What's your education story?

When a kid threw a chair at her, this IPS teacher didn’t hold it against him

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

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Chalkbeat journalists ask the people we come across in our work to tell us about their education stories and how learning shaped who they are today. Learn more about this series, and read other installments, here.

Beth (Medawar) Sperry will start this fall teaching at Global Prep Academy, an Indianapolis Public Schools innovation school at School 44. Previously, Medawar was a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at School 51.

The reason I’m actually a teacher today is because I started my fourth grade year with the chicken pox. I had it so bad, I had to miss the first two weeks of the school year. But when I showed up, the teacher … she was not very nice to me. She was actually very verbally abusive.

She told me I was fat and ugly every day. She told me I was worthless. She told me I would never amount to anything in my life, and she said this in front of my peers, in front of my friends, and it changed their opinion of me. I remember one day my mom made cupcakes for some reason, and I brought her one. She looked at me and threw it in the trash in front of me.

For the whole year, I did everything in my power to please her. That was the year I decided to I was going to be a teacher, and I was never going to allow a teacher to make a kid feel the way I felt.

Thankfully, I had very good teachers after that who kind of helped build me back up. When you go through something like that … how do you look at a place where you’re supposed to be safe and learn?

Teachers are supposed to be role models, and these kids look up to their teachers just like they look up to their parents. I was in a situation where I had no one to look up that year. It changed who I wanted to be.

I tell my students, “You’re not going to get that here, and you’re not going to treat others that way.”

A few years ago, I was having a really rough year. (When a kid transferred into my class), he had severe anger and emotional handicaps. He threw a chair at me. He came back after spring break, and he had it in his head that I was going to hate him forever. When he walked in that door, I looked at him and said, “Hi, how are you? Welcome back.”

And ever since, for those nine weeks, that child was the most perfect child because he knew I didn’t hold it against him.

He ended up getting kicked out of our school.

A couple months later, it was around Christmas time, and I was standing in Von Maur … and all of a sudden, I have this person, like, attack me from behind. And I turn around and it was that kid, and he just looked at me and he said, “You know, you changed my life. You made me a better person. You were the only person who ever believed in me.”

That right there solidified the fact of why I’m doing what I’m doing. Even though I didn’t necessarily coddle him, or do anything differently than I do for any other kid, I made that difference for that kid. And I really wish someone would’ve noticed that for me.

I’ve been a teacher for 14 years. I never wavered from it.

I blame the chicken pox.

What's Your Education Story?

Join Chalkbeat for a night of hilarious and heartbreaking storytelling by teachers

PHOTO: Ronak Shah

Kick off the school year with a night of hilarious, heartbreaking and inspiring stories from educators.

Over the past year, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from the teachers, students and leaders of Indianapolis through our occasional series, What’s Your Education Story? Some of our favorites were told live, during teacher story slams hosted by Teachers Lounge Indy. They touched on how a teacher used the story of black santa to keep a difficult student engaged, a student who triumphed at school before tragedy struck and the unexpected lesson of a mouse in the classroom.

Next month, Chalkbeat is partnering with Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library to host a story slam. The event, 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 5, will showcase tales from across Circle City classrooms. It is free and open to the public.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017
Central Library, Clowes Auditorium
40 E. St. Clair St., Indianapolis, IN
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

What's Your Education Story?

‘Everything is going to be great,’ he told his teacher. She wishes that was the end of his story.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Katie Speer shared her story at an event hosted by Indy Teachers Lounge.

Educators from across Indianapolis gathered to tell stories about the joys and heartbreaks of teaching at a storytelling event hosted by Teachers Lounge Indy. Chalkbeat sharing a few of our favorites, edited for clarity.

Katie Speer is a middle school teacher at KIPP Indy. For more stories about Indianapolis educators, see our occasional series “What’s Your Education Story?”.

This story centers around a student that I taught last year. He was in my homeroom, and this student was literally everyone’s best friend. He could meet someone and then they would be best friends. His smile lit up the room. His laughter was echoing in the lunchroom. Everyone loved him.

The problem was, I taught him at the end of the day. By the time he got to me at 2:50, he was worn out from just bringing joy to the world.

He’d come to my class, and he’d be like, “Hey Miss Speer!” And I’d be like, “Hey, how are you?”

And then five minutes into my class, he’d be (snoring), just out, out to the world. I would call his name out in my class. I’d walk over. I would tap him.

Then I moved his seat, directly to the left of me. And every minute, I would just poke him. Over time, he was immune to my pokes.

I was like, “OK. We got to figure this out. You are not passing my class, but you are brilliant. We have to fix this.”

So my solution was, I had to start calling home. His dad was great. He would be ready to answer the phone during my class. The second his head would start to go, I’d be like, “no, we are calling dad.”

And he hated it. It was the only thing that I could get to work. And he was like, “Oh, you are the worst. You are petty. You are lame. I hate you.” All of that.

I actually called his dad four days in a row, and he was so mad at me. But then, the next progress report came out and he was passing my class.

I’m like, “OK. I can do this. I can go home every day and feel like he hates me, but it’s working.”

At my school, we do this thing called shout-outs. We end every day on a positive note. The students have the floor, and they shout out someone in their homeroom.

He’s like, “I have a shout-out, I have a shout-out.”

He said, “Miss Speer, I would like to shout you out for always calling home. Even though I say that I hate it, I know that you do it because you love me, and I know that you do it because you want to make a difference, and that means a lot to me.”

The school year goes on, and he passes all of his classes. And it’s time for promotion. We always gather in homerooms to prep for promotion and go over the details one more time. And he shows up in suit pants, the nicest dress shoes, this beautiful suit vest and this bowtie and a bright yellow button-up.

And he’s like, “Miss Speer take a picture of all the boys. Miss Speer take a picture of the whole class. Miss Speer just take a picture of me, because I look great.”

The night comes to an end, and I’m literally standing on the sidewalk waiting for people to get picked up and I’m just sobbing.

He gives me a hug and he’s like, “Everything is going to be great. Thank you for being my teacher. Thank you for being great. You are going to be fine. We are going to be fine. I’m going to be fine. It’s gonna be good.”

I would love for that to be the end of this story.

But unfortunately, three weeks into summer, he was killed in an act of gun violence.

I think that although this story isn’t happy, it’s something that I want to share because everyday, I am pushed to be a better person and a better teacher. In his memory, sometimes I do the tough things or I go the extra mile, or I make those calls that I really didn’t want to make because I know that I’m going to hear it from the student, because I know that it matters. I want to continue to be that person.

Shout out to all the teachers who do that every single day, because it’s hard to make the hard phone calls. It’s hard to go the extra mile. It’s really hard to go home and feel like you are not on their side. But it matters. It makes a difference.

Shout out to him because he makes me a better person every single day.