From the Caribbean to Colorado: One teacher’s journey into the family business

PHOTO: Marta Aldrich

How do teachers captivate their students? 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 this series here.

After college in Michigan, Amy Rehberg headed to a Caribbean island to work in the hospitality industry. It was there, while serving frozen yogurt to tourists, that she decided to become a teacher.

When she learned that a local friend — a skilled mechanic — couldn’t read, she became his tutor. She soon found she loved it.

Rehberg, who now teaches English language learners at Horizon High School in Thornton, talked with Chalkbeat about her Caribbean revelation, why teachers need a thick skin, and how she and a colleague created a program for first-generation college-bound students.

Rehberg was one of seven finalists for the 2018 Colorado Teacher of the Year award.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Amy Rehberg is a teacher at Horizon High School in the Adams 12 district.

Why did you become a teacher?
My parents, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, and sister-in-law all are or were teachers. So, when I went to Michigan State University as an undergraduate, teaching was not my major. I wanted to do something different than the “family business” but had no idea what that might be. I majored in English and after I graduated, I moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands with two friends. The plan was to wait tables and bartend in order to earn enough money to travel around the world. It was during this time that I decided to become a teacher.

One of my jobs on the island was working at a roadside stand that sold frozen yogurt and cold drinks to tourists. In between customers, I would sit on the deck and read. I had a friend — a local on the island — who would stop by and chat with me and ask about what I was reading. Over time, he confessed that he couldn’t read. This man was very intelligent and could fix any mechanical device on the island, but he was embarrassed about his reading skills and wondered if I could help him.

“Sure,” I said. He knew his letter sounds and could recognize most elementary level words and had a rather sophisticated oral language lexicon. We would work together every time he would stop by the yogurt stand. It was my light bulb moment — it was really satisfying work that didn’t feel like work. I decided to leave the island and move to Colorado. Once I was here, I enrolled at the University of Colorado Boulder to earn my Secondary Teaching Certificate. This was 27 years ago.

What does your classroom look like?
A little like a circus. It’s colorful and full of people taking risks, making connections, and using language.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _______. Why?
My sense of humor. If I couldn’t laugh, I would cry. First, because so many students have really hard lives, and educators do so much more than just teach a subject. Second, the public is so critical of teachers and public schools in general that it takes a thick skin to keep coming back.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
My students are always changing, and their language gaps are different, so recycling lessons isn’t the best approach. However, in my upper levels I teach about how we use language to show and not just tell. Students learn about figurative language and sensory description.

After opportunities to practice recognizing and writing similes, metaphors, personification, onomatopoeia, alliteration, etc., I bring out my collection of interesting photos, National Geographic magazine pictures, and other interesting pictures. The gist of the lesson is that the students pick a picture and write an example of each kind of figurative language in order to describe the picture in a colorful way. After they have written their sentences, they write a poem by stringing some of these examples together and adding some sensory details and camouflaging the direct description with more symbolic images. The students then read their poems to the class while we try to guess which picture is being described.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I find another way to get there. Slower and louder is not a solution.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I stand there and wait. I never have to wait very long. The kids police each other.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
First, I’m a pretty straightforward person, and I really like my job. So, I stand at my door, and I say hi to kids. I notice if they get a new haircut or shoes or a phone, and I comment on it. Then, as time goes on, they see a pattern in the way I ask them specific questions about their other classes. I offer time to work on assignments or projects – I help them and I have supplies. They see former students coming in to use the computers or the table to eat lunch. They see students asking me questions about everything under the sun, and they see me finding the answers. So then, within this community, when it’s time to talk about language function and practice grammar in context, they are willing to listen.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
Several years ago, I was invited to a student’s home to meet with a college recruiter and help his family navigate the information. The family’s first language was Spanish, and their son was bilingual. I spoke a little Spanish, and the recruiter spoke none. I sat with the family, listened, and asked questions I knew they wanted answers to, and paraphrased other questions.

That experience enlightened me to the idea that we had a population of students that was not getting access to college information. My colleague, Brad Turano, and I brainstormed an idea for a program at our school that would give first-generation college applicants and students of color the information and exposure needed to apply to, pay for, and graduate from college. Our administration liked the idea and funded it. The Adelante Leadership Program has been going strong at Horizon High School for seven years.

We take field trips to college campuses, invite recruiters and other guest speakers to talk about careers, and educational paths to those careers. We practice leadership skills, team-building, problem-solving, and critical thinking. We also teach financial literacy and independent living skills. Students are enrolled for the second semester of their junior year and the first semester of their senior year. When they leave us, students have applied to at least four colleges and for numerous scholarships, they have completed the federal financial aid form, and are prepared to take the next steps toward their life goals.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I am reading “What Alice Forgot” by Liane Moriarty. I watched “Big Little Lies” on HBO last summer and have since been reading all her novels.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
My mentor and friend, Wendy Engelmann, told me early on: “We teach kids, not subjects.” Of course we use content subjects and standards to guide how we teach kids, but the root of teaching is in relationships.

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.