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 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.