First Person

How one Harlem teacher gave his student — the ‘Chris Rock of third grade’ — a chance to shine

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Ruben Brosbe

Ruben Brosbe, a New York City teacher, has a soft spot for troublemakers.

At a recent event held by Teachable Moments, a live storytelling event for teachers, Brosbe told a story of one of his favorite recent students, and how he incentivized the third-grade troublemaker to pay attention in math. Held at a bar called Harlem Nights, the event marked the end of the school year and invited teachers to share their stories of the “Best (Blank) Ever.” (Brosbe is also a former Chalkbeat contributor).

Below, you can read Brosbe’s story on the Best Incentive Ever.

This story has been condensed and lightly edited.

A kind of open secret among teachers is that we do have favorites. We’re not supposed to have favorites, we’re not supposed to have teachers’ pets — we try our best not to have them and treat everyone fairly — but we do have favorites. And there’s always someone who, no matter what, no matter how fair you are, you love that kid.

And this is a story about a kid, we’re going to call him Chris, for anonymity. And you know, for me, the favorite in my classroom is always the troublemaker. I don’t think that makes me unusual. I think for a lot of us that’s true. I don’t know if that’s because I’m not a good enough teacher and they demand my attention and so I give it to them. Or I don’t know if it’s my pride, I want to be the one teacher who breaks through and saves him. Or it might just be that I was a pretty good kid, I followed most of the rules, I didn’t get in that much trouble, so I might just envy him. You troublemaker! You go! You break all the rules. I love you, you shiny diamond.

For whatever reason, I love the troublemakers. And Chris last year, my seventh year teaching third grade, he was my favorite.

Third grade is funny because developmentally, physically, they’re not quite broken out of being babies. So Chris was this round, baby-fat adorable Dominican kid.

We were having this conversation last year about the Oscars and how they were super white, and he just does this impersonation: “Oh yeah, I’m a white Hollywood executive, I’m only going to make movies about white people.” And I’m cracking up, because one, he was right, and two, it was hilarious. And OK, you’re a third-grader but you’re also 40 years old.

But he was a troublemaker and had a hard time. Because he knew he was funny and he loved being funny, he loved getting attention. Raising his hand, which is a very important thing in third grade, was not his thing. Every time a thought was in his head, he would share it. He was also very moody. He would get into fights on the playground and when he was in other classrooms.

And math was his least favorite, it was his struggle. I remember one time it just became such a struggle he broke down, he wanted to run out of the room. I tried to stand in front of the door to block him and he ran into me, cursing at me. He didn’t run past me but just broke down into tears.

This is a kid who school is not easy for, and I did my best to figure out what was going on with Chris. I talked to him and sometimes he would just be very closed, he wouldn’t let me know what was going on at all. But at other times I felt that he had low self-esteem. He would say things like “I hate myself,” “I’m so stupid,” “I wish I wasn’t even here,” and those kinds of things that break your heart as a teacher, no matter what age you’re working with, especially 8- or 9-year-old kids.

But he was my favorite, so I worked with him. We had lunch together and I figured out what mattered to him. And he showed a lot of progress that year. He tried a lot in math even though it wasn’t his favorite, and he raised his hand when he wanted to share something and followed along with his classmates.

But June comes around, and things start to slide back. It’s the end of the year, and that’s kind of the time things are hardest. For whatever reason, maybe kids are worried about the summer, maybe they’re just ready for school to be over, maybe they’ve been ready for school to be over for a long time. And Chris forgets to raise his hand. He’s given up on the idea of raising his hand. Homework is also a done concept. There is lots of arguing, arguing with me, arguing with his classmates, and I’m just like, “Chris, we’ve come down on this long journey. Let’s not end it like this.” So I think, “What can I do to help Chris care?”

I know that person’s brain. I know they love being the center of attention. I say to Chris, “If you can make it through the day without interrupting me or arguing with me, I’ll give you one minute of stand-up in front of the whole class.” And it’s hard. He tries, he asks me, “Did I get it?” And I have to tell him, during math, you said, “No, I don’t want to do this,” so not today. But eventually, he gets it. He earns the one minute of stand-up time.

And so kids are packed up, it’s time for closing circle. I get out my phone and time it for one minute. He gets in front of the class and the kids, they’ve all been waiting for this moment, too.

He’s hilarious. He’s the Chris Rock of third grade. They’ve been waiting for this moment, and he gets up in front and they’ve made signs, like “Go, Chris.” He gets up, he is commanding the space with his mannerisms. But once he’s there, the comedy is very physical, this funny dance thing. And the kids are cracking up, they have tears streaming, and I’m cracking up.

It’s not my sense of humor, it’s just not for me, but it’s hilarious. To see the class laughing at him, to see him getting a laugh in.

I’m at a new school now and I miss him. Dealing with him taught me a valuable lesson, a lesson I’ve had to learn again and again: At the end of the day, everything that we want to accomplish as teachers is built on our relationships. It’s built on me saying to you, “I see you,” “I care about you,” “I care about what you care about and I’m going to make that a part of our class.”

I’m grateful to him for that, and I’m going to probably have to relearn that lesson a few more times. But the best incentive I’ve come up with is that one.

Ruben Brosbe is a teacher at P.S. 194 The Countee Cullen School in Harlem, where he will teach fifth grade next year.

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.