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.

Detroit week in review

Week in review: The state’s year-round scramble to fill teaching jobs

PHOTO: DPSCD
Miss Michigan Heather Heather Kendrick spent the day with students at the Charles H. Wright Academy of Arts and Science in Detroit

While much of the media attention has been focused this year on the severe teacher shortage in the main Detroit district, our story this week looks at how district and charter schools throughout the region are now scrambling year-round to fill vacant teaching jobs — an instability driven by liberal school choice laws, a decentralized school system and a shrinking pool of available teachers.

The teacher shortage has also made it difficult for schools to find substitutes as many are filling in on long-term assignments while schools try to fill vacancies. Two bills proposed in a state senate committee would make it easier for schools to hire retirees and reduce the requirements for certifying subs.  

Also, don’t forget to reserve your seat for Wednesday’s State of the Schools address. The event will be one of the first times in recent years when the leader of the city’s main district — Nikolai Vitti — will appear on the same stage as the leaders of the city’s two largest charter school authorizers. For those who can’t make it, we will carry it live on Chalkbeat Detroit.

Have a good week!

– Julie Topping, Editor, Chalkbeat Detroit

STATE OF THE SCHOOLS: The State of the Schools address will pair Vitti with the leaders of the schools he’s publicly vowed to put out of business, even as schools advocates say city kids could benefit if the leaders of the city’s fractured school system worked together to solve common problems.

LOOKING FOR TEACHERS: The city’s teacher shortage mirrors similar challenges across the country but the problem in Detroit is exacerbated by liberal school choice policies that have forced schools to compete with each other for students and teachers.

Hiring efforts continue at Detroit’s main school district, which is planning another job fair. Head Start centers are also looking for teachers. Three new teachers talk about the challenges, rewards and obstacles of the classroom.

WHOSE MONEY IS IT? The state Senate sent a bill to the House that would allow charters to receive a portion of property tax hikes approved by voters. Those funds have historically gone only to traditional district schools.

UNITED THEY STAND: Teachers in this southwest Detroit charter school voted to join a union, but nationally, union membership for teachers has been falling for two decades.

COLLEGE AND CAREERS: A national foundation based in Michigan granted $450,000 to a major Detroit business coalition to help more students finish college.

High school seniors across the state will be encouraged to apply to at least one college this month. The main Detroit district meanwhile showed off a technical center that prepares youngsters and adults for careers in construction, plumbing and carpentry and other fields.  

STEPS TO IMPROVEMENT: A prominent news publisher explains why he told lawmakers he believes eliminating the state board of education is the right thing to do. An advocate urged Michigan to look to other states for K-12 solutions. And one local newspaper says the governor is on the right track to improving education in Michigan.

This think tank believes businesses should be more engaged in education debates.

LISTEN TO US: The newly elected president of a state teachers union says teachers just want to be heard when policy is being made. She wrote in a Detroit newspaper that it takes passion and determination to succeed in today’s classrooms.

A PIONEER: Funeral services for a trailblazing African American educator have been scheduled for Saturday.

Also, the mother-in-law of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, died in her west Michigan home.

FARM-TO-SCHOOL:  A state program that provides extra money to school districts for locally grown produce has expanded to include more schools.

BETTER THAN AN APPLE: Nominate your favorite educator for Michigan Teacher of the Year before the 11:59 deadline tonight.

An Ann Arbor schools leader has been named the 2018 Michigan Superintendent of the Year by a state group of school administrators.

MYSTERY SMELL: The odor from a failed light bulb forced a Detroit high school to dismiss students early this week.

EXTRA CREDIT: Miss Michigan encouraged students at one Detroit school to consider the arts as they follow their dreams. The city schools foundation honored two philanthropic leaders as champions for education.

And high school students were inspired by a former college football player. 

Struggling Detroit schools

The list of promises is long: Arts, music, robotics, gifted programs and more. Will Detroit schools be able to deliver?

PHOTO: Detroit Public Television
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti answers questions at a community meeting in Detroit.

Arts. Music. Robotics. Programs for gifted kids. New computers. New textbooks. Dual enrollment programs that let high school students take college classes. International Baccalaureate. Advanced Placement.

They’re all on the list of things that Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a group of community members assembled in a Brightmoor neighborhood church that he would introduce or expand as soon as next school year.

Vitti didn’t get into the specifics of how the main Detroit district would find the money or partnerships needed to deliver on all of those promises, but they’re part of the plan for the future, he said.

The comments came in a question and answer session last month with students, parents and community members following Vitti’s appearance on Detroit Public Television’s American Black Journal/One Detroit Roadshow. The discussion was recorded at City Covenant Church. DPTV is one of Chalkbeat’s partners in the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.

Vitti has been appearing at community events since taking over the Detroit schools last spring. He is scheduled next week to join officials from two of the city’s major charter school authorizers, Central Michigan University and Grand Valley State University, at a State of the Schools address on October 25.

 

Watch the full Q&A with Vitti below.