No hiding: This Colorado teacher doesn’t hold back his feelings about how music moves him

Chris Maunu, choir director at Arvada West High School, works with students.

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.

Chris Maunu, choir director at Arvada West High School, was rehearsing a OneRepublic song with his students, when he choked up as the full weight of a lyric hit him. It reminded him of his sister, who has cerebral palsy.

Instead of beating back his emotions, Maunu told his students what he was feeling. It was all part of his commitment to show students his true self — and get the same back from them.

He talked to Chalkbeat about how vulnerability helps him teach, why he decided to switch his college major and what he does to encourage peer mentorship.

Maunu is one of 25 music teachers across the country selected as a semifinalist for the 2018 Music Educator Award presented by the Recording Academy and the GRAMMY Museum.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I actually began college as a business management major. My parents insisted that I join the college choir, so I hesitantly signed up on registration day. The director wanted to hear all students sing individually in her office. She made it clear that this was not an audition, but a way to get to know everyone and their voices. When she heard me sing she was quite pleased and asked if I wanted to be in the select chamber choir. I responded, “Sure, let me just drop my history class.”

Before I knew it, I was involved in three collegiate choirs. I LOVED it! Everyone was so passionate and dedicated. I didn’t have a good music program in high school, so this was my first exposure to a quality program. After feeling pressured to put all of my energy into athletics in high school, I had finally found my home! I instantly wanted to provide that for young people. I wanted to do what I could to make sure my students feel PROUD to be in choir in high school. I changed majors that next semester and never looked back.

What does your classroom look like?
We have curved seated risers with 90 chairs. Front and center of the classroom is a seven-foot Steinway grand piano. The walls are decorated with photo collages of senior classes from the last decade, awards, trophies and inspirational quotes.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _________Why?
My voice. Modeling is such an important part of my instructional practice. The singing voice is such a complicated and intricate instrument that modeling is a crucial strategy in developing students’ voices.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
We do a lesson based around fear. Students write down their greatest fears and I share them (anonymously) with the class. Inevitably, the most common one is the fear of being judged or criticized in front of their peers. When students learn that we all have the same insecurities around performing, they become more comfortable with who they are as singers and more importantly, as people. This is followed by a guided discussion. It’s amazing how much more supportive of one another they become.

How did you come up with the idea?
I have read a lot of materials by author Brene Brown. She has worked for years at breaking down the barriers of talking about uncomfortable things that we all experience but have a tendency to shove away, such as fear, shame, and vulnerability. She has greatly influenced my teaching.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
With the fear lesson, there is usually some hesitation, but not a lack of understanding. Once they begin hearing others’ vulnerabilities, they truly become engaged. In average music rehearsals, I try to have issues fixed at the “grassroots” level when possible. I strategically seat stronger students next to students with weaker talent or skills. A mentorship develops between the students in which the stronger student can help the weaker one along. If I need to step in, I’ll go that route as well.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
We are constantly learning from one another in the choir room. Students get reminded that whatever another group is learning will apply to them as well. For example, if I’m working with the tenors and tell them that a vowel needs to be taller to achieve a specific blend and intonation, chances are it will also apply to the sopranos, altos and basses. Often each vocal section is dependent upon one another to find a pitch or tune a chord.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
We do full-day retreats with our choirs at the start of the year to build relationships with them and with one another. We also have a student choir leadership team. Members of this team sponsor each choir class and hold social events through the year.

It’s my hope that every student in my classroom feels like they are the most liked and most needed student in the room. I go back to vulnerability. If I am modeling vulnerability — not just being emotional in front of them, but showing them my most authentic self — that bond really seems to take hold.

This is two-fold. First is being authentic in how I behave in general in the classroom. As an introvert, I have always been inspired when I attend professional conferences and see such extroverted leaders in the field share their expertise in how they do things in the classroom. I’ve left so many of those sessions saying to myself, “My teaching personality needs to be more like that!” While I think we all should learn from experts and continue to shape our craft, I think we need to be authentic about who we are. When I started to become more honest with myself, I hit my stride as a teacher.

The second part has to do with what we share with students. We can share personal things about ourselves without being inappropriate. Let’s not be talk about that difficult divorce we are going through, etc. but there are things that can allow students to really connect to us in a vulnerable way. Here is an example. One of my choirs was preparing the song “I Lived” by OneRepublic for our Pops Concert. The song was originally written about a Colorado teen with cystic fibrosis and overcoming life’s difficulties and truly living.

There was a lyric that hit me like a ton of bricks during one class: “I owned every second that this world could give, with every broken bone I swear I lived.” I thought of my own sister with cerebral palsy and began to get emotional. I had a decision to make in that moment — Do I just move on? Or do I take a few minutes and share about myself? I chose to share. We shared, we cried, and we grew closer. When students (especially male students) see an adult figure being truly real, it helps their emotional intelligence grow.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I think it’s when parents share how big of an impact my class has on their child. Parents have shared things like, “You are the only reason my child comes to school” or “My child would have not made it through high school without your class.” Teachers have such a huge impact on their students. Sometimes we get caught in the daily grind and it’s easy to forget that.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“Rising Strong” by Brene Brown

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Provide authentic affirmation to your students at every opportunity.

Don’t just help students graduate. Prepare them for what’s next, says high school teacher

Sharon Collins at a New Heights Academy Charter School graduation with students.

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.

When Sharon Collins found out that some of her students who were strong academically in high school had dropped out of college, she realized more could be done to prepare students for success after they graduate.

An environmental engineer-turned-teacher, Collins has taught middle school math and nearly every high school math subject. Currently teaching seniors at New Heights Academy Charter School in Harlem, Collins tries to ensure that her students feel supported and prepared after they leave her classroom by continuing to meet with and advise them as part of OneGoal, a program that helps teachers become mentors for students during college.

On top of that, her school models their classes after college courses to get students used to a university structure. And to continue growing as an educator herself, Collins works with Math for America as a co-facilitators on a peer learning team. Here, Collins shares how she engages students and pushes them to enjoy math and continue learning.

What’s one way you build strong personal relationships with students?

I teach seniors, so at the start of the year I meet with each of them individually. It helps me know them as people and as learners. I ask them about the future, about college, about possible careers. Where do your interests lie? It’s important know their feelings about math. We have a four-year math requirement, whereas there is normally is a three-year requirement in high schools. My goal is always for the students who hate math to like math by the end of the year — I show them how math relates to the world around them. I also get to know them through going on senior retreat and spending time during lunch period to open classroom. Once you put in that extra time to show that you care, they will put in more effort.

What does your classroom look like?

When you walk in you’d see student projects everywhere. You can see calculus students building roller coasters, board game designs made by the statistics class, who invite 8th graders to come play them to show them that math is fun. In pre-calculus, we do “Shark Tank,” where students come up with idea for product that will help them get money or help humanity and build prototypes of them. I have students from previous years come and serve as the judges. My classroom always has students coming in. Even during 9th period, which is when they can go home, they love to stay, and they get tutoring or just come and talk to me about what they’re thinking about college.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now and how are you addressing it?

Something in general is the intensity of the anti-immigration bias because the student population is 95 percent Latino at my school and that it had an impact on Washington Heights. One way to help with that is with this program I’m involved in called OneGoal, a program where you become a mentor for students in college to help them graduate. In it, we have the space to talk about these issues and just have individual conversations, in particular with undocumented students —just letting them know that they have a safe place here.

But in regards to policy, the issue in high school of not focusing on college is an issue. The goal of high schools is more on graduating students rather than what the next step is for them. That’s how I got involved with OneGoal. I mean, students graduate, but it was interesting seeing who graduated and who didn’t. Even students who were really strong academically sometimes didn’t graduate. I attended a workshop that helped students through college. It’s not all about academic challenges, it’s the social-emotional part too. So OneGoal starts in high school and follows students through the first year, providing them mentorship and support. So over the past year my focus has been going through that transition with students. It can be overwhelming. Their academics go at a faster pace, and its difficult transitioning from teacher to mentor. But it helps so much and college readiness is something that high schools need to be more focused on.

What does your grading style look like and what hacks do you use?

At New Heights, we changed grading style last year to make it more similar to what college looks like. There’s homework and classwork but they don’t count for grades, so this was a big flip for students since now it’s exam based. If you don’t do well on an exam, though, you can retake it. You can do test corrections, or in humanities you can write a paper to bring up the grade. That was a big switch, and I still feel like homework is important to make sure students do well on an assessment. So if you want to retake the test you have to do all of your homework and classwork, to show that there’s a connection between the homework and the testing. But in my class the summative assessments that are a big part of the class are the projects. We do about three to four per quarter. They’ll submit one and publicly present to class or school administration, and they have a rubric they can look at to see which areas they didn’t score high on to be able to resubmit it for a new grade. It’s all challenging because it’s a whole new way, but we want to show them the process of modification.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Show unconditional love to all students. The influence of a great teacher lasts a lifetime. I was the first one to go to college in my family, and most of my student will be too. The amazing teachers I had and their confidence in me and what I could do was transforming.

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

To get students attention, I have this saying “Tres, Dos, Uno, Namaste,” and that’s kind of the keyword where they know to come together. I love doing yoga and at the beginning of every yoga class my teacher says “the light in me sees the light in you.” Students face challenges, with poverty and tragedy. I try to make the classroom a positive space. I greet them at the door, I high five students. Learning should be fun, and that’s something that I want to associate for them. So namaste, that’s the word that they associate with me.

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

One thing I do is I have students work in small learning teams — so what happens is I’ll give a formative instruction, see who’s struggling, pull them aside to work with them on the content during a project. Something that I tried last year was having a co-teaching model —so students would teach students, and sometimes they just feel more comfortable doing that. It might just click more, because their peers can relate the materials to things they know about. Another thing is that I always give students my cell, so that they can text me at any time. Sometimes I’ll get a text so late at night. I won’t give them the answer but I’ll help them, I’ll ask them questions to make them think about the problem a different way.

How this Colorado English teacher connected with a mom everyone said was impossible

PHOTO: Steve Debenport | Getty Images

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

It was the start of the semester and Ted Halbert, an English teacher at Brighton High School north of Denver, had been warned. The mother of one of his students was extremely hard to handle, the other teachers said.

But Halbert didn’t wait for problems to flare. Instead, he contacted the boy’s mother early on, outlining his hopes for the teen and establishing a pattern of email back-and-forth that lasted through the year.

Halbert talked to Chalkbeat about his rule of thumb for communicating with the boy’s mother — and all parents, why he feels heartbroken when district tax levies fail, and how he uses a Metallica song to explore an anti-war novel with his students.

Halbert is one of 48 educators nationwide selected for the 2019 National Education Association Foundation Global Learning Fellowship. The goal of the program is to help teachers develop the skills to understand and act on issues of global significance.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

Teaching is my second career. After graduating from Michigan State University with a degree in communications, I spent a year as a student with the international, cross-cultural, and performance-based organization Up with People. It was an incredible experience for me. I loved learning about the world and being in the world with diverse people and living with host families (I have lived with more than 140 host families on four continents). I was hired by Up with People and spent nine years with them — the last three as general manager. But, the organization ceased operations in December 2000 and I was out of a job.

I got a job working for Girls Inc. of Metro Denver as the director of new business and marketing but didn’t love it. But after school the girls would come to our facility for classes and I immediately figured out that I loved being around the learning environment and the learners.

And then, Sept. 11, 2001, happened. That day I made a vow to myself to make the most of my life and not wait for change. The next day I quit Girls Inc. and told the president that I was going to become a teacher. And so I did. I was 33.

How do you get to know your students?

From the first moment they walk in my classroom I do two things: First, I welcome them personally, by name, every day. Second, I try to find out something unique and interesting about each and every student and ask them about it as often as I can. This is an intentional process and must be considered carefully because there are some students who want to hide — they don’t want me to engage and interact — but I refuse to let them and eventually, we create a positive relationship based on growth and trust (and laughter).

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

Before reading the incredible novel “Johnny Got His Gun” by Dalton Trumbo, we listen carefully to Metallica’s song “One,” which was partially inspired by the movie based on Trumbo’s book. We draw what we think is thematically happening in the song, and pull lyrics as evidence to back up our ideas. This gets them engaged and excited to read the book. I mean, if Metallica wrote a song about it, right? So cool.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

Cool socks.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

The refusal of the local community here in Brighton and the 27J area to support education through bonds or mill levies is absolutely maddening. Our textbooks are 25 years old. Our technology is outdated. Our rooms are packed with kiddos and when the bell rings at 7 a.m., some of them are barely awake. It truly takes the entire community to ensure the complete education of our young people and when a community does not step up, it breaks my heart. There is serious inequity in how we value our young people and something needs to be done about it. Regardless, I welcome every kid with enthusiasm and work my hardest so that they get the best education possible.

For the record: We have passed some bond issues, but only after making drastic decisions like split schedules (when 9th and 10th grades come early in the morning and 11th and 12th grade stay later) and pack our classes with kiddos. These actions wake up the community for a while so we can pass bonds so we can build new schools and facilities. Makes me sad … These kiddos are so amazing and they deserve better from their community.

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

I had a boy in my room and I was warned that his mom was “crazy” and impossible to manage. People who had the student in their class in other years would roll their eyes and wish me luck.

I reached out to her immediately and set up a relationship with her with very specific guidelines and goals. The goal, obviously, was the academic growth of her son, but I also made it clear that it was my goal that he have fun and be engaged, and want to come to class. Right off the bat, this impressed her and we were off to the races. The other goal (and this is so important when working with individual parents) was that our email communication would not take longer than 20 seconds to create and send. I’m rather serious about this with parents. I will keep in touch with them on an individual basis, but it must be concise and honest. The mother and I built a great relationship based solely on the health and success of the child. We had an incredibly successful year. The other teachers would grumble and complain, and I would just smile.

What part of your job is most difficult?

Understanding why education and young people and teachers aren’t more valued by our society is by far the most difficult part of my job. My students are the economic drivers of our future and deserve the best we can offer them. Where are the adults? Where are the politicians? Where is the support?

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

My biggest misconception was that the students would be difficult to manage. I was wrong. They are wonderful, curious, funny, smart, and engaged and they give me hope. It is society and the community not supporting us that I didn’t expect.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I am always reading multiple books, usually one fiction and one non-fiction. Right now, I am inhaling Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” (wow) and “The Bounty: The True Story of Mutiny on the Bounty” by Caroline Alexander.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

Teaching is about relationships. Build the relationships and they will come.