First Person

What I Relearned When I Watched My Colleagues Teach

Moving to a new school this fall marked a role shift for me as a teacher. After eight years as a general education teacher (as in, Ms. Jacks, Eighth-Grade English), I am now the learning specialist and co-teacher in an eighth-grade integrated co-teaching class, which means I follow a group made up of both “special ed” and “general ed” students from class to class throughout the day. My job is to support teachers and work with individuals or groups of students to maximize learning for all.

I’m thrilled, because now I get the chance to do what I’ve always wished I could do more of as a regular teacher: experience other teachers’ classrooms, focus intensely on the neediest students, and devote my energy to thinking about how people learn best. We’re only a few weeks in, but already some insights are emerging. Things about teaching and learning that felt true to me intuitively are becoming clearer now that I’ve stepped out of my single-classroom cubby-hole and can see a bit more of the forest and the trees.

As I began to record my observations, I realized they break into two rough categories: teacher moves on the one hand, and curriculum on the other. I’ll focus this piece on the former and discuss curriculum in a separate piece soon.

What I’ve learned, or relearned, since I began stepping into my colleagues’ classrooms during the school day:

Great teaching truly does come in a variety of styles. I’m lucky to work in the classrooms of four amazing teachers, each one with a truly different way of being and teaching. What each of them is doing is unique, and it works. Because…

You must teach from who you are. Teaching is both an art and a science, and more on the latter soon, but the art comes from within. Great teachers can be blunt, sweet, stern, goofy — as long as those qualities are honestly channeled outward toward the students and their learning. What’s more, kids can spot a fake, so we’re best off being ourselves and making it work.

That said, there are some constants across styles, ways of being that categorically work best. All of the teachers I work with (and have worked with, and have been) are most successful when they’re both warm and firm. We all know this, but it has been powerful to see it in action, daily, manifested through different personality types.

Lisa, the eighth-grade science teacher, deployed a deft warm/firm move on the first two days of school when dealing with a strong-willed girl, Maya. On day one, she was already talking back to teachers; Lisa picked up on this and not 10 minutes into class, picked Maya to be the guinea pig in their first experiment. She proceeded to strap some safety goggles onto Maya’s face and had her stand still while two other students held a swinging pendulum. “Will the pendulum swing back far enough to reach Maya?” became the class’s first research question of the year. This might sound mean in print, but in practice Lisa was warm and smiling, with just the slightest twinkle in her eye as she quietly assured Maya she would be unharmed. (Thanks, friction!)

But the most important move Lisa made came the next day: as the class filed in, she welcomed Maya brightly and said, “Maya, I want you to be a rock star today.” Sure enough, whose hand was in the air about 10 times? Lisa made sure to recognize Maya’s efforts at the end of that class. So the warm/firm combo worked, and continues to pay dividends. Since that first day, Maya does struggle to stay focused, but she snaps back to attention whenever Lisa redirects her. Maya knows that Lisa’s expectations are high, and she knows it will be rewarding to meet them.

I could go on with examples of my colleagues being warm and firm.

The eighth-grade math teacher has a solid game face, letting kids know when it’s time to get to work. But she makes sure to recognize students who are meeting her expectations, especially when it’s a kid who often struggles to do so: “Make sure you look just like Jason does right now…” One of the Humanities teachers is great at publicly holding students to their personal goals; when one particular girl begins laughing out of turn or picking fights, Ms. C will allude to a conversation from that morning: “Naomi, remember you’re staying above it today. You’re stronger than this.” Another Humanities teacher might speak sharply to the class when they get unruly, but he invariably concludes by saying, “But you are all good people because you’re good people. Not because you did or did not show your best self today.”

This warm and firm feedback from adults is vital for middle schoolers in particular, who are trying out different identities and need both clear boundaries and unconditional respect as they shapeshift. I realize that these aren’t earth-shattering discoveries. They’re more like hypotheses I’m finally getting to test in a day-to-day science experiment of my own now that, like my students, I change classrooms throughout the day.

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.