How I Teach

Colorado’s Teacher of the Year for 2017: The best lessons ‘have a soul’

Not your ordinary classroom: Sean Wybrant's at Palmer High (photo provided by the teacher).

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.

What better candidate to share best practices about the profession than the Colorado Teacher of the Year?

Sean Wybrant, a career and technical education teacher at William J. Palmer High School in Colorado Springs District 11, will hold that title for 2017, state officials revealed this week.

Wybrant captures students’ imagination with forays into virtual reality and other whiz-bang tech stuff, then goes old school by calling parents weekly — weekly! — to let them know about the great things their kids are doing.

The best lessons, he says, have a soul.

Wybrand teaches Digital Media Studies – Computer Science/Video Game Design & Programming to ninth through 12th graders at Palmer, which is just east of downtown in the Springs. Let’s get to it …

One word or short phrase you use to describe your teaching style: Crafting heroes

What’s your morning routine like when you first arrive at school?

Greeting students in the hall and welcoming them into my room, then posting any information on the calendar students need to know and getting coffee to try and wake up enough to affect students positively.

What does your classroom look like?

Sean Wybrant, Colorado teacher of the year
Sean Wybrant, Colorado teacher of the year

Usually, students are hanging out or in class from the time school opens to the time school leaves; it is rare to have my room completely to myself even during passing periods or lunch or after school, which fills my soul. Student art is all over the walls in various stages of painting and design. Computers are blinking, plants are hanging/standing on/near desks, posters of inspirational women and clubs are on the walls, our motion capture system is prominent, white boards with student project plans are in various stages of use, and our interactive headsets are on students’ heads or mounted on glass heads. Guitars, amplifiers, drum sets and other musical equipment for my live performance club are in use or out in the corner of the room. Superhero action figures and game characters move around the room as reminders to myself and students that we have the potential to be heroic.

What apps/software/tools can’t you teach without? Why?

A great teacher doesn’t need apps, software, or the kinds of technology students have access to in my room. A great teacher can have conversations with kids and help them see the world through new lenses. That having been said, because I teach kids about computer software development, Unity, Visual Studio, Mono Develop, Greenfoot, Eclipse, Vicon Blade, the Adobe Creative Suite, and the Autodesk Creative Suite make it much easier for kids to design/ develop/ prototype/ test/ implement their solutions. We are currently using many of those to create interactive holographic experiences for the Microsoft HoloLens. Technology like that is just a set of tools though. Probably the most useful tool in my teaching toolkit, beyond experience with kids, is a whiteboard and marker.

How do you plan your lessons? 

When planning interactions and lessons with kids I start from the question, “Will this lesson and experience help make the world a better place for my students?” I believe that simply focusing on curriculum without a real world outcome is short sighted. When we start to develop a game or a programming experience I want my students to be working to create something useful for themselves or others. Once I determine if our course of action is going to be beneficial for the students and community I think about the overarching requirements of the project and then continue to break that down into specific skills the students will need to demonstrate to achieve success.

I also try to determine what roadblocks and issues they might run into and how I can ask the right questions to help them navigate around those issues without providing the answer for them. This part takes probably the most work because if I tell them all the answers I can seem really smart without actually teaching them anything. Helping them learn how to find answers and iterate through solutions is a much harder dance to get right, especially when the final product isn’t something from a book but rather something we are creating from scratch.

What qualities make an ideal lesson? 

Too often people think that having a pretest, body, and post-test to a lesson is enough. There is this narrative that if we teach the curriculum and students parrot back the right information and they do well on a test it was a good lesson.

The best lessons have more than that, they have a soul.

They have a deeper meaning that builds until the students realize that the information has a meaning that impacts them and/or their world directly. Some of the best lessons are the ones with the flexibility to become unscripted, the ones where the conversation goes right off the rails and that perfectly scripted 45-minute debate turns into a discussion about something that grabs the students and brings learning alive for them. That doesn’t mean we should run unscripted all the time, but there is a falsehood that learning has to be scripted according to a set of rigid rules and predetermined end points with neatly defined answers to problems we already know the answer to. The thing is, life is messy and many problems don’t have neat answers when you get out of school. Sometimes that means the projects we work on don’t necessarily fall into a business or academic definition of project success. One of the most important and impressive learning experiences in my teaching career for the students and myself was an attempt to build a multicontinental food drive that failed in really impressive ways – we learned about corruption, international laws, shipping, empathy, organization, and humbleness but we didn’t have a successful project in terms of the food drive itself. Talk about learning, though.

My students literally are building the future right now in ways that are messy and brilliant because they have the freedom and flexibility to do so within constraints that keep them on track toward an end point they envision. There is passion in the room and passion in their projects. When I see data meetings focused solely on scores and pre/post data without discussions about the actual kids I think that many of those lessons probably lacked the very thing kids need in their lessons – relevance. That relevance should be connected to some example of how to apply those skills to a new situation with the opportunity to apply it while they are still in school. There is a lot to be said for trying out solutions by creating solutions and testing them against unknown circumstances.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson? 

If students really don’t understand what to do or how to do it, I will step in and help them in more targeted and direct ways. Sometimes that includes creating sub-lessons for them or creating more directed instruction like step by step videos they can re-watch if the concept is skill heavy. I also open my room for individual help and have provided both onsite and offsite tutoring. A few times, while attending conferences or during breaks, I have created screen sharing and one-on-one distance learning experiences. Mostly though, taking the time to sit with a kid one-on-one in the classroom can do wonders to help students and many times the issue is simply students missing class, so I have tried to make the supports available 24/7 and free up time in classes to help kids out.

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

Usually, it is just sitting down with kids and listening to what they are struggling with. While there are kids who are off track for a single period here or there and just need a look or day to get their lives in order and then are back on track, some kids really just need to know that someone cares about them. If I can get them in my room, I can usually just talk with them to help them find their way. Most of the time the kids that are disengaged with my courses are kids struggling with issues outside the room with their families, other teachers, or feeling like they lack a place/purpose. In almost all of those cases, just sitting with them, listening, and letting them know that I believe they are capable of great things helps them find their way back.

How do you maintain communication with the parents?

I try to call kids’ parents at least once a week to tell them about the great things their kids are doing. For some students that is making an augmented reality experience that blew my mind, for some, it is taking leadership of a group, for some it is simply making it to class. I can’t tell you how many times I have called home to tell a parent about how much I appreciate the unique vibe their kid brings to my classroom or how much their voice contributed to a conversation and heard, “In [nine-ten-eleven-twelve] years this is the first time I have received a phone call about my kid that has been positive.” In some ways, that is why I continue to call home. Every kid brings something positive to the school and deserves to have their parents hear that they are appreciated.

What hacks or tricks do you use to grade papers?

One of the coolest things about my position now is that the grading happens every day for kids around the room. We take on projects that we don’t know the answer to, so part of why I spend lots of time looking over and talking with students in the room is that we are discovering answers together. There are reflections and blogs, but most of the significant grading comes from the hands-on testing, iteration, and creation of new ways of solving problems for unique situations. That kind of experience requires discussions with me, among peers in the room, and across skill sets. Again, chatting with kids about their thought process or having them demonstrate how to do something speaks volumes about their ability to apply learning and synthesize the content from multiple interdisciplinary courses.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I really enjoy Sir Ken Robinson’s books on creativity. I am currently reading “Finding Your Element.” I am also listening to “A Short History of Nearly Everything” narrated by Bill Bryson. That is a great, funny, thought-provoking book about nearly everything. I am also about 25 percent of the way through “11/22/1963” by Stephen King, and if I don’t finish it this year I think one of my colleagues is going to beat me up because it is her book and I have had it for about two years now. Yikes!

What’s the best advice you ever received?

The thing about advice that impacts you significantly is that it is difficult to just pick one statement. My father told me:

Everyone has a story to tell and something to teach you; don’t ever think you are better than anyone else just because you are the star of your own story. There are lots of stories out there and if you don’t learn something from each person you meet you weren’t paying attention hard enough. The flip side is true as well – no one is better than you either; it doesn’t matter if they run a company, have the most glamorous position, or are the most influential person on the planet – don’t ever give someone power over you because of a title or their assumption they are better than you.

I am a complete nerd as well and grew up on comic books. Spider-Man was hugely influential to me in my younger years and when I became a teacher it was literally because I want to save the world. These words are some of the most important to me as a teacher and something I think about every morning before I get to school:

With great power, there must also come great responsibility.

We can’t forget that as teachers, we can be the person who negatively impacts a kid for their entire life … even if we do so unintentionally. This profession bears so much responsibility that I literally have a tattoo and lifelong reminder of that just in case I ever start to forget. If we are intentional and remember the power of the words we use from the position we speak from we can inspire a student and literally save his or her life. That is a pretty awesome responsibility and privilege and every teacher should consider that every day in my opinion.

If we are intentional and remember the power of the words we use from the position we speak from we can inspire a student and literally save his or her life. That is a pretty awesome responsibility and privilege and every teacher should consider that every day in my opinion.

resentment and hurt

‘We are all educators:’ How the teachers strike opened at a rift at one Denver middle school network that will take time to close

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Students at Kepner Beacon Middle School work on an assignment.

For the first time since this week’s Denver teacher strike exposed divisions in their ranks, the 100 grownups who make the Beacon middle school network run gathered in the same room.

Teachers, some still wearing red for the union cause, came with breakfast burritos to share. Upbeat soul music pumped through the speakers, an attempt to set a positive tone.  

Speaking to the group assembled Friday for a long-scheduled planning day in the cafeteria of Grant Beacon Middle School, Alex Magaña acknowledged the awkwardness and hurt feelings that have taken a toll on a school community that prides itself on a strong culture.  

The network’s two schools — Grant Beacon in east Denver and Kepner Beacon in southwest Denver — aim to provide a high-quality education to some of the city’s neediest students. A day after most teachers returned to work after the three-day strike, Denver students had a day off Friday, giving school leaders the opportunity to begin repairing any damage done.

“It’s never been administration-versus-teachers, district-versus-teachers, in the culture we have created here,” said Magaña, executive principal of the two schools. “We have a lot of good leadership, a lot of input from teachers. But this caught everyone kind of surprise.”

By “this,” Magaña means the tension that developed on the two campuses during the strike over teacher pay that put Denver in an unfamiliar national glare. The 93,000-student district is better known for its unique brand of at times controversial education reform — of which the Beacon network is part — than labor strife and division in the educator ranks.

Against the backdrop of the strike, Magaña realized words matter. Everyone in the building, he thought, not just teachers, ought to be considered educators and referred to as such. That was the role everyone was thrust into — administrators, deans, and district central office staff who through no choice of their own had to cover for absent teachers. Magaña, too. He taught math.

When teachers, administrators, and staff arrived for Friday morning’s meeting, they congregated at tables with colored pencils and “reflection forms.” Everyone was asked to write down answers to two questions: What did you learn about yourself? What did you learn about your colleagues?

“I also brought out the obvious — the elephant in the room,” Magaña said. “There are hurt feelings. There is resentment from teachers to staff to students to parents. That is something we can’t pretend isn’t there, and we put it out there and acknowledge it to move forward.”

Go to the vast majority of public schools in this country and classrooms look largely the same. Not so in Denver Public Schools, which is deep into its second decade of offering a menu of choices at traditional district-run, charter, and hybrid “innovation” schools.

From this approach sprung Grant Beacon Middle School, which opened on the east side of Denver in 2011. The school seeks to build students’ character and promote personalized learning — essentially, using data and technology to tailor instruction to individual students.

Grant Beacon is an innovation school, meaning it doesn’t need to follow all aspects of state law or the teachers union contract.

Using one of its more controversial school improvement strategies, the Denver district began phasing out struggling Kepner Middle School in 2014 and moved to put two schools in the same building: a new Beacon school and an outpost of the STRIVE charter network.  

The Denver district allows charter schools to use extra space in its school buildings essentially at cost, creating shared campuses with district-run schools. It’s an arrangement that would be unfathomable in most U.S. cities where districts and charter schools are in perpetual conflict.

Both schools on the shared campus were “green,” the second-highest ranking, on the district’s most recent school ratings report last fall.

The teacher strike, however, exposed the stark differences between the two Beacon campuses.

Both schools serve a high proportion of low-income students. At Grant Beacon, 80 percent of students qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty — slightly above the district average. But things are far more challenging at Kepner, where 96 percent of students fit that definition. The school is a refuge where students can be fed and be safe from trauma.

The differences in student attendance and teacher strike participation at the two schools were stark. About half of Grant Beacon students showed up for school during the strike, and six in 10 teachers joined the strike. Four miles and a world away at Kepner Beacon, 90 percent of students showed up for school — and all but a few teachers were out on strike.

At Kepner Beacon, the network’s “all-for-one, one-for-all” culture of togetherness helped unite its relatively young corps of teachers in a shared resolve to go on strike.

That and high student attendance meant Kepner Beacon faced far greater challenges to keep operating, perhaps as much as any of the city’s 147 district-run schools during the strike.

Linsey Cobb had an emotionally wrenching weekend ahead of the strike’s start. She was torn. A special education teacher and the special education team leader at Kepner Beacon, she stood with teachers fighting for a system they believed would pay them a better, fairer wage.

But the third-year teacher decided to report to work as usual Monday morning, feeling too strong of a pull to fulfill her responsibilities supporting the neediest students — those with individualized lesson plans, the complex and sometimes confounding binding documents for students with special needs.

Cobb was not fully prepared by what she experienced on that morning.

“Even though I am very close with my students, I felt incredibly isolated,” she said. “I got the weirdest feeling. I got a lot of, ‘Miss, why aren’t you striking? Don’t you believe what teachers are fighting for?’ I was like, ‘I do!’ I had a little bit of an internal struggle.”

Cobb’s Monday ended early enough for her to attend the big teachers union rally at the Capitol. She said she was touched by the camaraderie. She caught up with old friends from her days with the Denver Teachers Residency, an important training ground of the city’s teaching corps.

Taking all of that into consideration, Cobb joined her colleagues picketing the next day Teachers shared donuts and coffee. Parents brought them hand-warmers in the 20-degree chill.

One teacher sat in her car with the engine running recording a video message to her students, telling them where she was and spelling out the day’s lesson plan before she joined everyone else on the picket line.

Though the district spent $136,000 to prepare makeshift lesson plans for the strike, Beacon teachers prepared their own and uploaded them to the network’s cloud-based system.

On Friday, Cobb was back with all of her colleagues — striking teachers, those who never left the classroom, and staff and administrators who experienced the life of a teacher for three days.

“It’s about trust,” Magaña said. “Some of it was cracked a little bit. There was no contention in the room (Friday). It was really coming in with openness and willingness by everyone to say, ‘It’s done, and we did the right thing for ourselves. Now it’s time to come closer together.’”

“Normalcy will happen,” added Cobb, the special education teacher. “But it might take a bit.”


Aurora school district numbers shows some positive results from hard-to-staff bonus

Students work on algebra problems in a college-level course at Hinkley High School in Aurora.

When the Aurora school district offered some teachers and service providers a bonus for accepting or returning to hard-to-staff positions, the district saw less turnover in those jobs and had more of them filled by the start of the school year.

But the results weren’t consistent across schools, and there were differences in how teachers and other support staff responded to the bonus. Some schools still saw big increases in turnover. And the district still couldn’t fill all positions by the start of the school year.

In a report that district staff will present to the Aurora school board Tuesday, survey responses show the bonus was most influential for new special service providers, such as nurses, occupational therapists, or speech language pathologists. But only 33 percent of new teachers coming into the district said the bonus made an impact on their decision.

Aurora administrators refused to talk about the findings ahead of the board meeting. When the district first announced the bonuses, Superintendent Rico Munn said he had hoped the pilot bonus system would help the district attract more candidates, fill more vacancies, and retain more employees. The union objected to the bonuses. The union and the district begin negotiations next month on how to spend $10 million that voters approved to raise teacher pay.

An arbitrator ruled that the district should have negotiated the terms of the bonuses with the union first, but the school board refused to uphold the finding. District officials had indicated that the results of the pilot incentives would play a role in what changes they propose going forward, and it’s not clear where the school board, a majority of whom were elected with union support, will come down.

On a state and national level, incentives for teachers are being questioned after Denver teachers went on strike, in part over a disagreement about how effective incentives can be and whether that money is better spent on base pay. Ultimately, the tentative agreement that ended the strike on Thursday maintained a number of bonuses, including $2,000 for educators in hard-to-staff positions.

In the Aurora pilot program, the district offered a bonus for special education, secondary math and secondary science teachers at 20 targeted schools. If staff in those positions committed to returning to their job for this year, they could get $3,000. If they returned, but did not give an early commitment, the bonus would be $2,500.

The same rules applied for other positions such as psychologists, nurses, occupational therapists, and speech pathologists, but those employees were eligible at all district schools. New employees in those positions could get $2,500.

To pay for the bonuses, the district had set aside $1.8 million from an unexpected increase in revenue due in part to rising property values. The district only ended up spending about $1.1 million.

Among 229 eligible teachers, 133 returned to their jobs, committing early, and another 29 returned without making an early commitment, meaning about 70 percent of teachers were retained and received the bonus.

Of the 20 schools at which teachers of math, science, and special education received incentives, turnover went down at 13 schools, up at another five, and stayed the same at two.

Among 184 staff members in the other hard-to-staff positions districtwide, 141 returned to their jobs, or 77 percent, all of them committing early and receiving the higher bonus.

The report doesn’t compare those numbers with previous years’.

Ramie Randles, a math teacher, was at Aurora West Collegiate Prep last year and received the bonus. But, she says, she had already decided to return to the same job this school year even before she learned about the bonus.

“To be honest with you it’s nice to get a little extra, but it’s a very small amount that’s not going to sway me one way or another,” Randles said.

In the second quarter of the school year, she left her job at Aurora West and is now teaching math at North Middle School.

The bonus is offered at both schools, but it wasn’t a factor, she said.

“I just feel like I want to feel valued in a job,” Randles said. “If I’m feeling like I’m happy that affects not just me, it affects my students. It affects my coworkers.”

According to the district, 98.26 percent of those who received a bonus remain in the same position as of this week.

Fill rates, which represent how many of the district’s positions are filled by the start of the school year, show an increase, although often small, among all positions except for school psychologists.

Fill rates over time: Did Aurora have more positions filled at the start of this school year than in the past?

Position 16-17 17-18 18-19
Secondary math teachers at 20 schools 91.5% 92.6% 93.4%
Secondary science teachers at 20 schools 93.5% 93.8% 94.8%
Special education teachers at 20 schools 92.6% 89.4% 90.24%
Nurses, district-wide 87.3% 94.6% 98%
Occupational therapists, district-wide 95.4% 80% 96.1%
Psychologists, district-wide 94.4% 96% 95.4%
Speech language pathologists, district-wide 75% 81.4% 85.4%

Another goal of the pilot was to help the district save money by decreasing the use of contract agencies to fill important positions.

The report found that compared with last year, fewer positions were filled through contract agencies.

The Aurora district “was one of the few districts in the metro area that did not provide some form of differentiated pay or incentive for hard-to-fill subject areas,” according to the district. As examples, the report cites Cherry Creek, Denver, and Douglas school districts.

Bruce Wilcox, president of Aurora’s teachers union, said the union has “no interest in pay like Denver does.”

He is against the bonus because he disagrees with setting up different pay for people doing the same jobs in different schools, and because he doubts it will have a long- term effect.

“For some, maybe money was enough to lure them in, but will it be enough to lure them in over a period of time?” Wilcox asked. “Money’s nice and every teacher needs it, let’s be honest, but is it enough to make you continue to work if the leadership and culture aren’t there?”

Tuesday, Aurora staff will also present the school board with an update on overall strategies to improve teacher recruitment and retention. Among those strategies: the development of new training for principals, including on how to motivate and retain high-performing employees.

Another report on the pilot incentives will be prepared this fall with final numbers of how many teachers stayed.

Find turnover rates for the pilot, by school, in the district’s report below. Note: The colors in the second column represent a comparison over the prior year with green showing that it is a lower rate than in the past.