How I Teach

Tupac, Shakespeare, and ‘Stranger Things’: How a top Tennessee teacher relates to her students

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Katherine Watkins was one of 45 educators — and one of two Tennessee teachers — honored nationally in 2017 by the the Milken Family Foundation.

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.

When Katherine Watkins found out she would receive a prestigious national teaching award, her students at Millington Central High wrapped her into a huge bear hug.

“We relate to her because she relates to us,” one of her students said when asked why they enjoyed her class. Watkins was honored as a Milken Educator Award last November in front of her students, colleagues and Tennessee’s top education official.

Watkins was one of 45 educators — and one of two Tennessee teachers — honored nationally in 2017 by the Milken Family Foundation.

We asked Watkins about how she strives for relatability in her classrooms, where she teaches literature, English and coordinates the school’s yearbooks. Millington Central High is racially diverse and made up of about thousand students, one-third of which are described as economically disadvantaged.

Read in her own words how she uses pop culture to build classroom rapport and how she learned not to get flustered when her students got off track. (This Q&A has been edited and condensed.)

What does your classroom look like?

My classroom is full of books, images, and objects I’ve collected from my travels. These include a handmade Venetian mask I brought back from Italy, pictures I took while standing in front of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and a twelve-volume, leather-bound edition of the complete works of William Shakespeare that was published in London in 1786

Some people might say I’ve lost my mind to keep such precious relics within reach of teenagers, but I interpret the “value” of these treasures somewhat differently. I want desperately for my students to know and care about the world that exists beyond their immediate reality, and sometimes the best way to achieve that is through tactile experience. I’m trying to cultivate independent thinkers who have the confidence to test limits, ask tough questions, and arrive at their own conclusions. That can’t happen without direct confrontation with the unfamiliar, and until I can afford to actually take them to the places we read about in the literature we study, my souvenirs will have to suffice.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

I could not teach without my close-knit group of teacher friends. This is only my third year at my current school, but everyone was so warm and welcoming when I arrived that it really felt like coming home. We even have a group chat we use every day to share funny memes, vent about our frustrations, offer words of encouragement, and talk through ideas. Feeling like you can be yourself around friends in a judgment-free zone makes all the difference when it comes to a high-stress job like teaching.  Without that kind of solidarity, I know I wouldn’t be nearly as resilient or effective in the classroom.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?

I used to get visibly flustered if students were talking or off task during the lesson. It took me a couple years in the classroom to realize that getting upset is the least effective way to deal with this problem. Many students misbehave because they crave attention, so getting upset is the same as relinquishing control. Nowadays, I vary my approach depending on the severity and intent of the disruption, but regardless of the situation, I never lose my cool.

I have the most success defusing behavioral disruptions through the use of nonverbal cues, which can be as simple as changing my position in the room. For example, if a cluster of students is off task while I’m addressing the whole group, I continue lecturing and simply move to where the problem is occurring and the behavior stops. I’ve also become a sort of Jedi master at the don’t-you-even-think-about-it stare of disapproval. The right look delivered at the right moment can work wonders for classroom management. 

PHOTO: Katherine Watkins
Watkins said she starts each year by giving her kids a questionnaire that asks about their interests, hobbies, attitudes, and past experiences.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

Before my first day at Millington Central High, I had little idea what to expect of my new school and its students. I had driven through Millington a time or two on my way to other destinations, but that was the extent of my familiarity with this community. During my initial interview, I was briefed on school demographics: Millington is ethnically diverse with a high percentage of economic disadvantage, a large SPED population, and nearly a quarter of students coming from single-parent households. It would be a lie to say I never questioned whether the school would be the right fit for me. I worried about my ability to make a connection. Would my students accept me? Would I be able to make a difference in their lives?

I always start each year by giving my kids a questionnaire that asks about their interests, hobbies, attitudes, and past experiences. I use this information to get to know students and begin establishing a rapport. Left to my own devices, for example, I would never be motivated to keep up with pop culture trends, but if a large number of my students are listening to a particular artist or watching a specific TV show (Stranger Things anybody?), I make a point of consuming the same media so I can connect with them over more than just academic content. This extra effort on my part—cultural research, if you will—has worked wonders with the kids at Millington. The look of shock on their faces when they realize I can quote lines from Hamlet as readily as the lyrics to any 2Pac song is priceless.

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

Knowing what’s going on in a student’s home life is a crucial part of being a good teacher, and I always try to consider the bigger picture when difficult situations arise. I have had students come forward with stories of abuse, students who have experienced the death of a parent, and students who are basically raising their younger siblings because Mom works three jobs and Dad isn’t around. A student who arrives to school late and sleeps through first period could just be lazy, but it would be callous and irresponsible to punish the child without first having a conversation to find out what’s causing the behavior. We can’t forget that kids are human beings too, some of whom are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. Teaching has made me realize that you can never really know what someone else is going through until you make the effort to understand. This is why it’s so important to reserve judgment and approach students with patience and compassion.

How I Teach

Why this Memphis history teacher seeks to create a ‘calming slice of Africa’ in his classroom

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Torian Black, 30, teaches African-American history at Freedom Preparatory Academy in Memphis.

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.

Torian Black felt excluded as he grew up in Memphis City Schools, and he hopes he can help his students of color feel better about themselves and their school than he did.

Black, 30, teaches African-American history at Freedom Preparatory Academy in Memphis, a high school run by one of  Memphis’ highest performing charter organizations. He grew up in Memphis City Schools and graduated from White Station High School, but Black says he doesn’t look back on that time fondly.

“My experience as an African-American male student being educated at White Station High School was one filled with prejudice, uneasiness, and an experience in which I had to seek refuge,” Black said.

“It was an experience in which I was always ‘the other’ in the classroom and was never intentionally brought into an inclusive space,” he said.

Black wants to give his students a much different experience than he had in high school. The majority of students at Freedom Prep are students of color.

We spoke with Black about how he incorporates African history into his classroom — complete with instruments and tapestries — and why the Black Power movement is his favorite lesson to teach. (This Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Why did you become a teacher?

My experience at Howard University, a historically black university, taught me who I was and what I should have been taught at a much younger age. It was an experience in finding my own identity through education. I wanted to be sure students who looked like me would not only receive an experience free of the ailments I experienced growing up, but would also receive a transformational experience that would positively impact their lives for generations.

What does your classroom look like?

I sought to create a calming slice of Africa in my classroom. There are African instruments, plants, and tapestries of African fabrics adorning my room.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Black incorporates African instruments, plants, and tapestries into his classroom.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

There is a unit I teach that solely focuses on the Black Power movement. I walk students through where the Black Panther symbol came from: the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Mississippi, which fought for black political rights in 1966. We discuss the rise of the Black Panther party in California in the 1960s and how it connects to the civil rights movement.

This is definitely the most anticipated unit among students. All too often, we are looked at as second-class citizens. The perspective that matters most in life is how we see ourselves.

A survey I conducted at the beginning of the year revealed that our students still think of themselves as inferior in many ways. The “doll test” conducted by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark identified this feeling in African-American children more than 50 years ago. Unfortunately, not much has changed today in the way black and brown children think. When students learn and see people like them serving as examples of strength and self-determination, they see what they can do themselves.

How do you get your class’ attention if students are talking or off task?

I sought to recreate aspects of Africa in my classroom. So, I often use music from African instruments in a call-and-response fashion to get their attention. Djembes, shekeres, and thumb pianos are some of the instruments I use.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Black started teaching at Freedom Prep five years ago.

Every interaction with a student is an opportunity to build a stronger relationship. First, it’s important to establish a strong warm, strict classroom culture that is positive, urgent and requires critical thought. It’s important that students see who we are as people. I include stories of my childhood, pictures of my family, and examples of the mistakes I have made throughout life in my lessons.

For teachers, building relationships with a group of students comes first.  Then, all downtime activities — transitions, lunchtime, or after school— are perfect times to build stronger individual relationships by just asking questions you would ask of anyone you would genuinely like to connect with,  know, and understand.

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

Recently, a parent of a student I teach informed me that they chose Freedom Prep high school because of me. She said she heard of my reputation for infusing love and joy in my lessons, she heard of my desire and commitment for students to love themselves and their identity, and she trusted my ability to grow her child academically. This parent already was looking into Freedom Prep, but once she heard of what I brought to the table, that’s when she made her decision. To entrust another person to educate your child is a weight as heavy as the mountains because the educator has a strong hand in shaping each child’s path to their destiny. To know that I had that impact on even one parent meant that my work, the long hours, and the stress are worth it and I am walking in my purpose.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

“Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet” by Ta-Nehisi Coates as well as “The Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple of America.”

How I Teach

This Colorado teacher admitted she didn’t know all the answers – and students responded

PHOTO: Hero Images | Getty Images
Girl using laptop in classroom.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

When a new student arrived in her class at Cherry Creek High School, computer science teacher Jocelyn Nguyen-Reed tried hard to make her feel welcome and supported. But as the year wore on, the girl withdrew and Nguyen-Reed began to wonder if her overtures were making any difference.

That spring, she discovered what a big impression her efforts had made when the student’s father called to ask for advice on how to help his daughter. The teen, he said, believed Nguyen-Reed could help her with anything.

Nguyen-Reed talked to Chalkbeat about what she realized after that phone call, how she discovered her passion for teaching, and why she tells students she doesn’t know all the answers.

Nguyen-Reed is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

The summer before my junior year in college, after a having tough year and burning out in my pre-med track, I took a summer position as a camp counselor in a two-week STEM program for high school students. As a part of the job, I was the teaching assistant for a chemistry class. I was so nervous while I was setting up the first lab. I kept running all the different scenarios in my head trying to make sure it wouldn’t be a complete disaster! To my delight, the first lab was a great success and the “high” I felt following the first day on the job made me I realize how passionate I was about teaching and education. The camp was the first time in a long time that I had been so excited to get up in the morning to do something.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?
I think the biggest misconception was that I had to be the expert at everything all the time. My first year teaching, I had been assigned to teach two levels of computer science when I had very limited computer science background. I prepared as much as I could over the summer, but was terrified coming into the year because I knew students would ask me questions I wouldn’t be able to answer.

I decided to be upfront with them and invite them to ask questions, but to allow me room to find out what they needed when I did know the answers. It turned out they appreciated this approach more than I expected. The unexpected perk was that students were more empowered to try to figure out the answers and we often worked as a team to get to the bottom of whatever problems they encountered. It taught me the importance of authenticity in teaching and that modeling the learning process is extremely valuable..

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
One of the more fun lessons I teach is sorting algorithms in my AP Computer Science course. An algorithm in computer science is simply a step-by-step process for solving a problem. In our everyday life, sorting is one that comes up all the time — sorting your phone contacts by name or sorting your search results by relevance. In this lesson, we explore ways to sort data quickly and efficiently.

I usually start with a silly story that then poses the problem of sorting some set of papers or punch cards. I might talk about how programmers once programmed on punch cards, so tasks that are simple to code today took many, many punch cards to code in the past. “Imagine you had a stack of 1,000 punch cards,” I might say to my students. “But then you trip on the steps, and they are everywhere! … Now what?” Students start by brainstorming their own ideas for how to sort them. I then focus on just a few and use students in my class as “lists to sort” to demonstrate each one. Students usually enjoy the interactivity of the lesson.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I will usually try to tackle this in two ways: I’ll use his or her peers to help or arrange personal one-on-one help. My students usually have a table partner with whom they have ample opportunities to work. I usually remind them that no matter the task, their jobs are two-fold. First, make sure they understand the concepts. If not, then their job is to ask questions (of their peers or me). Second, make sure their partners understand the concepts. If they don’t, their job is to explain the concepts to them. If a student is still struggling, I’ll reach out and try to make a plan/time with them to make sure they get caught up.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
At the start of the year, I ask students about their strengths, weaknesses, needs, interests, and the things about which they are excited or worried. During the year, I periodically ask them to write to me how they are, what’s going well, what’s not going well, and what they need from me. I always enjoy getting to read what they write and responding to each one. It is especially nice to hear from those who are more shy or quiet in class. Otherwise, I just try to meet students with a smile and ask them about what’s happening in their lives each day, or follow up about something they told me some other time.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
In my first couple years teaching, I felt the need to be everything to everyone all the time, and I worked countless hours trying to make my lessons as engaging as possible. I had a student who was new to the community at the start of the year, and I made extra effort to make her comfortable. As the year continued, I noticed that she started to change -— her image, her attitude, etc. I had a good relationship with her, but she seemed to withdraw a little bit and I wasn’t really sure how to help her. I gathered that her home life was stressful, so I continued to be kind to her and let her know I was there for her.

I received a surprise phone call that spring that really changed my perspective on the effort I was putting into my job everyday. It was her dad asking me for input on how to help his daughter. “She seems to believe that you can help her with just about anything,” he said in his voicemail. From that moment on, I realized that my efforts to care for my students will never be wasted, and no matter how tired or overwhelmed I feel, care and kindness will always be worth it.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
Currently, I’m working my way through “The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession” by Dana Goldstein. I am only about 10 pages in, but I’m enjoying it so far!

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Take everything one step at a time. I have a tendency to take on a lot at once. I have high expectations for myself, so I can overwhelm myself easily. It is a nice reminder that not everything has to get done NOW. Some of it can wait, and even just doing a little at a time can go a long way.