First Person

First Person: How Olympic athletes saved my teaching career

PHOTO: Craig Macleod
The author in his classroom.

Three years ago, I was dragging myself toward the end of my fourth year of teaching. The stress of testing and my struggles with the curriculum had me on the verge of burning out.

Today, I’m still a teacher. And, as odd as it may sound, what changed my outlook was two Olympic figure skaters.

At the end of that exhausting school year, I stumbled across an organization called Classroom Champions. It connects classrooms in low-income neighborhoods with Olympic and Paralympic athletes. I signed up, and my class of fifth graders was paired with then-U.S. Olympic silver medalist figure skaters, Meryl Davis and Charlie White.

In video chats over the course of the school year, Meryl and Charlie talked to my students about ways to set goals and what it looks like to persevere when situations get difficult. As a class, we created our own goals to raise money for the Penny Harvest program.

As Meryl and Charlie continued their journey to a second Olympics, we followed along. Then they won their first gold medal in the ice dancing competition at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia. It was an unforgettable experience to watch my students’ excitement.

By then, inspired by Meryl and Charlie, I wanted to make the next year even better.

April Holmes, the U.S. Paralympic gold medalist, became our new mentor. My fifth graders, many of whom receive special-education services, easily made connections between their own lives and the struggles April faced after losing her leg in a train accident when she was 18. When we set our own goals, every one of my students contributed items to our school’s food drive.

This past school year, my class worked with luge bronze medalist Erin Hamlin. With her guidance, they took on monthly challenges. The students brainstormed scenes in which they needed to be honest, then created their own screenplays, assigned roles, and decided how each scene would look on camera before filming them. They also wrote about situations when they showed perseverance — from memorizing their multiplication tables to facing their greatest fear by snow-tubing down a humongous hill.

My students spoke more often about achieving their goals and seemed more likely to offer each other an encouraging word. As Meryl, Charlie, April, and Erin persevered, my students wanted to persevere alongside them.

If this all sounds cheesy, or too good to be true, I get it. But it’s a fact that each year, the Olympic mentors have changed the feel and the character of my class.

The personal connections the athletes built with my students through video lessons and live chats brought out strengths I didn’t even know they had. I saw students who were extremely shy or struggled with public speaking raise their hands to ask their athlete mentors questions. I saw students who shied away from the spotlight challenge themselves to become leaders in the classroom, on our sports teams, and in our school government.

The program re-sparked my own passion, too. Having a chance to engage my students with new technology and infusing character education lessons into my curriculum made me love teaching again. Simply stated, Classroom Champions saved my teaching career.

A quote from one of my students after a chat with Erin Hamlin puts it best: “I can do more than what I think I can.”

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.

First Person

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

High schools have become obsessed with “million-dollar scholars,” and it’s hurting students.

Across Memphis, students often are pushed by counselors to apply to as many colleges as possible — as many as 100 — all to push students to reach that million-dollar scholarship mark. The more dollars and college acceptance, the better!

I graduated in 2016, and my experience offers a case study.

I’m a pretty well-rounded individual: In high school, I was a finalist in the Let’s Innovate Through Education program and was able to launch SousChef-Memphis, a culinary nonprofit organization. I was a dual-enrollment student and took honors courses. I was committed to community service. I was vice president of my high school organization, Modern Distinctive Ladies. I was on the bowling team, managed the basketball team, and participated in debate forensics and drama.

I was also told by counselors to apply to 100 colleges. I was never told why that number was chosen, but my peers were told the same. We were often pulled out of class to complete these applications, which took away from instructional time — about an hour per day. My high school also ran on an infraction system, and not turning in college applications and other documents led to disciplinary actions.

The quality of those applications only shed a dim light on the student and person that I am. A hundred applications was never my goal. A hundred applications doesn’t measure the capability, intelligence or worth of me as a student. A hundred applications is just ridiculous!

Schools with similar approaches, though, get glowing media coverage. Meanwhile, a lot of that scholarship money is irrelevant, since a single student obviously can only attend one school.

I think that if I had been counseled properly, I would have had a better grasp on my high school-to-college transition. I ultimately chose to leave Memphis to attend another state university on a full scholarship. Looking back, that school was not the best fit for me. I returned to Memphis to attend our local public university.

A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.

I was more than capable of getting back on track, and I did. But not every student can afford to go through what I went through.

High schools need to realize that, while students amassing millions of dollars in scholarships and hundreds of college acceptance letters seems like an accomplishment, the outcome for many students is the total opposite.

Too many students end up not going to a school that is the best fit for them, taking on piles of debt, and dropping out with no workforce experience.

The goal should be that each high school student will graduate having a grasp on their career path (and experience in that field), scholarships to the school of their choice (full rides or little to no debt), and be confident in where they will be spending the next four to six years of their life. Being thorough in the college search and submitting quality applications is what leads to a college that is the best fit for the student, obtaining scholarships, and ultimately graduating.

Here’s what I wish a counselor had told me:

"It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next."Anisah Karim

Try things you like, but don’t overload yourself. Look for summer internships that pay, rather than minimum-wage jobs. Build a network of people who can help you make good decisions about college and work. Research schools with a major you’re interested in, and find out what scholarships they offer. Keep an eye on your GPA and make sure you’re taking the classes you need to graduate. Apply for colleges when applications open and submit the FAFSA form in October.

And most importantly, through all four years of high school, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next.

Anisah Karim is a psychology student at the University of Memphis. She plans to continue her education in speech pathology and otology and eventually start her own private practice. She also plans to launch two new business ventures in the fall and relaunch SousChef in the fall of 2018.