How I Teach

How I Teach: From philosophy professor to high school government teacher

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Kyle Grady begins his high school government class at Freedom Preparatory Academy, a charter school in Memphis.

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

Kyle Grady, Freedom Preparatory Academy

When Kyle Grady earned his doctorate in philosophy, he knew he would be a teacher. But he didn’t expect to work with high school students.

After a few years teaching in Memphis at Rhodes College, though, he became more interested in understanding how students learn. That meant leaving the college classroom.

“So much has already been decided by the time they get to college,” he said. “I wanted to get on the other side of the process.”

Grady ended up at Freedom Preparatory Academy, one of Memphis’ highest performing charter networks. This year, he’s teaching 12th grade government and economics. Here’s what he had to say about getting students to connect with the material and developing critical thinking skills.

What’s a word or short phrase to describe your teaching style?

Teaching is not about putting sight in blind eyes, but developing curiosity. I like to tap into what [students] are already interested in thinking about and finding a way to connect the material to themselves.

What does your classroom look like?

The seating is seminar style. They are forced to look across the room at each other in the eye. I want them to pose their own questions and not have to look up front, just focused on me.

What’s the most interesting contrast between high school and college students?

High school students are much less hesitant about speaking their minds on complex and sensitive issues, which means that we can get right to the heart of controversial questions much more quickly. This is a difference that I never anticipated before I started teaching high school.

What’s the most fun you had teaching this year so far?

Being able to discuss the presidential election results with my government students, who showed how much they have developed a deep understanding of our political system. There were many strong emotions and confusing questions for us all to process that day, but my students gave me a lot of hope for our political future.

What’s your favorite lesson to teach?

I teach a lesson on the concept of justice in which students begin by choosing a set of laws from the perspective of their own identity, then repeat the process with an identity — age, sex, race, etc. — that is randomly assigned to them. It’s always amazing to watch how quickly this shift in perspective affects students’ sense of fairness, and ultimately the laws that they find just.

What’s your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?

Sometimes we plan on certain assumptions and we find out we’ve made all the wrong guesses on what they know. In that situation, you just have to get rid of your plan and use class discussion to steer the class back to the topic at hand. One time, we segued to social media when talking about political philosophies. Eventually, there was a thread of connection about societal pressures that got us back on track.

What are you reading for fun?

I’m terrible about always being in the middle of several books at the same time. On my nightstand right now are a collection of essays by John Muir, a copy of Homer’s Odyssey, and book called “Against Democracy.”

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Trust the path you’re on. The philosopher Hegel wrote something that has always resonated with me: “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” We tend not to understand processes that we’re involved in until they reach their conclusions. But all the choices we’ve made, all the people we’ve met, everything we’ve learned has set us on the path we’re taking. Sometimes we need to keep moving forward, even when we don’t know exactly where that path is taking us.

First Person

A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business

Author Shana Peeples speaking at American Jerusalem High School in Jerusalem while touring as National Teacher of the Year.

This whole national conversation about who we should and shouldn’t let go into which bathrooms got me thinking about the most controversial thing I ever did as a teacher. I’d love to tell you it was teaching a banned book or something intellectual, but it was really all about the bathroom.

I allowed kids to quietly leave class whenever they needed to go without asking my permission.

My principal hated it; some of my colleagues viewed me as some sort of hippie. It made people question my professional judgment, my classroom management, and even my intelligence.

“So, you just let them leave when they want to?”

“If they need to go, yes.”

“Without a pass?”

“My hall pass is on a hook by the door so they can quietly take it and then replace it when they come back.”

“I bet you replace it a lot.”

“Actually, no. It’s the same one. I keep it around because it has a picture from my first year when I looked a lot younger and skinnier.”

Usually, people walk off before I can tell them any more of my crazy commie ideas. They’d die if they knew kids could take my pass to the nurse or their counselor if they needed to go. My only rule was that they had to show the same decorum that they would at the movies: no one gets up in a theater and loudly announces their business.

And in 15 years, no one used it as an excuse to skip the class or wander the campus or otherwise engage in shenanigans. Actually, no — one kid took the pass and didn’t come back until the next day. But that was because he was an English language learner on his second day who didn’t quite understand that it’s not meant as a “go home in the middle of the school day” pass.

When I began teaching, it was in a seventh-grade classroom in a portable, which is really just a converted double-wide trailer. The bathrooms were the separation space between my classroom and the reading teacher’s classroom. It seemed mean to me to control the bathroom needs of children in 90-minute block classes seated so close to one another. That was the origin of the policy.

Years later, one of my students wrote about me in an essay. I was prepared to read some sort of “Freedom Writers” love letter about the magic of my teaching. What she wrote instead was: The first day in her class I learned that she had the best bathroom policy ever. She treated us like human beings who could be trusted to take care of our own private needs.

I kept scanning the essay for the parts about the teacher magic, but that was really the only part about me specifically. The best bathroom policy ever. That’s my legacy.

But seriously, kids really can be trusted to take care of their own private needs. Especially those who are teenagers who drive cars. Or who are responsible in their after-school jobs for locking up a store’s daily receipts in the safe. Or who are responsible for getting four siblings to school on time because mom works the morning shift.

People complain to me, when they find out I used to teach high school, about how “lazy and irresponsible kids are these days.” That just irritates the fire out of me. What if so much of that behavior is because we don’t allow kids to try on trust and responsibility with little things like taking care of their bathroom business?

And maybe what looks like “laziness” is really a trained helplessness and passivity borne of so many rules and restrictions against movement of any kind. Don’t get up without permission, don’t talk without permission, don’t turn and look out the window without permission, and for Pete’s sake, don’t you put your head down on your desk and act like you’re tired because you were up all night at the hospital with your father who just had a heart attack.

Trust is a thing we create through small daily interactions. Simple things like extending the same courtesies to them as we would want for ourselves. I’m always so appreciative of professional development presenters who take the time to tell you where the coffee, water fountains, and bathrooms are. That communicates respect and consideration.

As teachers, we have to be willing to be the first to extend trust. When we do, kids will return it.

Shanna Peeples’ teaching career, all in Title I schools, began as a seventh grade writing teacher at Horace Mann Middle School in Amarillo, Texas. She later taught English at Palo Duro High School, and as the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, worked to shape the conversation in this country about working with students in poverty. She now serves as the secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.

This piece first appeared in Curio Learning.

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.