How I Teach

After teen’s suicide attempt, this Colorado teacher wrote letters to each student. Now, she’ll share her story on a bigger stage.

Teacher Brittni Darras is lifted by graduating seniors from Rampart High School's varsity cheerleading squad, which Darras coaches.

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.

Brittni Darras, an English teacher at Rampart High School in the Colorado Springs-based Academy School District, was shocked by what she learned about one of her students in a parent-teacher conference. The outgoing teen had recently attempted suicide, the girl’s mother told Darras.

The news made Darras realize that other students were probably suffering in silence, too. She decided to write personalized cards to her more than 100 students telling them how much they mattered.

“It changed the way I see my role as a teacher,” she said.

Last fall, Darras’ efforts earned her the 2016 Hero of Mental Health award from AspenPointe, a nonprofit mental health provider in Colorado Springs. In July, she’ll speak at the TEDxMileHigh 2017 event at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver.

Darras talked to Chalkbeat about her card-writing campaign, what motivates her to wake up at 5:45 a.m. and why she doesn’t mind if students talk in class.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I have known I wanted to be a teacher since I was in third grade. When I was in elementary school, during summer breaks, I would teach my little brother “lessons” and make him practice school-related work. He was a real trooper!

At the time, I thought I wanted to teach elementary school, but when I entered college, I started tutoring at my former high school through the AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination) program. I left every day inspired by how hard my students worked. I enjoyed having conversations with them about college and their future plans. By the end of that semester, I switched my major from elementary education to secondary education.

What does your classroom look like?
I like to think of my classroom as a place that is both interactive and caring. My students are frequently up and moving around. For example, one of my favorite interactive activities includes me posing a statement relevant to the unit I am teaching. My students have to stand against the “agree” or “disagree” wall and be prepared to defend their position in regard to the statement. We have had phenomenal discussions about heroes and what it means to be a hero as a result of this activity. It serves as a great introduction to our tragic hero unit.

I consider my classroom caring, because I always reiterate the need for my students to use positive self-talk and to use encouraging words with each other. I also make it a point to ask my students each Friday what their plans are for the weekend, and I always follow up on Monday to ask how their weekends were. It gives me an opportunity to learn what else my students do outside of school, and it provides me with very valuable information about each of my students.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _______. Why?
My students. They are the reason I wake up and go to work every day. It’s like I always tell them, “If you love your job, you never work a day in your life.” I love what I do because of my students, so if it wasn’t for them, it wouldn’t be worth waking up every morning at 5:45 a.m.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
One of my favorite lessons is a scene interpretation assignment where students have to pick some kind of alternate reality and apply it to a chapter in a novel or a scene in a play we have read in class. They then have to alter the dialogue or script to match their alternate reality. Finally, they perform the new version in class.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
If one student doesn’t understand my lesson, I like to pair that student up with another student who understands the topic a little better. It helps develop leadership, and it allows my students to share their knowledge and understanding. It helps the students realize they ARE smart!

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I don’t mind if students are talking. Many times, I ask them to talk. I believe having conversations allows my students to make more sense of the material, and it also allows my students to help and support each other through the learning process.

If students are off task, 99 percent of the time, a conversation with that student one-on-one solves the problem. Most of the time, if a student is off task, it is not intentional. Instead, it is usually because something else is going on at home or with their friends that is causing inner turmoil and making it hard for them to focus. These conversations allow me to assist and support my students as well as show them that I care about more than just their grade on their report card.

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 get to know my students by learning about what they do outside of school. As mentioned before, every week, I ask them how their weekend was, which gives me valuable information about their sports, hobbies and passions. Last year, I created an “Events” section on my board where students could write the date and time of upcoming events, such as their sporting events or school plays. It allowed me to show up to a variety of these events, and I was also able to follow up with my students to ask how the event was if I wasn’t able to attend.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A memorable time that had the most impact on me was when I had contact with a student’s mom at parent-teacher conferences. Her mom told me she had been absent from my class because she almost committed suicide. While this was tragic and devastating, it made me realize that this beautiful, outgoing, friendly girl can’t be my only student who is struggling.

As a result, I took action and wrote personalized cards to each of my students to let them know how much I care about them and why they make a difference in my class and on this planet. It changed the way I see my role as a teacher; teacher’s often see students more hours in a day than the students’ own parents do, so it is important for teachers to support students emotionally instead of just academically.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
Right now, I am reading A Prayer for Owen Meany. Part of it is for enjoyment, and part of it is to prepare to teach AP Literature next year!

What’s the best advice you ever received?
The best advice I ever received is to live each day like it’s my last. I am grateful each day for the opportunities and experiences that I have, and I try to encourage my students to embrace each day and each moment also. I strongly believe that when you start to examine the positive aspects of life, you live a happier, more fulfilling life.

How I Teach

This Colorado teacher keeps parents in the loop — even when they’re stationed overseas

Wendy Murphy, a teacher at Woodmen Hills Elementary in the Falcon 49 school district, is a finalist for Colorado's 2018 Teacher of the Year award.

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.

Wendy Murphy, a longtime second grade teacher and now an instructional coach at Woodmen Hills Elementary near Colorado Springs, believes in keeping parents involved.

That’s true even when they’re serving military deployments overseas.

To keep faraway moms and dads connected to the classroom and their kids, Murphy has done video conferences via Facebook, included them in holiday story recordings and played host to surprise reunions in her classroom.

Murphy talked to Chalkbeat about why parent deployments hit her hard, how she helps students learn about their names and why she’s not afraid to ask for help. She’s one of seven finalists for Colorado’s 2018 Teacher of the Year award, which will be announced Nov. 1.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I absolutely loved my first grade teacher, Mrs. Ann Lane. She gave out the best hugs in the entire world and I wanted to do that, too. One of my favorite memories was looking forward to the end of each day because I knew I would receive that hug from Mrs. Lane no matter what.

Completing classwork was really hard for me and I was always getting into trouble and often off task. Learning to read was a struggle for me that often resulted in tears during daily reading groups. Mrs. Lane believed in me, encouraged me and always taught with a smile. I decided that I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up so I could be just like her.

What does your classroom look like?
My signature color is orange as I am a loyal and true alumnae from Oklahoma State University. Within my orange and black classroom you see a respectful, safe, encouraging and collaborative learning environment. You know mistakes are OK and kindness counts. You hear laughter and a sense of enjoyment and pride in my classroom.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
I couldn’t teach without my heart. I once learned through a training that if you can capture a kid’s heart, you can capture their mind. Incorporating social-emotional learning across all content areas enhances students’ abilities with academic achievement, careers and life. I teach my students self-management and social awareness, build positive relationships and foster responsible decision-making.

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

One of my favorite beginning-of-the-year activities is an author study about Kevin Henkes. We have been reading his books to kick off second grade for over two decades. One memorable activity is completed after we read the book “Chrysanthemum.” The main character is a little mouse named Chrysanthemum and her parents named her after a flower because they feel that it is an absolutely perfect name.

Students write letters to their own parents asking them how they got their name and parents write letters in return. It is so special for students to share the origin of their name with the class. There are a lot of family names, names formed using letters from Mom and Dad’s names as well as Biblical names, too.

Some of the more humorous ones include being named after video game characters and picking the first letter of a name from the middle of the alphabet because they were the middle child. My son is currently in second grade and my husband and I had the opportunity to respond to the letter he wrote to us about his name just a few weeks ago. It truly touched our hearts and his, too.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I try very hard to create a nurturing and safe learning environment where mistakes are part of the process. Students understand that the struggle is where the learning takes place. It is very important for students to review their work and be reflective when something doesn’t quite click in their learning. Together, we adapt, adjust, try again and give it our best shot.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?

I have taught second grade for 17 years. Early in my career, a parent bought me a rainstick during a field trip to the Manitou Cliff Dwellings. It is the coolest thing! Students immediately focus their energy on me when they hear the soft waterfall sound of the rainstick.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
Fostering positive relationships is definitely a priority in my classroom. I love greeting children with a smile and a handshake each morning at the classroom door. I also look forward to our end of the day dismissal where each person shares a personal connection to a topic or a question asked.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
Our school is very proud to serve a large number of military families. Many parents and family members are deployed during the school year. Deployments hit me hard, especially when it is the mamas leaving their babies. Last year, one mother, an E-5 Sargent truly appreciated all of the pictures, newsletters and correspondence I sent through a classroom app. Grandpa even helped us do a Facebook phone conference early in the year. Then, part of our second grade Christmas music performance was a recorded video of different adults reading sections of the story, “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Our overseas military mama had read the last part of the book on the video-—which was a surprise for her children. It was a truly memorable time for everyone at the performance. (The mother) surprised us again when she ran into the classroom in March — finally home from deployment.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
My name Wendy became popular after the 1904 play Peter Pan. I still love reading the novel “Peter and Wendy” by J. M. Barrie. Some of my other favorites include the Harry Potter series, The Hunger Games series, books by John Grisham and James Patterson, and who can resist the Stephanie Plum novels by Janet Evanovich? I love reading! Growing up, I would rather have been reading than doing my chores, homework or practicing the piano. My mother used to punish me by taking away my Babysitter’s Club, Choose Your Own Adventure or Nancy Drew books.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Never be afraid to ask for help. The many demands of teaching can be so intense and stressful. Having a supportive and collaborative team, staff and administration is so important. Be an advocate for yourself, surround yourself with positive people and great things can happen… All you have to do is ask.

How I Teach

Fresh from the Denver suburbs, this new teacher visited a poor student in a rural area and learned a valuable lesson

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.

During her first year teaching, Laura Keathley learned a lesson she has never forgotten.

Keathley, who’d grown up in suburban Denver, was driving to visit a student at home in a rural area of New Mexico. Knowing the child’s family was poor and the home had no electricity or running water, she feared the girl faced a bleak future.

She couldn’t have been more wrong.

Keathley, now a special education teacher at Avery-Parsons Elementary School in the Buena Vista School District, talked to Chalkbeat about what she learned during the visit, why teaching isn’t brain surgery and where silly cat videos fit into the day.

She 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.

Laura Keathley
Laura Keathley

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
Originally I started out to be an emergency medical technician then decided to major in social work. One day, I was talking to a former high school teacher when he suggested I come and volunteer at the school helping with his special needs physical education class. I had no background with special needs, but I was looking for a new adventure and this seemed like fun. From the moment I started working with those wonderful kids, I was hooked! My favorite part of teaching is seeing that light go on and a student mastering a new skill. It is so exciting to me whether the accomplishment is big or small.

What does your classroom look like?
Grand Central Station! Keathley’s Korner – a name I created to remove the stigma of special education — has one teacher, three paraprofessionals and 15 students in six grade levels … so it is a busy place. It is open and bright with lots of color. The walls are covered with visual supports designed to make our students more independent. We have four different group tables spread throughout the room. Each area is defined by area rugs or furniture. There is also a mini kitchen with a sink and counters on one side of the room.

The main feature of my classroom is the 411 wall. This is our information center. It tells everyone where they need to go, who is in the room that day, and any special announcements. Students can independently use the board to find their daily activities. My class is always busy and students come and go all day long.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _________. Why?
I couldn’t teach without my paraprofessionals. The three ladies that I work with are very talented. My paraprofessionals create and follow their own lesson plans, freeing me up to work with the students and focus on teaching. They are well-versed in the field and have received a great deal of training. I depend on them not only to deliver instruction, but to contribute thoughts and ideas about working with the students. My paraprofessionals have become a resource to the entire school. The joke in our classroom is that we are four parts of the same brain.

In December of 2014, our classroom was awarded model status by the Colorado Department of Education Colorado Model Autism Site Project, or CoMASP. We were the seventh classroom in the state and the second rural school to receive the honor by meeting at least 80 percent of the state’s quality indicators. We achieved this in part because of my paraprofessionals’ willingness to go above and beyond their job to make a difference. I am thankful every day that I work with these wonderful ladies. Thank you Sarah, Lesa and Stephanie!

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
A few years ago I began teaching all the students in our school about the basics of autism and special needs and how to make friends with those students. I wanted something that was easy to adapt to every grade level and that would connect with the students and teachers.

I contacted one of my former students and he created a PowerPoint presentation for me called, “10 Things You Should Know About Having Autism.” His slideshow describes his challenges and feelings about having autism and how to respond to that. Coming from his personal perspective, it is a powerful teaching tool. Paired with the how-to-make-friends presentation from AutismSpeaks.org, it has spawned some amazing conversation in classes. I believe that it has created a much more inclusive and accepting environment throughout our school. I love being able to share how amazing my students are with everyone in the school.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I believe in the saying, “If a child cannot learn the way I teach, then let me teach him the way he can learn.” It is my responsibility to find a way to get that information to my student in a way they can best learn and understand. Sometimes I reteach a lesson several different ways looking for a way to connect with the student. Patience and a willingness to keep trying are important.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
My class runs in small groups, so quiet reminders to focus on their work or keep trying are usually all it takes. In group settings, I use a system that we created in my classroom called the Cup Ups. There is a red, green and yellow cup. When the red cup is up, everyone is listening and no questions can be asked. When the yellow cup is up, everyone is listening and if you have a question, you can raise your hand and wait to be called on. When the green cup is up, everyone can talk and discuss quietly and ask questions without raising their hands, as long as they are respectful. I like the visual cue that every child understands.

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 love to get to know my students one-on-one away from an academic setting. I often have my students for multiple years, so I have the luxury of really digging into their lives and finding what motivates them. I love to find a common passion – one student and I watch silly cat videos on YouTube – and then use that to create a relationship. Humor and silliness also go a long way towards building a bridge.

I also work hard to create a safe space for my students to come to when they need support. I use genuine praise and honest feedback when I work with them. I want them to feel that I am behind them all the way. I ask them, “Do you trust me? I need you to know that I am going to give you things that are hard, but never impossible. If you try and use my help we can make this happen. I am always here for you!” I am their biggest cheerleader and advocate.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
My first year of teaching was in Gallup, New Mexico. I was a brand-new teacher fresh from the suburbs of Denver who took the job sight unseen. The first week I was there, I made a home visit to a family that had a special needs child they wanted to enroll in my class. My principal warned me that the family lived far from town, in a small hogan (Navajo traditional house) with dirt floors, no running water, and no electricity. The family had very little money. In my mind, this environment immediately connected to a poor environment for the child and certain deprivation that would only hold this child back in her future. Pity was an overwhelming emotion.

On our way to the house, I was mentally reviewing all the many things I was going to have to do for this poor child. When we got to the house, a large extended family met us. Aunts, uncles, grandparents and parents sat down with us to discuss the child’s needs. Throughout the bilingual conversation, I discovered that this child lived a rich and culture-filled life. Herding sheep, speaking two languages, learning Navajo tradition, learning letters and numbers from every family member in an authentic environment, and the list goes on.

I began to realize that this child was going to be successful because of the incredible home support and love she experienced every day. At that moment, I discovered how dangerous making assumptions about a student based on what you think you know can be for a child. Pity can blind you to what’s right in front of you and make you ineffective. In the 29 years since that lesson, I have never made that mistake again.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I am reading the Dark Tower series by Stephen King.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
One of my very favorite veteran teachers once told me, “It’s teaching, not brain surgery. No one is going to die if you don’t get through your lesson. Breathe, relax and enjoy the kids. You can teach a lesson again tomorrow, but you might not get a second chance to connect with a kid.” Yep – words to live by!