First Person

Humility Lessons: Giving All Teachers a Chance

I was 21 when I started student teaching, and like all good 21-year-olds, I thought I knew it all. This was not in the sense that I thought I already knew how to be a master teacher, but rather that I thought there were good teachers who I could model myself after and bad teachers to teach me how not to teach. The good teachers were the enthusiastic progressive teachers doing new and different things in their classrooms who genuinely liked and cared about their students; the bad were the ones lecturing to students in rows or doing work out of the textbook like nearly all of my high school teachers.

I was lucky to be quickly humbled.

My first lesson in humility were taught to me by a math teacher who welcomed me to observe his class regularly, and who I thought was a bad teacher because he didn’t seem to like his kids. After observing him a couple of times, I wrote him off and stopped going to his class.

In hindsight, these might have been two randomly bad classes, or he might actually have not been a very good teacher, but he later gave me the best advice I got while student teaching: Create a “Happy Folder” filled with thank you notes, work from challenging students who finally got it, and those letters that teachers often get from students who, years after leaving the classroom, write to share about how they finally understood a lesson. The math teacher told me this was his most valuable possession and that if his house were ever on fire, it would be the first thing he would save. I followed that advice and started my own Happy Folder, which has grown in size over the past seven years. That folder has saved me from the depths of despair more times than I can count. It is a reminder of why I do what I do, and why I will continue to do it.

The second lesson I learned came from my mentor teacher. He seemed to be everything I didn’t want to be. He was in his 32nd year of teaching, and he spent nearly all of his time in the staff room with the other 30+ year teachers complaining and whining about the students, the state of the world, and the newfangled ideas of new teachers. He told me on my first day that he would stay out of the sections I was teaching, which I took as a sign that he didn’t care and just wanted to do less work. For that semester, I tried to minimize my interaction with him as much as possible, assuming he had nothing to offer me.

On my last official day at the school, the student teachers from my program gave presentations about what we had learned over the past semester. My cohort-mate gave a presentation on whether it mattered if students liked their teachers. He ended with a quote summarizing what he had learned was the best attitude to take toward students:

It doesn’t matter to me if my students like me; I like all my students, and want the best for them, regardless.

At the time, that quote summed up everything I thought teachers should be. It should not surprise the reader to learn that I soon discovered that the quote came from my mentor teacher. After four months together, I found out I had been completely wrong about him. When I returned to the school as a substitute the following semester, I realized his staff-room banter was just the thoughtless rhetoric of guys who had been doing this longer than I had been alive, and that it had nothing to do with what went on in any of their classrooms. Sadly, I had already missed the opportunity to learn from someone who might not have been the best teacher in the world, but who was a great person. I was humbled.

I was lucky to learn very quickly in my career that I always have something to learn from the more experienced people around me. Just as I had to learn not to write off many experienced teachers, I have also had to learn not to write off new ones either. The unfortunate reality is that most new teachers, especially in challenging school environments, are not going to be particularly effective when they first start. Most have no idea how to control a classroom consistently, no idea how to plan rigorous lessons that teach students skills while engaging them in class, and no idea how to deal with the dozens of conflicts that arise daily. But in my five years in the Bronx, I’ve been humbled again and again as I’ve seen teachers who were disasters when they started emerge two years later as competent professionals who become leaders among their peers. Nearly every great teacher I know tells a similar story: she or he had a rough 2-4 years, and then either a lightbulb went off or she discovered a new way forward, and things turned around. We all started somewhere, and for most of us, it was not in a good place.

Teaching might be the most consistently challenging job in the world. Anyone who has stepped in front of a classroom knows this in ways that people who haven’t never will. I applaud the parents, community members, and administrators who want to hold us accountable for the high expectations we have for our students — our students deserve this. However, I’m sick and tired of teachers selling each other out. Novice teachers would benefit from doing more listening to what others have to offer; even the most jaded 25-year veteran is going to have a worthwhile lesson to share. Likewise, I wish that when more experienced teachers see someone struggling, rather than writing him off or talking about how “she’ll never make it” they would take the time to observe the teacher and help him or her to learn from the mistakes that all of us make in our early years. While we may widely disagree about the best methods to reach our students and help them learn, I have yet to come across anyone who isn’t in the classroom because at some point they deeply cared about helping students grow and learn. And while there are bad veteran teachers out there and new ones who will never make it, a little humility in our professional relationships could go a long way to helping more teachers grow to be able to more effectively reach more students.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.