What's your education story?

How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate

PHOTO: Provided
Jean Russell

Jean Russell is on sabbatical from her work as a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School in Fort Wayne after being named the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year. Her work as 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year ignited her interest in education policy, and she is in the first cohort of TeachPlus statewide policy fellows. Nineteen other teachers from urban, suburban and rural areas are also members of the class. Below is Russell’s story condensed and lightly edited for clarity. For more stories from parents, students and educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

When I started this January as the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year, my overarching goal for my year of service is to focus on recruitment and retention of great teachers. One of the things that came up was the opportunity to serve on the ISTEP alternative assessment panel. (The committee was charged with choosing a replacement for the state’s exam.)

I definitely felt like that was something that is affecting recruitment and retention of great teachers in Indiana, and yet I was reticent about whether or not I was equipped to really be a part of that and to be a helpful voice at the table because policy is not something in my 26 years of teaching that I’ve had anything to do with before this.

The first couple of times that I went to those meetings, I like I just was out of my league, and I didn’t really feel like there was much I could contribute. And I think it was the third meeting, there came a point where a couple of people were saying things where I just felt like having the inside-the-classroom, in-the-trenches voice would really help the conversation.

I was so nervous. I remember, I was shaking, and my voice was cracking. The meetings were in the House of Representatives, so I had to push the button and lean into the microphone, and I’m like, “Hi, I’m Jean Russell.”

But I said what I knew, “I’ve been giving this test for 25 years and these are my experiences, and this is what I think.” I think the biggest surprise in that moment — I won’t ever forget that moment — was that they listened. And I knew that because they were asking good follow-up questions and making references back to what I had said. It sort of became a part of that conversation for that meeting. I never became very outspoken, but I think at that point, I realized that there is most assuredly a time when teacher voice at the table is important to decision making.

I feel like the four walls of my classroom just blew down, and suddenly I realized how many stakeholders there are in my little classroom, in my little hallway, in my little school.

(In the past, policy) just did not make my radar. I think I just felt like, nobody was really interested in what I thought. The work of the classroom is so intense and there’s such a sense of urgency every day to move everybody forward that this broader idea of education, I think I just thought it was something that happened to you and you just work within those parameters. For the first time in 26 years, I’m realizing that that’s not necessarily the case.

watch

Tired of gay slurs, he came out to his students. Then a parent called him unfit to teach.

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Students at Harshman Middle School, where Jack Hesser is a teacher, work on science projects.

Editor’s note: This video contains language that could be considered offensive. 

Jack Hesser was one of seven teachers who participated in story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library.

Hesser’s story was a poignant one as he talked about his struggle to figure out how to address his identity with students. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

Check out the video below to hear Hesser’s story. He is a seventh grade science teacher at Harshman Middle School in Indianapolis Public Schools, and this is his second year teaching.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.

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