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.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

Man Up

With Man Up, a new Memphis teacher prep program is training, mentoring men of color

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Founder Patrick Washington discusses his program Man Up with current Relay Graduate School of Education participants. The program aims to partner with Relay to train more male teachers of color.

Patrick Washington has teaching in his blood.  

Washington’s great-great-grandfather, Richard Adkins, was born a slave in Marshall County, Mississippi. After the Civil War, Adkins, who was separated from his parents early on, worked as a sharecropper. Despite long hours picking cotton, he learned to read and write.

Soon after, Adkins taught other former slaves to do the same. He did so just years after anti-literacy laws, which forbade the education of slaves, were abolished. And he did so, Washington believes, because he imagined a better life for his children and grandchildren.

“He saw me,” Washington, a Memphis-based teacher and school administrator, said.

For Washington, 43, teaching is “the best profession on this side of heaven,” and it’s all he ever wanted to do. But he wishes more men of color saw the promise of a career in education. That’s why he’s partnering with Relay Graduate School of Education and Blue Mountain College on a new Memphis-based teacher preparation program called Man Up.

The goal: Train more men of color from various walks of life to become teachers in Memphis, and provide them with mentorship along the way.

According to a 2016 study by the U.S. Department of Education, black males make up just two percent of the teaching workforce nationwide. Statewide, that number is nearly the same, and in Shelby County Schools, men of color make up about 9.5 percent of teachers.

That lack of classroom representation, Washington believes, is often internalized by male students of color.

“That’s why they raise their hand and say, ‘Hey, I want to play basketball; I want to be a rapper; I want to be a policeman,’” Washington said. “Because that’s what they see.”

He said some are also dissuaded because they perceive teaching as a low-paid, low-status career.

Two years into his first teaching job at Memphis’ Evans Elementary, Washington was the school’s only teacher of color. And, over the next ten years, as Washington took on administrative roles at two other area schools, he noticed a pattern: There were few black male teachers, if there were any at all.

Those experiences, he said, were socially isolating. He also said that at schools that disproportionately discipline black male students, male teachers of color often find themselves in the role of disciplinarian. He said that here in Memphis, single mothers of boys have come to him, seeking behavioral support because they see him as a “father figure.”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Man Up currently has seven cohort members for its Graduate Lane, and is seeking three more applicants.

Were schools to employ more teachers of color, they would be less likely to enact the kind of zero-tolerance disciplinary policies that have often fallen on Washington to enforce, he said. A study from the Center for Education Data & Research seems to support that theory; it found that students were 46 percent more likely to be seen as disruptive by a teacher of another race.

Man Up seeks to help diversify the teaching force by providing accepted applicants with a fully funded teacher preparation program, thanks to grants and philanthropic dollars. In exchange for free training, participants agree to spend at least five years teaching. In addition to their salaries, they receive annual $5,000 stipends.

The program, he said, will eventually have five different tracks to help men of color obtain teaching licenses. Those so-called “lanes” are:  

The Graduate Lane: For recent college graduates, this program enables trainees, studying towards their master’s degree in education, to teach alongside a mentor teacher over a two-year period.

The Undergraduate Lane: Man Up is currently exploring a partnership with the University of Memphis, where the program would identify aspiring teachers among undergraduate students and provide them tuition assistance to complete their licensing requirements, alongside their degrees.

The High School Lane: This track would identify high school juniors and seniors with an interest in becoming teachers. It will pair them with non-profit organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, with the goal of helping them develop mentoring skills. They would also attend monthly seminars, similar to introductory education courses, and they would get hands-on practice in the classroom. After enrolling in a partnering college or university, students would move up to the Undergraduate Lane and graduate with up to six years of classroom experience.

The Teach 2nd Lane: This track would be for career changers — specifically retired servicemen or businessmen. They would attend a five-week boot camp, enroll in a partnering college or university, and take part in monthly Man Up sessions while gaining classroom teaching experience over the course of two school years.

The REVERSE Lane: In an effort to reverse the school-to-prison pipeline, Man Up hopes to partner with local Departments of Correction to identify men with expungeable misdemeanor offenses who aspire to teach. These students would enroll at a partnering college or university, where they would be required to attend monthly Man Up sessions, teaching labs, and a summer intensive course before receiving a teaching license.

The only track currently on offer is the Graduate Lane, which currently has three open slots for its ten-member cohort. So far, seven recent college graduates have begun summer training sessions at Freedom Preparatory Academy in Memphis, where they will work with Washington and Relay staff to complete a two-year curriculum.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
David Tillman, right, is a current Man Up participant.

Washington said he intends to expand graduate cohorts by five each year, reaching his goal of training 30 new male teachers of color annually by 2023. By the fall of 2019, Washington plans to roll out the next four tracks in concert with nearby colleges.

David Tillman, who recently graduated with a degree in exercise science  from the University of Memphis, is among the current graduate cohort. He first heard about Man-Up after asking about a teaching position at Promise Academy, a local charter school that was founded by Washington.

Tillman, whose mother is a retired teacher, said he was drawn to teaching because “I understood the struggles of the students, especially students of color in the school systems, and I wanted to find a way to give back.” He remembered how one of his middle school teachers, a black man, saw that a young Tillman had potential but was “hanging out with the wrong crowd.” The teacher, who was also Tillman’s football coach, used to remind Tillman that he was a leader.  

“He actually believed in me,” he said. “He spent a lot of one-on-one time with me, and that meant a lot to me, because I grew up without a father. So, he was that male, father-figure role model for me.”

Tilllman now wants to be that kind of mentor to Memphis students.

“Boys can see that, yes, it is ‘cool’ to be a teacher,” he said.

Alongside their graduate coursework from Relay, Tillman and his fellow trainees will spend two years co-teaching small groups of students and will meet monthly with Washington, who will provide supplementary training in areas such as reflection and feedback, results-driven teaching, and empathy and compassion.

Current Man Up participants are expected to mentor students or color, to identify practices to improve black male academic success, and to develop lessons for special needs learners.

While completing their training, Man Up graduates will be paired with a mentor, who is a male educator of color, which will continue as they begin full-time teaching. 

“With two percent of the classroom population,” Washington said, referring to the percentage of black male educators, “we have a collective responsibility to each other, we have a collective responsibility to our country, we have a collective responsibility to our communities, and we have a collective responsibility to our kids. This is something that we must do.”