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 an American tragedy that solidified Erica Rewey’s determination to become a teacher.
She was in third grade when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on national television as she and her classmates watched inside their school auditorium. In the aftermath of that horrific episode, she said, “our teachers were the ones who helped us make sense of the tragedy, who hugged us, who cried with us, who made us feel safe again.”
Today, Rewey, who was named a 2018 High School Teacher of Excellence by the National Council of Teachers of English, aims to show that same empathy and vulnerability to her students at Palmer High School in Colorado Springs.
Rewey, who some students call “Rewdog” “Rewdizzle” or even “Mom,” talked about what mantra she hopes students internalize, how she helped students rethink stereotypes about homelessness, and why she sometimes has to take a break and “walk around the trash can.”
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?
It seems unfair of me to say — especially to my own students who struggle with what they want to be when they “grow up” — that I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. But it’s true.
I became a teacher because of my parents. Although my parents were young when they had me and my sister, and although (or because) neither of them attended college, we knew from an early age that education mattered. That education was important, cherished, a gateway out of poverty, and a non-negotiable.
By the time I was in third grade, I knew I wanted to be a teacher, although being an astronaut was a close second. When I was in third grade, in 1986, a teacher got the chance to be both. When the Challenger exploded in front of our eyes on TV in our elementary school auditorium, our teachers were the ones who helped us make sense of the tragedy, who hugged us, who cried with us, who made us feel safe again. In that moment, my decision to become a teacher solidified.
I spent the rest of my schooling taking notes about what my teachers did to nurture their students. I also took notes about what my teachers did that made us feel devalued and small. And I swore that when I became a teacher, I would be one who treated her students like the people they could be.
How do you get to know your students?
There is plenty of research to support the fact that if students don’t feel safe, don’t feel valued, and don’t feel like they belong, they won’t be able to learn. In my experience, building relationships is organic.
I treat them like I would want other teachers to treat my own children. Kids are complex, funny, infuriating, still-developing, annoying, caring, empathetic, and sometimes mean — just to scratch the surface. I try not to judge them. They’re human, just like you and me. They’re doing their best, even though it might not seem like it at times.
So I talk to them. Ask them if they’re OK. Compliment their new hairdo. Tell them I like their shirt (especially if it’s a Star Wars shirt). I ask a lot of questions and tuck their answers away in a corner of my brain so I can use it later to start a conversation without confrontation.
I ask them to write me an introduction letter — tell me who they are and what makes them tick. And I write each of them back in the first week. We establish rapport. In order to pair them with books they might care about reading, I ask them what they like. What they care about. What they want to learn about.
I let them know that I, too, am a human being. I let them know when I’m wrong. I let them see me happy and hurt and sad and confused. We comfort each other. And every day at the end of class, I thank them for being there, and I say, “Be good to yourselves and others.” It becomes a mantra that they internalize. I internalize it too.
I don’t give up on them. No matter what. They might do none of the homework; I’ll still ask them for it on a weekly basis. They might get suspended for drugs or fighting; I’ll email them what they’ve missed and visit them in in-school suspension. They might cuss me out in class; I’ll take a deep breath and forgive them for acting out.
It’s a mind shift. I’m the adult. They’re still developing. They still have a chance to make the right decision. And I’ll be there with them to celebrate when they do.
Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?
Almost a decade ago, I read “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini and knew it was a book that I had to teach. Before reading the book with my juniors — before I even tell them we’ll be reading it — I show them a picture of a beautiful mountain town and ask them to make only observations at first.
Then I ask them to make inferences about the place, the weather, the people, the traditions, the history, the things those people value and like to do. Then I ask them to make a prediction about what the place is.
Most of them say it looks like a town in Colorado. Even Colorado Springs. Some will say Leadville or Snowmass. They guess that the people who live there value the environment and their community, that they love being outdoors and they love their families. That the people who live there are a lot like themselves in many ways.
Then I tell them it’s a picture of Kabul, Afghanistan.
Even though we’re an International Baccalaureate World School and even though we’ve [as a nation] been engaged in conflict in the Middle East for their entire lives, most of their understanding of Afghanistan is based on bias, speculation, and misinformation. They are genuinely surprised that Afghanistan is not just a giant desert.
They’re surprised at the beauty and the colors of the city. But they’re most surprised about how much they actually don’t know about a country that shares similar geography and climate with Colorado, and one with which our history has been so inextricably linked.
Finally, I give them a blank map of the Middle East and ask them to label the countries. They even get a list to choose from. Most can identify only Saudi Arabia. Some can identify Israel.
It’s a humbling moment for students who believe they know a lot about the world, and it opens them up for the experiences of the Afghan women they’ll learn about and empathize with in the book. Most of my students tell me that it’s the most important book they’ve ever read.
What object would you be helpless without during the school day?
My oversize metallic, 64-oz. water bottle. I fill it twice a day!
What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?
Our school is located in downtown Colorado Springs, which offers our students the freedom and responsibility of an open campus. It also places us in the middle of many people who are experiencing homelessness. A few years ago, I realized that students were referring to this population as “hobos” and “bums,” disregarding them as individuals.
I worked with many of our downtown churches, soup kitchens, shelters, and care providers to give our ninth-graders an appreciation for the nuances of poverty and homelessness.
In class, we read numerous accounts of people experiencing homelessness, as well as publications identifying the causes and effects of homelessness. We researched the topic in our city and state, and made proposals for the city council regarding the best way to alleviate homelessness in the downtown area.
By far the most impactful part of the unit were our weekly field trips. We visited the teen shelter, the adult shelter, the service providers, and even had lunch at the soup kitchen. My students were surprised at the variety and quality of the food — they literally thought that there would only be soup!
Being able to see how other people live — to be able to walk in their shoes for even a day — increased my students’ empathy for not only people experiencing homelessness, but for anyone who they at first fear or don’t understand.
Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I called one student’s mom this year to let her know that her son seemed disengaged, he was missing a lot of work, and sometimes ditching my class. I guess I was expecting some context, some excuses, some defensiveness on her part. Maybe even some insight on his behavior and some insider tips.
But instead, after only three weeks of her son being in high school, she said to me, “Well, I guess he’s going to fail then. And he’s not gonna graduate.” That really struck me. Because if that’s the attitude at home, I have a big hill to climb at school. Right?
So, even though this kiddo might be making some poor decisions right now, it’s my moral obligation to give him a new opportunity every day to do what’s right. Because I am the teacher, I am the adult in this situation. And he has the right to a public education, Monday through Friday. Even if he only shows up on Tuesday.
What are you reading for enjoyment?
These are my reads since January:
“Indian Killer” by Sherman Alexie
“Neither Wolf Nor Dog” by Kent Nerburn
“Lakota Woman” by Mary Crow Dog
“Summerlong” by Dean Bakopoulos
“Beautiful Boy” by David Sheff
“Educated” by Tara Westover
“White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo
What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?
“Sometimes you gotta take a walk around the trash can.”
Teaching is super rewarding. But it can also be super frustrating. And if you lose your cool, all the kids will know which buttons to press in the future. My friend and colleague Joe Loetscher always told me, “When you feel like you’re gonna lose it and you just wanna yell at ’em, go out into the hall and take a walk around the trash can. Cool down. Remind yourself that you’re in charge of how you react to their behaviors. Remember that you are their model for reacting appropriately.”
I was struggling with my fifth-period freshman class one day — the one with 28 students in it. Twenty are teenage boys. Half of them were late. Many of them were on their phones.
I thought, “Who can I have security remove to remedy this situation?” But it was hopeless. There were too many of them and only one of me. So I made eye contact with one girl, whispered, “I need a break,” and walked out into the hallway, letting the door close behind me.
There is no trash can in my hall these days, but there were excerpts of poetry plastered to the walls that my juniors decorated from last month’s unit. I spent a few minutes out there, breathing in and out, close enough to hear the cacophony in my classroom slowly winding down to a whisper. They chose Kevyn to come out and get me. “We’re sorry,” he said on behalf of his classmates, “We’re ready to learn. Please come back.”
And I did. And they were.