How I Teach

An earth science teacher talks about the lesson that’s a point of pride — and pain

PHOTO: File Photo

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.

Cheryl Mosier’s favorite lesson about the properties of light waves is one that her students enjoy, too. Some spend all day Snapchatting about it.

But the lesson also brings up painful memories for the Columbine High School earth science teacher because she was teaching it the day of the deadly shooting there in 1999.

Mosier stopped teaching the lesson for a few years, but ultimately brought it back into the mix. In fact, a video of that lesson was part of the package that earned her the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching in 2007.

Mosier shared her thoughts on how she builds relationships with students, why she’s always nice to custodians and secretaries, and what she reads for fun.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I first taught when I volunteered at my local swimming pool during swim lessons. I knew then that teaching fit my personality as I had the ability to have fun and teach content. During high school, I was inspired by my math and science teachers (Ms. Finnegan and Ms. Chaloupka) as they were able to make math and science accessible for all students.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ___________Why?

My husband. He teaches literally next door to me, and teaches earth science. We collaborate on everything and help each other solve problems as they arise. We are each other’s sounding boards and he keeps me sane and I keep him thinking outside the box. He hates it when I attend a conference or meeting because I make him change something else.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

Fingerprints of Light — on spectroscopy — is honestly my favorite, but also my most dreaded. I was teaching that lesson on April 20, 1999, so it took me a couple of years to do it again with students.

During the 2007 school year, I applied for the Presidential Award of Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, and this lesson was the one my husband filmed for the application. I found out a year later that I was the awardee, so this lesson holds a special place in my heart.

Another reason I love this lesson is seeing the excitement of my students. We use the diffraction grating in “Rainbow Peepholes” — small disks with the grating in the middle to look through — which act as tiny prisms splitting the light into the basic wavelengths. This is the one lesson that is Snapchatted all day long – they love taking pictures of the different lights and make some amazing stories.

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

Students typically collaborate in class and have the opportunity to retake quizzes and tests in an effort to help them learn the content rather than just do the work. When they don’t understand they ask someone – a friend or me to help them figure it out.

My students have to adjust to my style, though, as I make them tell me where in their work their understanding broke down. They have to be able to specifically state where they are stuck, rather than just saying “I don’t get it” because I will ask them “What don’t you get? Show me where you got stuck.” Larger issues of learning styles are managed on an individual basis as I know that not every student can learn from watching videos. So those get addressed as needed and as students recognize what does and doesn’t work for them.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task? To a casual observer, my students are constantly off task in my room, because they are working collaboratively. Freshmen are very social creatures, and need to be able to interact with each other. At the beginning of the year, I train them in the major tasks for each class, so they know what to expect each block.

If I need to, I’ll put a phone in “phone jail” if they are being distracted by it, but this isn’t very often. One trick I use at the beginning to refocus them is to raise my hand, as they raise their hand, they close their mouth and pass the message to others. Sounds cheesy, but it’s super effective as they are learning how to manage my class.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

Every fall, students fill out a Who Am I form that I stole from Pinterest. They get to see my responses and ask me questions, allowing them to get to know me as a human being.

I also have them write down anything I might need to know as a teacher about them, past what is in their school records, similar to the #Iwishmyteacherknew campaign. This opportunity gives me perspective on their individual needs and helps me understand what they might get overwhelmed by each year, or what they might need differently for science learning. As each class is mostly work time, this allows me to interact with my students answering questions, clarifying directions and listening to their conversations.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

One of the main reasons I do my own version of #Iwishmyteacherknew is because of an interaction I had with a family in May last year. I had struggled with a particular student all year long, his behavior was obnoxious daily and he constantly was off task, pulling others off task with him and generally working towards being removed from his peers every block as he just couldn’t handle being in the room.

In May, the family requested a meeting with teachers and the counselor, where we found out that this student has Aspergers. Had I known that, our interactions would have been different because I would have known more about him and his needs as a learner and human in society. Once I heard this, we were able to work with each other each day, instead of constantly playing tug-of-war.

What are you reading for enjoyment? I tend to read teen dystopian novels, because they are fun and fast reads with a bit of science fiction mixed in. I also like to read books that my son might enjoy, even if it takes him months to try one, only to realize Mom was right and the book is lots of fun to read!

What’s the best advice you ever received? In my first teaching job, I was told to never make the custodian or secretary mad at you as they can make your life miserable. This has stayed with me, because it’s so amazingly true. My room is typically cleaner than others because I smile and talk with the custodian. I can talk my way into “favors” with the office staff because I know our school would quickly fall apart without them. Schools wouldn’t and couldn’t run day to day without our educational support colleagues!

How I Teach

For this Pagosa Springs math teacher, mountain biking and ultimate frisbee hold lessons, too.

PHOTO: Andy Guinn
Teacher Andy Guinn with his students during a trip to Moab, Utah.

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.

A couple years ago, Andy Guinn was about to take his Pagosa Springs Middle School students on a mountain bike ride in Utah when a hiker offered an unsolicited opinion: The kids should be in school not at a state park. The government was going to hear about it, the hiker warned.

The criticism made Guinn, who teaches mountain biking and ultimate frisbee electives in addition to eighth-grade math, second-guess himself. Were the outings a waste of time and money?

Shortly thereafter, he got his answer. The parents of a student contacted him to say what a difference the mountain biking class had made for their son. He’d gone from a kid who hated school to one who’d finally found his niche.

Guinn talked to Chalkbeat about the parent feedback that reaffirmed his belief in outdoor trips, his meatball math lesson and how he brings life to his windowless classroom.

Guinn is one of 20 educators selected for the state’s new Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education on the impact of education policies in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I grew up swearing I would never be a teacher because so many members of my family were teachers. I remained stubborn until grad school when I realized that I really enjoyed being a teaching assistant and working with students. Three years later, I was in a teaching program getting my license.

What does your classroom look like?
My room is the ugliest classroom I have ever been in. It has cinder block walls, no windows, and orange carpet. I almost didn’t take the job because it was so awful. Luckily, everything else about our school is phenomenal. I have pictures all over my windowless walls from our Adventure Learning trips to Moab and Los Alamos as well as day trips to our local ski area and hikes in the mountains that surround us. They remind me how important it is to allow students opportunities to explore, spend time outside and learn beyond our academic standards. They also remind me how lucky I am to live and work in such a beautiful place.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
Dogs. They make me smile after a bad day. They keep me active and healthy during busy times of the year. They remind me that it takes a lot of training to make a habit. But most of all, they remind me to be patient with my students.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
I steal a lot of stuff from Dan Meyer (http://blog.mrmeyer.com/). His Three Acts are fantastic and go over really well with students. One of my favorites that I adapted was his meatball lesson to teach students about the volumes of spheres and cylinders.

Originally I just used his videos, but I wanted to add in a classroom demonstration. I didn’t think I could logistically pull off a pot of meatballs for each class so I had to come up with something else. I decided on a cylindrical glass filled almost to the top with water. I tell the students we’re going to see how many marbles can fit into it without it spilling over. I raise the stakes by telling them we’ll be dropping the marbles in with their phones stacked around the base of the glass. They tend to get really engaged at that point.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
This is one of my favorite parts of teaching because I will never be done figuring out new ways to explain things, new ways for students to experience the material and new ways for students to show me what they’ve learned. I’ve found that having other students share their strategies can show both me and the confused student a new perspective on a problem. It’s also a great way to get a glimpse into the mind of someone who is just learning a concept, which is a perspective I no longer have.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
We count to three in different languages. They repeat each number after me. Through the years, students have asked to teach the class some new languages so I have about six or seven I use now. Our school has also embraced physical activity breaks in the classroom as a strategy to keep engagement and focus at a high level throughout a class. I love these and can really feel a difference in the energy in my classroom when we use these.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I start the year building relationships with students for a week while we work on problem-solving skills. We also take our whole 8th grade class to Moab, Utah, for a four-day camping trip where I get a lot of opportunities to get to know students outside of the classroom. When they see me roll out of my tent with some crazy bed hair, a lot of them let their guard down and are willing to work even harder for me in the classroom when we get back.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
In Moab a couple years ago, my mountain biking elective class was going for a ride at Dead Horse State Park. A visitor to the park approached a couple of my students and asked them why they weren’t in school. They replied that they actually were and that they were about to have their class along one of the trails in the park. The visitor wasn’t happy at all and told my students he was going to to write to the government to complain. I felt bad for my students and I started to question if the class was really a good use of time and resources.

The week after we got back from the trip, a parent contacted me to tell me what a positive difference the mountain biking class was making for their student. They told me that their son had never wanted to go to school until this year, had never put in much effort into his classes and had always felt like his teachers disliked him. But with the mountain biking class, their student found motivation to come to school, a place where he could excel, a chance to feel comfortable around his classmates and me, and a chance to get some of his energy out in a positive way. It was the perfect timing as it reconfirmed for me the importance of providing students with these types of opportunities in school as ways to build relationships with students and improve their academic performance at the same time.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I just started “The Book of Joy” by the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Douglas Adams. I got to see them speak together on a panel when I was in college and I still vividly remember how giddy and happy they were up on stage so I’m excited for the book.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
“Mr. Guinn, why do you have those games in your classroom if you’re never going to let us play them?” — one of my former students, talking about the board games, cards and dice I keep on a shelf in the corner. It reminds me that sometimes what we all need is just a day to have some fun.

deep cuts

New York City teachers don’t get paid maternity leave. Their paychecks prove it.

PHOTO: Emily James/Courtesy photo
Brooklyn high school teacher Emily James with her children.

Susan Hibdon opened her front door and saw nothing but white.

It was a day that would go down in tabloid headline history after schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña declared it “absolutely a beautiful day,” despite a forecast calling for 10 inches of snow. For Hibdon, a Brooklyn high school teacher, it was memorable for a different reason. It was exactly six weeks after she had given birth, which meant it was time to go back to the classroom.

She kissed her infant goodbye and headed into the wet February weather.

“If you want to pay your rent, you have to go right back to work,” she said. “That’s not just bad for the mother who just gave birth. That’s bad for everybody.”

New York City teachers have no paid maternity or family leave, a policy that takes a toll on teachers’ paychecks and creates deep gender inequity in an education workforce that is about 77 percent women.

Hibdon and fellow teacher and mother Emily James recently launched an online petition calling on the United Federation of Teachers to negotiate for paid leave, which is not included in any of the city’s contracts with unionized workers. Almost 78,000 people have signed on, and the women will present their request at the union’s executive board meeting on Monday.

“I think the irony of it sticks out to many people: These are women who are paid to raise children and they aren’t paid to raise their own children,” Hibdon said.

As it stands now, teachers who want to take paid time off after having a baby must use their sick days. The policy only applies to birth mothers, putting a strain on those who become parents through adoption or surrogacy, and fathers who want to take a leading role in the earliest moments of parenthood.

“We talk so much about parents being active in their child’s education,” said Rosie Frascella, a teacher who has also pushed for paid leave policies. “Well, let’s let teachers be active in their child’s education.”

For teachers, the policy packs a financial blow on multiple levels.

If a mother wants paid time off after giving birth, the only option is to use sick days. Women are limited to six weeks of sick time after a vaginal birth, and eight weeks after a C-section.

Teachers earn one sick day per school month. In order to save up for an eight-week leave, a teacher would have to work about four years without using any sick days.

Many women haven’t accrued that many days, so they can “borrow” sick days they haven’t yet earned. Teachers run into problems, though, if they actually get sick — or their children do — since they can only borrow up to 20 sick days. Once they hit that number, any additional time off is unpaid. And if a teacher leaves the education department, she must repay any sick days she borrowed.

Hidbon learned that the hard way. She has three children — and precious few sick days in the bank. Hidbon remembers a time that she completely lost her voice, but still had to go to work.

“No one could hear me. I had to conduct my entire class writing notes on the board,” she said. “I’m supposed to be teaching and I can’t do my job because of the way the system is set up — and my students are getting the short end of the stick.”

The crunch for sick time could lead to a financial blow later in a woman’s career. Teachers are allowed to accrue up to 200 sick days, and receive a payout for unused time when they retire. The city could not provide numbers for how many sick days men versus women retire with. But it makes sense that men would rack up far more since women with children are more likely to get stuck with a negative balance.

James, a Brookyln high school teacher and co-starter of the online petition, still has a negative balance of 16 sick days — almost three years after giving birth. The problem is compounded by the fact that women are more likely to take time off when a child is sick or there are other family obligations, a pattern that is seen in professions across the board.

“There were many times when I was so sick at work the kids were like, ‘Why are you here? Miss, go home,’” she said. “But it costs a lot of money to stay home.”

Even when women don’t have to borrow sick days, they can still lose financially. The city only allows women to use up to eight weeks of their banked time. Any additional days off are entirely unpaid.

Amy Arundell, a former director of personnel for the UFT, said many mothers stay home longer because of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides job protections for 12 weeks of leave.

“The people who don’t take 12 [weeks] obviously have real financial commitments” that make taking unpaid time off impossible, she said.

Women who take that time get hit with a double-punch to their salaries. Because of the way summer pay is calculated, unpaid time off results in a smaller summer paycheck, too. Arundell said the hit is usually equivalent to one paycheck.

Same sex-couples and those who become parents through surrogacy or adoption face many of the same financial setbacks, since only birth mothers are allowed to use sick time after having a baby.

After years on a waiting list, Seth Rader and his wife had only weeks’ notice that their adoptive baby was on the way. Since his wife was in grad school, the couple decided Rader would stay home with their new son — even though Rader, a Manhattan high school teacher, is the primary breadwinner at home.

“In a lot of ways, I’m much more bonded with him as a father, and him to me,” Rader said. “Are we really in a place where we want to discourage fathers from taking that role?”

At the time, the couple were saving for a down payment to buy a place of their own. After the expense of Rader taking off from work, they still are.

“I think all of this has to be affecting the sustainability of teaching,” he said. “If we create a system where people can’t imagine being teachers and parents at the same time, then that’s a loss.”

When it comes to the push for family leave, teachers have been left behind even as strides are made elsewhere. New York State recently passed a mandatory paid leave policy that will cover private employees. Last winter, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a paid leave act for city employees.

But that benefit isn’t extended to workers with unions, like the United Federation of Teachers. Currently, no union in New York City has paid maternity leave, according to a city spokeswoman.

Teachers across the city are fighting to change that. The petition started by Hibdon and James calls on UFT President Michael Mulgrew to “fight for our teaching mothers.”

“They’re supposed to really care about what teachers are struggling with and they’re our voice,” James said. “I just wish that they would take this seriously.”

Both the city and the United Federation of Teachers say they have held talks to extend similar benefits to teachers. In an emailed statement, Mulgrew called family leave “an important issue for the UFT and its members.”

“In our talks so far, the city has failed to come up with a meaningful proposal,” he said.

In an article published in the UFT journal, which ran shortly after the city passed its parental leave policy, the union pointed out that gaining that benefit came at the cost of a scheduled raise for managers and fewer leave days for veteran employees.

According to the article, Mulgrew said he “looked forward to negotiations with the de Blasio administration for an appropriate way to expand parental benefits for UFT members.”