming weeks, Chalkbeat will share a few of our favorites, condensed and lightly edited for clarity. We start with a story shared by Katie Johnson, a teacher at KIPP Indianapolis.

It was my second year of teaching. I have a student who one day I was very impatient (with). I was asking my class, “Be quiet.” I got an eye roll. “Please stop talking.” I got a lip smack. And that’s when lip gloss was popular — when everybody was real bright and glossy.

That day, I just wasn’t feeling it. I wasn’t feeling like being patient. I said, “Get out of my room!”

And Miss Holland, if you know her, had to do a lip pop. She had to do an eye roll. She had to talk to her friend. That was Miss Holland.

It was the end of the day, afternoon homeroom. And I’m sitting in the middle of the classroom. I have the afternoon announcements in my hand, and I had to make sure all our students got those documents. So when Miss Holland was walking out, I said, “Come back here and get these papers!”

I was not very mature at this time. At this point, I’m like 23 years old.

She comes back in, and she takes these papers, and when she does, she snatches them, and all the papers fly.

Our students wear these really nice uniforms, bright blue shirts, nice ironed collars. Before I realized it, my hands were around the collar of this nice, beautiful polo.

And I was like, “No! Katie, don’t lose your job, Katie Johnson. Don’t lose your job.” I said this out loud in a room of eighth-graders.

She proceeds to walk out. I proceed to like, get my life together. I know I have made a mistake.

It was the end of the day, she was a walker, and her mom usually came to pick her up. I knew, either I was going to lose my job that day, or I had to talk to her parent.

I walk downstairs, and I saw her mom. I walk up to her mom, and I say, “I jacked your baby up.” At this point, we had a relationship, but not enough for me to ever put my hands on anybody’s baby, ever. Her mom said, “Ms. Johnson, you should have beat her ass.” And I knew I had my job after that!

Her mother knew that I cared for her. And the reason why I was really tough on her was because she was extremely intelligent — very smart. And when she had good days, they were amazing. She could lead a class. She could quiet the class. She was great. When she wasn’t having a good day, she could also be a culture-killer and tear my class apart.

I had to get her on my side. And that relationship began to build. Outside of school, I’d take her places. We’d have one-on-one conversations in the cafeteria. Miss Holland was an amazing young lady.

As an eighth-grade (teacher), I got a chance to work with our kids during promotion, and I looked at her and I said, “You know what Miss Holland, not if — but when — you graduate high school and go to college, no matter where you go, I am taking you dorm room shopping. And on my teacher budget, that’s a lot of money.”

For four years, I’ve been engaged with this woman. She’s met my family. And this August, I got a chance to keep my word because she kept hers. She graduated from high school, such a mature and beautiful young lady.

And she called me saying, “Miss Johnson, I’m ready. When are we going shopping? What’s my budget?”

But it was my honor to take her. This is the reward that I get to have for all these years of being an immature teacher. She took it, and she learned, and she grew.

She is now a freshman at Indianapolis University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

She tells me that she wants to be a teacher, and I tell her, “Lord, I cannot wait until you get a Ronasiea Holland in your class.”

Watch the full story:

For more stories about Indianapolis educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

Art start

Nearly half of Detroit schools offered no music or art last year. Next year could be different.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Students learn to play violin at Spain Elementary-Middle School, one of 21 Detroit schools that offered instrumental music last year. Nearly half of Detroit schools had neither music nor art.

The new Detroit school board is trying to address one of the most persistent complaints about city schools: The fact that roughly half of schools offer no formal instruction in music or art.

Numbers provided by the district show that of 81 schools serving general education students, 55 had no art teachers, and 51 had no instrumental or vocal music teachers during the school year that just ended.

Nearly half — 40 schools — offered neither music nor arts instruction.

“It’s been a tragic situation that kids were not exposed to that opportunity to take and study the arts,” said Willie McAlister who heads the district’s office of fine arts. “When I was student, all of the schools in the district had art, music, dance, gym, a lot of different things.”

Arts programs took a big hit when the district was under the control of state-appointed emergency managers from 2009 until last year, said McAlister, a DPS grad who says he’s worked in the district for 39 years.

“The first thing they did was cut the arts.”

But Detroit voters last year elected a new school board that took control of the district in January and made the arts a priority, he said.

He’s now been given $500,000 to hire 15 teachers who will each serve multiple schools next year, creating arts and music programs in 30-45 schools.

“We are moving forward with the restoration of our arts and music programs,”McAlister said.

During years without these programs, many schools lost the equipment they once had to theft or lack of maintenance. McAlister said the first step is to visit schools and assess the condition of instruments and other supplies.

The district aims to eventually offer two art components in every elementary and middle school, with some offering visual arts and instrumental music, others perhaps dance and vocal music.

Most of the city’s high schools have at least some kind of arts program. Large selective schools like Cass Tech, Renaissance and the Detroit School of the Arts offer several such programs. But some smaller high schools don’t currently offer music or art.

That’s a problem, said Alissa Novoselick, executive director of the organization Living Arts, which places teaching artists in Detroit-area schools.

“We need innovative thinkers,” Novoselick said. “Creative thinking and the arts are really in everything that we do so … when we strip the arts from our schools, we are losing so much possibility of innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Novoselick said Living Arts teaching artists, who work in both district and charter schools, are often the only arts instructors in their schools. They typically work with one class of kids for two months, two days a week, though they train classroom teachers to continue arts instruction after they’re gone.

“These kids need a reason to come to school,” she said, adding that music and arts can “reach schools and teachers and kids at a level that isn’t going to come through textbooks and memorizing facts.”

Here’s the list Detroit district schools that offer music and art. The list includes only general education schools. Special education, early childhood, adult education and vocational and technical programs are not included.

How I Teach

After teen’s suicide attempt, this Colorado teacher wrote letters to each student. Now, she’ll share her story on a bigger stage.

Teacher Brittni Darras is lifted by graduating seniors from Rampart High School's varsity cheerleading squad, which Darras coaches.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Brittni Darras, an English teacher at Rampart High School in the Colorado Springs-based Academy School District, was shocked by what she learned about one of her students in a parent-teacher conference. The outgoing teen had recently attempted suicide, the girl’s mother told Darras.

The news made Darras realize that other students were probably suffering in silence, too. She decided to write personalized cards to her more than 100 students telling them how much they mattered.

“It changed the way I see my role as a teacher,” she said.

Last fall, Darras’ efforts earned her the 2016 Hero of Mental Health award from AspenPointe, a nonprofit mental health provider in Colorado Springs. In July, she’ll speak at the TEDxMileHigh 2017 event at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver.

Darras talked to Chalkbeat about her card-writing campaign, what motivates her to wake up at 5:45 a.m. and why she doesn’t mind if students talk in class.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I have known I wanted to be a teacher since I was in third grade. When I was in elementary school, during summer breaks, I would teach my little brother “lessons” and make him practice school-related work. He was a real trooper!

At the time, I thought I wanted to teach elementary school, but when I entered college, I started tutoring at my former high school through the AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination) program. I left every day inspired by how hard my students worked. I enjoyed having conversations with them about college and their future plans. By the end of that semester, I switched my major from elementary education to secondary education.

What does your classroom look like?
I like to think of my classroom as a place that is both interactive and caring. My students are frequently up and moving around. For example, one of my favorite interactive activities includes me posing a statement relevant to the unit I am teaching. My students have to stand against the “agree” or “disagree” wall and be prepared to defend their position in regard to the statement. We have had phenomenal discussions about heroes and what it means to be a hero as a result of this activity. It serves as a great introduction to our tragic hero unit.

I consider my classroom caring, because I always reiterate the need for my students to use positive self-talk and to use encouraging words with each other. I also make it a point to ask my students each Friday what their plans are for the weekend, and I always follow up on Monday to ask how their weekends were. It gives me an opportunity to learn what else my students do outside of school, and it provides me with very valuable information about each of my students.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _______. Why?
My students. They are the reason I wake up and go to work every day. It’s like I always tell them, “If you love your job, you never work a day in your life.” I love what I do because of my students, so if it wasn’t for them, it wouldn’t be worth waking up every morning at 5:45 a.m.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
One of my favorite lessons is a scene interpretation assignment where students have to pick some kind of alternate reality and apply it to a chapter in a novel or a scene in a play we have read in class. They then have to alter the dialogue or script to match their alternate reality. Finally, they perform the new version in class.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
If one student doesn’t understand my lesson, I like to pair that student up with another student who understands the topic a little better. It helps develop leadership, and it allows my students to share their knowledge and understanding. It helps the students realize they ARE smart!

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I don’t mind if students are talking. Many times, I ask them to talk. I believe having conversations allows my students to make more sense of the material, and it also allows my students to help and support each other through the learning process.

If students are off task, 99 percent of the time, a conversation with that student one-on-one solves the problem. Most of the time, if a student is off task, it is not intentional. Instead, it is usually because something else is going on at home or with their friends that is causing inner turmoil and making it hard for them to focus. These conversations allow me to assist and support my students as well as show them that I care about more than just their grade on their report card.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I get to know my students by learning about what they do outside of school. As mentioned before, every week, I ask them how their weekend was, which gives me valuable information about their sports, hobbies and passions. Last year, I created an “Events” section on my board where students could write the date and time of upcoming events, such as their sporting events or school plays. It allowed me to show up to a variety of these events, and I was also able to follow up with my students to ask how the event was if I wasn’t able to attend.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A memorable time that had the most impact on me was when I had contact with a student’s mom at parent-teacher conferences. Her mom told me she had been absent from my class because she almost committed suicide. While this was tragic and devastating, it made me realize that this beautiful, outgoing, friendly girl can’t be my only student who is struggling.

As a result, I took action and wrote personalized cards to each of my students to let them know how much I care about them and why they make a difference in my class and on this planet. It changed the way I see my role as a teacher; teacher’s often see students more hours in a day than the students’ own parents do, so it is important for teachers to support students emotionally instead of just academically.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
Right now, I am reading A Prayer for Owen Meany. Part of it is for enjoyment, and part of it is to prepare to teach AP Literature next year!

What’s the best advice you ever received?
The best advice I ever received is to live each day like it’s my last. I am grateful each day for the opportunities and experiences that I have, and I try to encourage my students to embrace each day and each moment also. I strongly believe that when you start to examine the positive aspects of life, you live a happier, more fulfilling life.