Future of Teaching

How Indianapolis teachers are connecting Holocaust survivor Eva Kor’s story to their classrooms

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
"The Story of Eva" was screened for teachers at the Indianapolis Centra Library on Wednesday.

As she watched a documentary retelling how Eva Kor survived Nazi experiments during the Holocaust, Melissa Humpfer was struck by how relatable the story was — to her personally, and potentially to her fifth-grade students.

Kor, a native Romanian who made her way to Terre Haute after being liberated from Auschwitz-Birkenau, endured medical experiments along with her twin sister at the hands of Josef Mengele, the infamous Nazi doctor who tortured hundreds of twins in the name of eugenics. When she came to America, Kor still felt intense anger about her past and was treated as an outcast.

That feeling of exclusion struck a chord with Humpfer.

“I am actually a mother of twins who’ve had a big struggle — they’re autistic” said Humpfer, a teacher at School 107, also known as Lew Wallace. “They have been (excluded) from a lot of community things. So with education, I see that there are a lot of kids like Eva …  there’s a lot of kids out there who are like her and grew up with being an outcast of some kind.”

The “Story of Eva,” created by Ted Green, Mika Brown, and WFYI Public Media, was screened on Wednesday at the Indianapolis Central Library. After, Teach Plus, a teacher advocacy organization, put educators into groups to talk about how they could use Kor’s story in their classrooms. Kor has been making headlines for decades in Indiana and across the nation for her activism aimed at hunting down Mengele and, more recently, for eventually forgiving him.

The film highlighted themes of tolerance as well as dealing with anger and trauma — all issues the educators said were familiar to their students, even though the Holocaust ended more than 55 years before they were born.

“I kind of wish her message was antiquated,” said Andrew Pillow, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle charter school and former Teach Plus fellow. “I wish that I couldn’t find context to teach this today.”

For Humpfer’s students, many of whom are refugees who have fled their native countries, learning about a woman who was forcibly removed from her home and suffered severe hardship isn’t some far-off concept — it’s incredibly relatable. One student in particular, she said, has struggled to come to terms with coming to America. He’s resentful, angry, and stubborn. He refuses to learn English as a way to keep himself distant from a country that isn’t his.

“I see the anger she had, and it’s almost the same even though she went through so much with being tortured,” Humpfer said. “I see parallels with him, and I can’t wait to show him this, and I can’t wait to have that discussion.”

Schools, particularly those in poor urban communities, have long had to figure out how to address the trauma students might bring with them into the classroom. In Indiana this year, a bill was introduced in the General Assembly that would have had the state survey schools about how they address the social and emotional needs of their students, but the bill was not heard in committee.

Other state agencies have discussed and advocated for “trauma-informed teaching,” and local schools are pulling together community groups and businesses to support students, but the programs can be expensive and hard to coordinate.

For teachers in the classroom, a compelling, relatable story can be an easier way to help a student adjust. Humpfer said she especially liked that in the film, Kor explained that dealing with her anger wasn’t a fast process. It happened over time, but it was essential to improving her mental health.

And in a time when even young students might be dealing with the effects of racism, the importance of learning to be more tolerant can’t be overstated, Pillow said.

“It’s transformative to know that there are different groups of people who deal with the same things as your group is dealing with,” Pillow said. “Your group is not the only group that’s ever been discriminated against in the past, and probably won’t be in the future. I think that, in and of itself, is a powerful tool for acceptance.”

You can learn more about the documentary and educational resources that are available for teachers at the film’s website.

First Person

I’m a fifth-year Chicago teacher, and the challenges aren’t letting up. Now what?

PHOTO: Getty

When I started as a teacher in Chicago Public Schools, I remember hearing that half of teachers in urban school districts leave them in their first five years. When I went through rough patches I would wonder, was I going to make it?

I did make it, completing my fifth year of teaching last spring. But I can’t help but feel like something still isn’t right.

I feel like this should be the time when I am starting to really develop my expertise, feel secure in my skills and abilities, and build the self-confidence that I am effective in my craft. Instead, I  feel lucky just to be surviving day to day and week to week.

I thought that by now I would be in a groove with planning and preparation. I thought that my Sundays might actually be relaxing. Instead, I find myself filled with the “Sunday scaries,” scrambling to get materials created, adjust lesson plans, and polish final drafts of IEPs. I never feel “caught up,” and can’t say I have ever known what that feels like.

Even though my class sizes are not the largest in the district, they are filled with students who — although so talented, resilient, and special — have such a wide variety of needs and deficits that I don’t feel I can adequately address given all of the constraints I face. There simply are not enough resources and time to do everything I need to do to give my students the best that they deserve. This weighs on me, leading to overwhelming feelings of guilt and helplessness that are often paralyzing.

In short, I am mentally and emotionally exhausted, and I know many of my fellow teachers are too.

I’ve been thinking about this reality more since I joined a number of colleagues at an educator mental health-focused event in October. We dug into our own struggles and and then worked on ways to manage our stress. We named our biggest day-to-day stressors and then explored different ways to practice self-care — such as journaling, meditation, or picking up an instrument — to balance out the feelings of high anxiety and pressure we feel at work. I left with a number of resources to seek out on my own as well as a sense of renewal. But the onus was on me to find solutions moving forward.

Now, Chicago’s mayoral race is heating up. And while I work on managing the stress of this job, it’s also on policymakers — including our next mayor — to address the stressors themselves.

Large class sizes, the limited time we are allotted to plan and prepare for the school day, insufficient paid time-off policies, and ever-tighter budgets we are asked to stretch to meet our students’ needs are all the result of policies that could be changed.

I can’t practice enough self-care to replace the structural changes needed to make our profession more sustainable.

But school leaders, the mayor, and state policymakers, could make a difference. More independent and collaboration time in teachers’ days would help give us time to chip away at expanding to-do lists. Real teacher-leader roles would give teachers power and voice in school decisions. Schools destigmatizing “mental health” days and organizing activities to help teachers de-stress would help, too.

Dissenters may point to the fact that in many other jobs you’re expected to manage your work-life balance and handle stress on your own. But teaching isn’t like every other job: the stakes are especially high, and we have less control of our time and are more isolated in our work. Students benefit from teachers with experience, and every time a capable teacher leaves Chicago’s schools because they were overwhelmed, students lose out.

For my part, I pledge to be aware of my mental health needs and plan to be intentional about my self-care this school year. I hope Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Teachers Union, and our city and state elected leaders will commit to helping me and my colleagues not only to survive, but to thrive in our jobs.

As mayoral candidates continue to flesh out their education plans, they need to acknowledge that our mental health and well-being is critical to our success as teacher. How are they planning to help us access resources like counseling services? Prioritizing how to best care for educators will help us continue to provide the best care possible for students.

Teachers are already doing exceptional work given the many constraints they face. Imagine what more we could do for our students if we were better equipped ourselves.

Dayna Heller is a special education teacher at Roger C. Sullivan High School in Rogers Park. She is an active member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher-led policy organization.

tick tock

Denver district, teachers union make some progress as contract deadline looms, but still far apart

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat
Denver teachers listen to an update on bargaining during the second to last day of negotiations before the ProComp contract expires.

Something unusual happened near the end of bargaining Thursday between the Denver teachers union and school administrators: The district offered a change to its proposal, and some teachers gathered in the audience snapped their fingers in approval.

The two sides are still far apart in terms of reaching an agreement on Denver Public Schools’ ProComp system, which offers teachers bonuses on top of their base salary for things like teaching in a high-poverty school or earning a strong evaluation. The deadline for a deal is Friday, with teachers set to vote on either strike or ratification Saturday and Tuesday. The district’s and the union’s proposals still reflect different ideas about how teachers should earn more compensation — and have very different price tags.

But Thursday’s session was a far cry from the intense frustration that marked Tuesday’s bargaining session. On that day, district officials departed the bargaining table to “process” after the union refused to make a counteroffer to the most recent district proposal. Teachers filled the room after school and waited in hot, cramped conditions for a response that never came.

Thursday’s session opened with tense verbal sparring, but by the afternoon, the union had made changes to its proposal that reduced the cost by an estimated $2.5 million. District officials said they would spend the night and early Friday morning analyzing the proposal and seeing where else they might be able to move.

The district did offer a small concession Thursday that some teachers seemed to appreciate: increasing tuition reimbursement 50 percent, to $6,000. Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova said research shows this type of incentive is a strong tool for recruiting and keeping teachers, especially teachers of color. The money for this will come from reducing the bonus that teachers get for teaching in a so-called “distinguished” school.

More often, Denver teachers have reacted with boos to offers that the district saw as significant steps toward the union position.

Beyond small steps like the tuition reimbursement, Cordova said she was “very open to considering” aspects of the union proposal, a sentiment that seemed to clear the way for more back-and-forth.

“The district has moved and DCTA was willing to change their proposal,” said Tiffany Choi, a French teacher at East High School who attended the bargaining session. “We both showed willingness to compromise, and that’s positive.”

Dana Berge, a member of the union bargaining team, said the district is “beginning to listen to us, but they are not listening to us in terms of the values in our proposal.”

Both proposals keep some bonuses, at much more modest levels, and put more money into base pay. And both proposals lay out a schedule for how Denver teachers can earn more money, both by “steps,” or number of years of service, and by “lanes,” or additional educational achievement.

The union proposal has more lanes and allows Denver teachers to start moving up by earning additional college credit or by taking the kind of professional development that teachers need to do anyway. Teachers take such training to maintain their teaching licenses — or because they see a need, for example, to learn more about helping students with trauma. The union’s counteroffer Thursday removed one of the lanes, bringing down the total cost.

The district’s first lane change comes with a master’s degree, completing 10 years of service, earning an advanced license, or earning national board certification.

Berge said the union proposal more closely mimics those in other districts and will keep “highly dedicated, highly trained, highly experienced teachers” in Denver and reduce the problem of losing more experienced teachers to better-off suburban districts while less experienced teachers concentrate in the highest-needs schools.

She argued that a more stable salary structure would do more to keep teachers in high-poverty schools than the bonuses given under the current system.

The union proposal will cost a lot more than the district proposal. Cordova said the district is in the process of identifying “deep, deep cuts” to administrative positions to redirect money to classrooms, but even those won’t provide all the money needed to close the gap between the two sides.

During the long period in which each side was working separately on its proposals, a group of religious and community leaders from the Industrial Areas Foundation arrived to offer support to teachers and then a direct message to Cordova. They criticized her for framing the disagreement as one about values.

“Please don’t dare insinuate that you care more about the children in hard-to-serve, high-poverty schools than we do,” said Susan Cooper, a retired teacher and member of the organization. “We value solidarity, not a divide and conquer approach. We value stability, which we don’t have because we can’t keep teachers in Denver.”

Billy Williams of the Denver chapter of the NAACP said parents and community members would support the teachers “if they are forced to strike.”

Cordova said it was never her intent to suggest one side held the moral high ground.

“We can have similar goals, similar values, and different ideas about how to get those done,” she said. “Good people can disagree and still care about our kids.”

The two sides expect to resume bargaining at 10 a.m. Friday.