Advice for new teachers from a veteran: If you don’t have their hearts, you won’t have their heads

PHOTO: Janine Logar
Janine Logar takes a selfie with some of her students using an app that adds cartoons.

When Janine Logar first stepped into a classroom as a career-changer studying to be a teacher more than a decade ago, she remembers thinking, “Oh, this is what I want to do.”

“I felt like when LeBron James discovered a basketball,” she said recently. “This is what I was put on Earth to do. … I’m not artistic. I don’t find myself to be particularly good with finances. I’m a terrible driver. But I have a specific set of skills that really meshes with teaching.”

Logar is now entering her ninth year as a fifth-grade teacher at Sabin World Elementary School in southwest Denver. In 2015, she was the sole teacher to be awarded the distinguished Denver Public Schools Leadership Lamp Award, given to employees who go above and beyond.

And at a welcome event last week, she dispensed wisdom to a concert hall full of teachers who’ll be starting their first year in the district later this month. We caught up with the boisterous and passionate Logar to ask about her own experience and her advice for first-timers.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What was your first year of teaching like?

I think I was probably overconfident going into it, like, ‘I totally got this.’ Because maybe you need to be. Maybe you need to feel more prepared than you are.

I came in at a low morale point for the school. The week I got there, they’d been told that they had two years to get it together or they were going to go into turnaround. (State test) scores had just come out and people were crying because they were awful. It was a rough transition.

I found out pretty quickly that the kids at the school were awesome. They’d had some pretty checked-out teachers for a really long time. They’d say things to me like, ‘It’s nice that you always have lesson plans.’ I was like, ‘Yes but you should expect there to be lesson plans.’ So in a lot of ways, they were like a little desert: They were so thirsty for rain.

Denver didn’t really have a (new teacher) mentor program at that point. That part was really challenging. What we forget as veteran teachers is that we veteran teachers know things that our new friends don’t know about. There are so many acronyms and abbreviations (in education) that you can sit in a meeting and be like, ‘I didn’t understand anything.’

I’d just gotten married and I had no children, so I’d scare the janitor in the morning because I’d get there at like 5 in the morning. At nighttime, the custodians would come over the intercom system and be like, ‘Janine, we are trying to go home. We have families and we don’t have time for this.’ I was working 70 or 80 hours a week. I thought that if I had every minute of the day scripted, I was going to do a good job.

What was the hardest thing about that year?

Not really feeling like there was any place to go to get feedback on whether I was doing it well or not. I wasn’t getting any coaching. I would get observed. The only thing that was telling me if I was doing a good enough job or not was the once-a-year evaluation and the kids’ feedback. Some of the kids really loved me and some of the kids really didn’t love me.

I didn’t have a lot of the social emotional stuff. I didn’t know how to support kids like that. We only had a part-time psychologist my first year. The data from tests was saying I was doing fine, but there is more to teaching than how kids are scoring on a test.

Because I was working so hard, everything felt so intensely personal. If a kid told me he didn’t like me, I was like, ‘Oh, you don’t like me? I’m working 70 hours a week and you don’t like me?’ Whereas now a kid could tell me he doesn’t like me and I’m like, ‘Okay. You’ll love me by May.’

What was the best thing about that year?

Without a doubt, the kids. Those kids were so patient and forgiving with me because I was a first-year teacher. Because we went through so much together, we were incredibly bonded. It felt so urgent. They knew the pressure was on them to try to keep the school open.

What was the most important thing you learned that year?

That if you don’t have their hearts, you’ll never have their heads. If they don’t love you and believe in you and look up to you, you can move them intellectually but I don’t think you make long-term intellectual connections with them. I don’t think you draw out their gifts and talents and help them understand their uniqueness if you don’t have a relationship with them.

How do you establish that relationship?

You have to treat them like they’re people. Sometimes in teaching, we talk to kids in a way that is unauthentic. Kids need to know that you’re a person. A big thing is to say you’re sorry. Not, ‘I’m sorry, but –.’ But, ‘I messed that up and it’s going to take some time for me to fix that with you and here’s how I plan to do that. Is that going to work with you?’ Or, ‘That lesson was horrible and how can we make it better tomorrow?’

Some of the inroads I’ve built with kids is when I’ve been really real with their parents and helped them out or bought a coat or helped some of my parents with their college stuff because they’re like, ‘It’s been so long since I’ve written an essay.’

Some of my tougher kids — the kids on the class list that people say ‘oh my gosh’ about — I usually try to reach out to them over the summer under the guise of, ‘You can help me set the classroom up,’ because it’s not threatening, their image and ego isn’t there, they don’t have to perform for anybody. It’s just them and I, and I can say, ‘What hasn’t worked with teachers before?’ If they’ve laughed with you and picked music while you’re painting the room and you take them to Cicis Pizza, you’re going to start on a very different foot.

What’s one thing you know now that you wish you knew then?

Biology trumps psychology every time.

You can have norms set up in your room — and I’m not saying you shouldn’t — you can build relationships with kids, all of those things, but if you have a kid who’s been through trauma, some of that behavior they have when they get escalated can trigger them into fight or flight. They will either attack you or they will run.

It feels incredibly personal. For a really long time, I’d be like, ‘What is wrong with this kid? I have done this and this and this, I’ve had lunch with them, they know that I know their mom, they tell me I’m their favorite teacher and now they’re cussing at me.’

But when you start to do the research on kids engaged in trauma, you realize that a lot of these behaviors really are not in their control. Kids can’t really articulate it. They’ll say things like, ‘It’s almost like I black out,’ or ‘I see red, and this thing is in my body and I can’t stop it.’ That’s fight or flight. We need to adjust our practices with discipline when we’re in a situation like that.

What should a teacher do if they find themselves in that situation?

Discipline works in the moment but it doesn’t do anything to change behavior. So I think a teacher should always think about, ‘Ten years from now, how do I want a kid to respond to this behavior?’ It’s probably not getting sent to the principal’s office that’s going to fix that.

If you have a nondisciplinary option for a kid, that’s the best course of action. Some kids need to walk the track or shoot baskets for 10 minutes. They need time away from the thing that’s irritating them.

I do a lot of conversations with kids. It does take time. Some of that time is my planning time. Some of that time is my lunch time. But for a lot of our kids that go straight to anger, if you can get them talking about what’s hurting them in their heart, then they can usually get through the angry. They have to understand why this behavior is counterproductive to their existence for the rest of their lives, not just today.

What’s one piece of academic advice you’d give new teachers?

Make sure you’re allowing for failure in your classroom, where the whole point of the exercise is to redesign it and make it better. Allow for more student-driven opportunities to make mistakes because they’re going to learn a ton from that.

What’s one piece of nonacademic advice you’d give new teachers?

To try to make a classroom environment that allows for all of your kids to shine at some point.

I was at (a store recently) and one of my former kiddos was there. I asked about his little brother. He said, ‘He dropped out of school. School is not for him.’ I don’t think there’s any statement more heartbreaking for me than that statement. It’s (dependent) upon us to make sure kids are allowed to express what they know and their passions, no matter who they are. If that kid had been in the right kind of environment, school would be for him.

What advice would you give a new teacher who might want to give up?

Everybody feels like that at some point.

Check the calendar. Are you feeling like this in October or February? If your answer is yes, give it a month. You’ll be better, I promise. First-year teachers should know there are valleys — and October and February are the months.

In September, (your students) are trying to make you like them. Especially the younger kids. And then in October, some of their real personalities start to emerge. In February, it’s been a long time since you’ve had a bit of a break. And for tested grades, it’s the pressure of the (state) PARCC test coming and how much weight is on that. See how you feel in November and March.

I’d (also) say find a mentor who can say, ‘I get it. It sucks. But here’s the thing…’ You need that person who will say, ‘It’ll be better tomorrow. And if it’s not better tomorrow, it’ll be better in a month. And if it’s not better in a month, we’ll talk.’

And take time to have fun. If you spend 10 minutes lip syncing to Justin Bieber, they’re not going to fail arithmetic.


Teachers in Millington and Knoxville just won the Oscar awards of education

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Millington English teacher Katherine Watkins reacts after learning that she is the recipient of a 2017 Milken Educator Award.

Two Tennessee teachers were surprised during school assemblies Thursday with a prestigious national teaching award, $25,000 checks, and a visit from the state’s education chief.

Katherine Watkins teaches high school English in Millington Municipal Schools in Shelby County. She serves as the English department chair and professional learning community coordinator at Millington Central High School. She is also a trained jazz pianist, published poet, and STEM teacher by summer.

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Paula Franklin learns she is among the recipients.

Paula Franklin teaches Advanced Placement government at West High School in Knoxville. Since she took on the course, its enrollment has doubled, and 82 percent of her students pass with an average score that exceeds the national average.

The teachers are two of 45 educators being honored nationally with this year’s Milken Educator Awards from the Milken Family Foundation. The award includes a no-strings-attached check for $25,000.

“It is an honor to celebrate two exceptional Tennessee educators today on each end of the state,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who attended each assembly. “Paula Franklin and Katherine Watkins should be proud of the work they have done to build positive relationships with students and prepare them with the knowledge and skills to be successful in college and the workforce.”

Foundation chairman Lowell Milken was present to present the awards, which have been given to thousands of teachers since 1987.

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Students gather around Millington teacher Katherine Watkins as she receives a check as part of her Milken Educator Award.

The Milken awards process starts with recommendations from sources that the foundation won’t identify. Names are then reviewed by committees appointed by state departments of education, and their recommendations are vetted by the foundation, which picks the winners.

Last year, Chattanooga elementary school teacher Katie Baker was Tennessee’s sole winner.

In all, 66 Tennessee educators have been recognized by the Milken Foundation and received a total of $1.6 million since the program began in the state in 1992.

You can learn more about the Milken Educator Awards here.

Colorado Vote 2018

Polis campaign releases education plan, including new promise about teacher raises

Congressman Jared Polis meets with teachers, parents and students at the Academy of Urban Learning in Denver after announcing his gubernatorial campaign. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Congressman Jared Polis, one of several Democrats running for governor, released an education plan for the state Wednesday that includes new details on tackling teacher shortages and better preparing high school students for work.

The Boulder Democrat wants to help school districts build affordable housing for teachers, increase teacher pay and make sure that “100 percent of Colorado’s school districts are able to offer dual and concurrent enrollment programs through an associate’s degree or professional certification, and work to boost enrollment in them.”

The education plan includes the congressman’s initial campaign promise to deliver free and universal preschool and kindergarten.

“Part of my frustration is that politicians have been talking about preschool and kindergarten for decades,” Polis said in an interview with Chalkbeat. “It’s time to stop talking … and actually do it.”

Big questions remain, however, about how Colorado would pay for Polis’s plans.

Free universal preschool and kindergarten would cost hundreds of millions of tax dollars the state does not have. Polis has acknowledged that voters will need to approve a tax increase to secure the funding necessary — and voters rejected Colorado’s last big statewide ask to fund education initiatives.

His additional promises, especially providing schools with more money to pay teachers, only adds to the price tag for his education plan. The campaign did not release any projections of how much his teacher pay raise proposal would cost.

“If a teacher can’t afford to live in the community they work in, that is not going to be an attractive profession,” he said. “We need to do a better job in Colorado making sure teachers are rewarded for their hard work.”

Other components to Polis’s plan includes providing student loan relief for teachers who commit to serving in high-need and rural areas, increasing teacher training and building and renovating more.

Polis is the latest Democrat to roll out an education platform.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston released more details earlier this week about his campaign promise for tuition-free community college and job training.

Johnston’s campaign estimates that the initiative would cost about $47 million annually. The campaign provided specifics on how the state would pay for it: by combining existing federal grants and state scholarships, revenue from online sales tax, and state workforce development funding. Savings from volunteer hours put in by tuition recipients also are factored in.

Former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy released her education plan last month.

Like Polis, Kennedy is calling for teacher raises. She wants the state’s average salary to be closer to the national average. The former state treasurer also wants to expand preschool and job training for high school students. A key piece of Kennedy’s proposal to pay for her initiatives: reforming the state’s tax laws to generate more revenue.

Other Democrats running to replace Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, include Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne and businessman Noel Ginsburg.

The Republican field to replace Hickenlooper, a Democrat, is also crowded. Attorney General Cynthia Coffman announced earlier this month that she’s running. Other leading Republican candidates include former Congressman Tom Tancredo, state Treasurer Walker Stapleton, and businessmen Doug Robinson and Victor Mitchell. George Brauchler, district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, dropped out of the race to instead run for attorney general.