Don’t use pushpins in the classroom and other lessons from teaching middle school

A woman wearing all black speaks into a microphone while a couple people sit against the back wall.
Kali Burks shares a story during "Don't Make Me Use My Teacher Voice," a story slam presented by Teachers Lounge Indy, in collaboration with Chalkbeat Indiana and Indy Kids Winning on Friday, Nov. 16, 2023 at Ash and Elm Cider Co. in Indianapolis. (Elaine Cromie/Chalkbeat)

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In her very first year of teaching eighth grade, Kali Burks learned three invaluable lessons.

First, if you tell a student who’s trying to evade work that they’re not leaving the classroom unless they’re bleeding, they may call your bluff.

Second, if you use pushpins in your classroom, that same student may use one to pierce their ears and draw blood.

And third — and most importantly — it’s OK to cut students a little slack before it comes to that.

Burks, a teacher in Wayne schools, shared her “teaching fails” at the “Don’t Make Me Use My Teacher Voice” story slam on Nov. 16. The event was presented by Teachers Lounge Indy, in collaboration with Chalkbeat Indiana and Indy Kids Winning.

Those weren’t the only hard-won lessons from her first year. Below is an excerpt from the “series of unfortunate events” that earned Burks the nickname “Firestarter.”

Here’s an excerpt of her story, lightly edited for clarity and length:

“He [the student] had gone through two Chromebooks, two loaner Chromebooks, and after he was forbidden from using any type of technology in our classroom, he would often try to find something else to destroy.

I did not know this fateful day that in the class period before, he had gotten a brand new phone and wanted to see what was inside of it. So he decided to take the back off it, try to get the battery out. Apparently when you pick at a battery long enough, it will start to smoke.

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All of a sudden I hear, ‘Ms. Burks? There’s a fire.’

I turn around and this backpack is billowing smoke. I have never been in a fire situation in my life. So when I saw the smoke, I had no idea what to do. I leapt across my room, jumped over the backpack, ran out of my room looking for the fire alarm.”

Watch the full video below.

Aleksandra Appleton covers Indiana education policy and writes about K-12 schools across the state. Contact her at

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