How I Teach

Why this award-winning teacher starts the year eating lunch with her students

PHOTO: Courtesy of Katie Baker
Katie Baker leads her third-graders in a reading exercise.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Katie Baker was recently surprised with a $25,000 check — and some national attention as one of the top teachers across the nation.

The Chattanooga teacher was one of 33 educators honored this year with a 2016 award from the Milken Family Foundation — an honor that drew accolades from Tennessee’s top education official.

“At the end of the day, they love you and know you love them,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said of Baker’s students in Hamilton County Schools.

Getting that classroom environment right, though, takes a lot of work. We asked Baker to tell us more about how she gets to know her third-grade students at Battle Academy, a K-5 magnet school in downtown Chattanooga, and why she tries to start each year with a blank slate. (This Q&A has been edited and condensed.)

What’s a word or short phrase that describes your teaching style?

Calm. While that may not be how I feel about teaching all the time, that is a word I’ve heard others use to describe my teaching style.

What does your classroom look like?

The first thing you would notice is our large rug where we meet for whole group mini-lessons. I have a guided reading table in the back corner, and the students’ desks are arranged in table groups of 4-6. The goal of the rug and the table groups is to give students opportunities to work together.

I have my classroom set up to allow for as much independence as possible. If my students need something, I want them to be able to get it without having to wait on me. I have designated areas in the room where students know they can look for resources by subject.

How do you get to know your students? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

I eat lunch with my students for the first few days of school, and that gives me some time to get to know what they are like and what they are interested in outside of school. There isn’t a lot of time in the day other than lunch and recess for me to talk to my students and just get to know them.

I like to find out about their families, friends, interests and life outside of school. Forming this relationship early on really helps the sense of community in the classroom. I think it helps all of us feel more comfortable around each other so we can make the most of the time we are in the classroom.

I also greet my students at the door each day to tell them good morning individually, give them a compliment, or touch base with them on something I know is going on in their life. And I try to take some time at recess to talk with individual students if I know they’ve had something going on in their life or I notice a change in their behavior.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

It seems just about every year I have a parent or family member approach me to “warn” me about their child. I’ve had parents apologize to me, saying they are sorry that I have to have their child in my class that year. Sometimes parents will start off right away with a list of “problems” their child has had in the past with school or reasons that they feel he or she won’t be successful. “She’s a really low reader.” “He just can’t focus.” “He was in trouble a lot last year.”

I try to emphasize that this is a brand new year and how I am excited to get to know them more. I try to touch base with parents for positive reasons and to keep them updated on any changes I notice. As much as I can, I try to be proactive. For example, letting parents know that I noticed a low test grade for this student and my plans for reteaching that lesson with them or tips they can work on at home.

The first time this happened was before my very first year, on a day when the students got to come find out who their teacher was for that year. As a new teacher, this worried me and also made me sad that this student’s family had already placed such low expectations on him. I knew I would have to work hard to offset that. Since that interaction, I try to start every year with a blank slate concerning my students and to set my expectations high for everyone in my class.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I love reading books written by my favorite comedians and actresses like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Drew Barrymore and Mindy Kaling. I just finished “Scrappy Little Nobody” by Anna Kendrick.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

My dad likes to remind my brother and me how “everything is temporary.” He has said it so often that we usually just laugh and roll our eyes, but I have to admit, he is absolutely right. This helps me to be a better teacher because I remind myself that this school year is temporary. I only have a few months to do everything I can for my students before they are moving on to be someone else’s students.

On the harder days, this is comforting because I know it won’t be hard forever. On the good days, this helps me to relax and enjoy the moment.

boosting literacy

A new Memphis nonprofit sees training teachers in dyslexia therapy as key to closing literacy gap for all

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Memphis Delta Preparatory charter school is one of four schools working with ALLMemphis to develop stronger literacy curriculum.

A new nonprofit organization says educators must be better trained to recognize and teach students with learning disorders like dyslexia if they are to raise reading proficiency throughout Memphis.

Michelle Gaines and Krista L. Johnson founded ALLMemphis in June to boost overall reading comprehension and fill a gap they see in local classrooms — the lack of training for teachers in approaches proven to help students with dyslexia, a disorder from which many Memphis students are likely struggling.

The pair now work, for free, with about 500 students in four Memphis elementary charter schools and have trained 29 educators.

About one in five children in Tennessee are dyslexic, but until last year, early screenings weren’t required in local schools. Students with dyslexia have difficulty recognizing words and sounds and spelling, but can learn how to read with a specific multisensory approach that combines touch, sound and sight.

But even when the disorder is caught early, schools often don’t have the proper training or tools to address it. Gaines and Johnson say their organization can change that and even benefit students who aren’t dyslexic.

Specifically, ALLMemphis trains teachers in the Orton-Gillingham multi-sensory approach to reading that is common in dyslexia therapy but is rarely a part of public school curriculum in Tennessee.

“This approach is the gold standard when it comes to dyslexia therapy, but we believe it can benefit children’s reading ability regardless whether or not they are dyslexic,” Johnson said. “Our mission is to impact the third-grade reading crisis, and we believe this can do it.” 

PHOTO: Darius Williams
Krista L. Johnson

The latest data shows that two out of three Memphis third-graders aren’t reading on grade level. Shelby County Schools officials have set a goal of to have 90 percent of students reading on grade level by 2025.

ALLMemphis trained teachers and coaches in Orton-Gillingham over the summer and works with the educators throughout the year. Gaines and Johnson also work with individual students in the classrooms. The organization will be tracking student data throughout the year, and the initial results are encouraging.

While working for the Bodine School in Memphis, a private school that serves students with dyslexia, Gaines and Johnson piloted their teacher-training model at KIPP Memphis Collegiate Elementary for the last two years. They left Bodine to form ALLMemphis in June and brought on Megan Weinstein shortly after to oversee data evaluation.

Johnson said ALLMemphis will work with their current four schools for the next three years, with hopes of adding new schools every year. Eventually, the plan is to charge schools a minimal fee.

Gaines said the initial data after two years showed that KIPP students who worked with ALLMemphis showed more growth overall on MAP score data than their peers, especially in first and fourth grades.

PHOTO: Darius Williams
Michelle Gaines

“What’s so exciting is that the data shows this can work in an urban, whole-class setting,” Gaines said. “We know that as we grow, we want to continue offering supports that are relevant to teachers. We write and give teachers lesson plans and we work with coaches on assessments. The point is for our program to be an asset, not a burden.”

Catherine Norman, a teacher at KIPP Collegiate, said the training changed the way she thought about literacy and armed her with strong lesson plans, too.

“What I appreciate most about Orton-Gillingham is that it incorporates lots of different learning styles in one lesson,” Norman said. “The training is really expensive when a teacher does it on their own, but the fact they (ALLMemphis) have trained every K-3 teacher at our school is crazy in a good way. It makes me really excited because it provides a lot of opportunities that our kids wouldn’t get otherwise.”  

Schools currently working with ALLMemphis are KIPP Memphis Academy Elementary, Collegiate Elementary and Preparatory Elementary and Memphis Delta Preparatory.

teacher trap

America’s teachers don’t move out of state much. That could be bad for students.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

Certification rules can make moving to a new state a serious hassle for teachers.

That might explain a recent finding: Teachers are significantly less likely to move between states than others with similar jobs — and past research suggests that students suffer as a result.

The study, which uses national data from 2005 to 2015 and was released this week through the National Bureau of Economic Research, appears to be the first to document how frequently teachers move states compared to those in other occupations.

Teaching stands out: Relative to jobs requiring a similar level of education, teachers were 45 percent less likely to move to different state, but only 5 percent less likely to move a long distance within a given state. This suggests that teachers aren’t averse to moving — there are just strong incentives to not cross state lines.

That “may limit the ability of workers to move to take advantage of job opportunities,” the researchers write. That’s consistent with research on the Oregon–Washington border, where teachers were more likely to move long distances in their own state than shorter distances across the state line.

Winning permission to teach in a new state sometimes requires re-taking coursework and taking new certification exams. There may be good reasons for that — for instance, states that are particularly attractive to teachers may want to maintain especially high standards but it’s also a complicated process to navigate.

“Web-surfing became my life, through hard-to-navigate state department of education websites and portals that looked like something I had created back in my college sophomore computer science class in 1998,” wrote one teacher in a recent piece for Education Week, describing her efforts to meet new requirements after moving from Florida to Massachusetts.

This matters because the rules may keep teachers who move from re-entering the classroom altogether. A national survey found that among people who had left teaching but were considering re-entering the classroom, 40 percent identified “state certification reciprocity” as a key factor in their consideration.

That, in turn, affects students. One analysis has found that schools near state borders perform consistently worse on standardized tests — perhaps because certification and other rules limit the pool of potential teachers. Research has also shown that teachers perform best when they find a good “fit” with a school, and certification rules may make that harder.

Certification rules are not the only factor in play. Teachers’ decisions may also be influenced by retirement plans that aren’t easily portable and rules that would require them to give up seniority and tenure protections when they move.

It doesn’t have to work this way. The study finds that people in other professions, like medicine, are freer to move and have certifications that easily transfer between states. But the idea of a national “bar exam” for educators hasn’t ever gained traction.

A handful of states have agreed to accept one another’s certifications, and a provision in ESSA would allow federal money to go toward the efforts.

As for the teacher, Megan Allen, who struggled with Massachusetts’ rules — and had 10 years of experience and a National Board certification? She left public education as a result. “I didn’t feel like I was valued for any of the expertise that I had earned, worked hard for, and proved,” she wrote.