What's your education story?

This teacher was a ‘class terrorist’ as a child. Now he uses that to understand his students

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Andrew Pillow

Dozens of educators gathered recently to tell stories of the challenges and joys of teaching. The event was organized by teacher Ronak Shah and sponsored by Teach for America. In the coming weeks, Chalkbeat will share a few of our favorites, condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Andrew Pillow teaches technology and social issues at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle. He grew up in Louisville and graduated from the J. Graham Brown School. For more stories about Indianapolis educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

This story starts way, way back in Louisville Kentucky. I went to the Brown School, and the Brown School is the very best school in the state of Kentucky. That’s not hyperbole. That’s objective fact.

Within the Brown School, even though it was a very good school, they actually have different tracks of students. They had me take this test. After I took that test, lo and behold, I was in one of the higher tracks.

When people would go to class, the regular kids would go to (one) class, and I got to go to another class where we got to do higher-level stuff. We’re walking around. We’re measuring stuff. We’re doing projects around the school. I’m feeling very, very good about myself.

There was this girl at the Brown School, her name was Crystal. Crystal was the apple of my eye. She was my crush for essentially 12 years. She had this caramel skin, long, natural hair. She was the real deal.

(One day) we’re walking around. I’m with my eyeglass, doing all the math and stuff like that. I’ve got this really big ruler, which was probably a yardstick looking back at it. I’m in sixth grade, seventh grade.

Crystal’s in the hallway with her class, and then she turns to her friend Ashley as we’re walking up — she turns around in her loud cackling voice and says, “Here come the retarded kids.”

I just stopped. I’m like, Oh my god. Is that what this is? I’ve heard about such things at other schools, but surely that’s not this.

I went home and asked mom. She’s like, “Yeah, you have an (individualized education plan), but that doesn’t mean anything.” She said a bunch of stuff that probably sounded really good to her, but when you’re in middle school and you find out that you’re not in the class that people think highly of, there’s really nothing anybody can say.

From that point on, I disrupted class at every possible point. I became the class clown, or as what I overheard the teacher in the lounge say one time, the “class terrorist.”

I didn’t feel confident about answering questions, so when people would answer questions and they would get them wrong, I would sing, “He’s a smart guy.” It spread to every grade in the school, and it had the intended effect because everybody was afraid to raise their hand, just like me.

Let’s fast forward to my second year teaching at KIPP. I’m going through and we are in my history class and there’s like 30 questions so every student has to answer a question. And I have a kid and he is (dancing) every two seconds. As we get further down, his dancing gets worse and more provocative. (Then he gets the whole class dancing.)

I told my mom about this, and she said, “It sounds like (the student) is a lot like you. The way he got worse, as he got closer to having to answer the question tells me he was doing the exact same thing that you were doing.”

What I realized is that he didn’t want to have his “Here come the retarded kids moment.” This changed the way that I’ve looked at every student in the classroom. That was the day that I learned to embrace the people and the students that I saw myself in.

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.