Memphis math teacher remembers ‘sticking out.’ It inspired him to teach with compassion

PHOTO: Neven Holland
Treadwell Elementary math teacher Neven Holland helps his fourth grade student with a problem.

Neven Holland was in third grade when his mother pulled him out of his Chicago elementary school and moved him to a school in the suburbs.

“I could tell the difference from square one,” he said, noting the suburban school’s nicer facilities and its focus on reading.

It was a “huge adjustment” for more reasons than one: He was the only black student in his class.

“I went from my very first school to just, kind of sticking out,” Holland explained.

He always knew he wanted to go into a profession where he could “help people.” But it wasn’t until two years into his counseling training program at the Chicago School of Psychology, that he first considered changing course.

With friends, he attended a ministry-led gathering in Memphis, where he learned about the city’s history and culture. One of the speakers there, the executive director of the Memphis Teacher Residency, discussed the challenges facing urban schools, such as unequal distribution of resources and achievement gaps among students of color.

“I started getting flashbacks from my childhood,” he said. “Like, ‘Oh, that’s why my mother decided to move me. That’s why it was so hard growing up … because she was trying to get me to a good school.’”

It was there in Memphis, Holland said, that a “light bulb went off.”

“At that moment, I felt a huge compassion for students not receiving an equitable education, and I started to see myself in the students as well,” he said.

In this installment of How I Teach, Chalkbeat spoke with Holland about what he’s learned since becoming a fourth grade math teacher at Treadwell Elementary four years ago. (This Q&A has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)

How do you get to know your students?

The best way for me to know my students is to be my authentic self on a daily basis. When I am honest with my kids, they will open up more about who they are, what they like, and what they dislike. I aim to ensure they feel safe to come to me for anything.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I enjoy real-life application with math and I push for that when I’m working with fractions or word problems. I want them to do more than just pass a test. [I want them to] learn how they could do the math for the same scenario 10 years from now.

Two years ago, I did a lesson with fractions that involved a holiday cookie recipe, where my kids had to compute real-life scenarios involving the measurements of cookie ingredients. It was several days before the holiday break. Students were able to eat the actual cookie and keep the recipe to share with their families. They loved it!

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

If it is not my coffee travel mug filled to the brim with hazelnut coffee, then I would say no objects would make me feel too helpless. I have taught with very little and in abundance with every technology working, so I know I would be able to quickly adjust for most situations.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

Abandoned property, housing segregation, and other socioeconomic struggles vary throughout the community. The further east you drive in Memphis, the landscape gets a little nicer and the schools look more like schools on the outside and inside.

I have learned throughout the years that my children have more grit than I ever could imagine for myself. In some cases, my students might not know when their next meal is coming, but still come eager to learn the algorithms of multi-digit multiplication. It’s my job to create a classroom experience that mirrors their tremendous worth as children.

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

One year I contacted a student’s mother about her struggles in mathematics. The student was on a kindergarten level entering fourth grade. After requesting a meeting with her mother, her mother lets me know that I’m the first teacher to let her know about her child’s academic struggle.

It changed my whole perspective on why family engagement is important. I realized I needed to grow in being diligent with reaching out to parents with the truth and accessible resources that could offer reinforcement. It’s false to assume that parents from urban neighborhoods are less invested than their suburban counterparts.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The most difficult part of my job is dealing with the politics of education. Education as a whole in this country is very test-driven, and often it really stunts teachers’ creativity. Schools that are struggling, or Title I schools, they really live off test scores and trying to improve. Sometimes it creates a stressful environment where schools have to get a certain score or certain letter grade. You’re always told that your job is on the line.

What was the biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

My biggest misconception was that I could fully master the expectations of a teacher. Teaching is hard. There is always growth for a teacher —  in year 1 or year 50, [when it comes to] routines, data collection, teaching practices, etc. I always aim to be better for my kids than the year before.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

This summer, I just finished reading “I’m Still Here” by Austin Channing Brown, [which is about the author navigating majority-white spaces and questioning what it means to be inclusive]. It is a book I highly recommend! I’m currently re-reading “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education” by Chris Emdin.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

The best advice I received about teaching was that if I don’t have classroom management, I won’t be able to teach them or survive. Classroom management for me is relationship-building and cracking jokes (sometimes funny) mixed with high expectations, consistency, and incentives. My kids know that I can laugh with them one day, but hold them accountable the next day. They appreciate and love that balance.

How this Indiana teacher helps hospitalized students transition back to school

PHOTO: FS Productions / Getty Images
Nurse talking to girl in hospital bed

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 the series here.

When Sara Midura meets her students, they’ve often just gone through a crisis.

As an educational liaison at Riley Hospital for Children, Midura is both a teacher and an educational advocate for patients in the Simon Skjodt Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Unit. She helps them keep up with schoolwork and transition back to school once their hospital stay is over.

“Many times, the students who come to us are either slipping through the cracks or seen as having huge ‘behavior issues,’” Midura said.

Her work includes easing the anxiety of a student returning to school; partnering with the family, school, and treatment team to make sure a student’s behavioral health needs can be met; and finding a “go-to person” at school who understands the student’s situation.

Midura, who was recently named one of the top 25 finalists for 2019 Indiana Teacher of the Year, talked to Chalkbeat about how she supports hospitalized children and how the lack of mental health resources in schools can affect students.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I decided to be a teacher in kindergarten — I loved my teacher and loved school, so it felt like a no-brainer to my 5-year-old self! I proceeded to force my friends to play school with me in my basement and made lesson plans during days that I stayed home sick. I toyed with other ideas for professions through my K-12 education, but solidified my desire to be a teacher as a camp counselor during my high school years.

How do you get to know your students?

Since I only have my students for a short period of time, I try to capitalize on the time I have with them by having them fill out a “school profile,” which really serves two purposes. Since the first time I meet the kiddos is almost always their first day on the unit following a crisis, I know that they are not functioning in their prefrontal cortex and are in crisis mode. They understandably are typically shut off, so the school profile is a great way for them to easily and safely let me get to know them a bit. It starts a good rapport, and I can always connect to something in there. Then each day I just make sure I check in with them, always reminding them that I am their advocate. We talk about school, life, and anything else. It can be easier to get to know them since they are in such a small group setting of up to 10 kids. This is my favorite part of the job!

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I am certified in Applied Educational Neuroscience (I took a nine-credit hour graduate course at Butler University with Lori Desautels), so I run a group on my unit every week called “Brain Club.” In this, I teach students about their brains, stress, emotions, and how the coping skills we teach them in their therapies and on the unit are truly brain regulation strategies. We talk about the different parts of the brain, which ones we function in where, our amygdala and fear, and so much else! The kids typically love brain club and are so engaged!

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

My iPad! Between playing music — I cannot work in silence! — looking up information to help students with their assignments, and using the different educational apps to fit all of my kids’ needs, I bring my iPad with me everywhere.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

Mental health resources, or the lack thereof in many districts, greatly impact what happens inside my classroom and on my unit. There are many schools that are so underfunded and lacking resources, leaving staff burnt out. In my mind, this creates and unsafe environment for my patients returning to school. My patients need a school staff that can understand mental/behavioral health.

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

The first really challenging case that I had was a few months into me working on the unit. We had a very high-achieving student who was going through some intensive setbacks, and the student’s dad was extremely concerned about school. I assured him that we would be able to “fix” everything with school and ensure that it went back to his expectation of normal, but that ended up not happening. This experience taught me that I cannot ever promise any outcome, but I can promise families that I will be with them each step of the way to ensure that education matches the treatment needs. This has changed my approach to speaking with families.

What part of your job is most difficult?

Navigating all of the different school systems and cultures during such a short hospitalization period can be very difficult when discussing behavioral health needs. I have my patients for about a week typically, so trying to provide enough support and education to patients, family, and school staff can be very challenging. I often feel like I don’t have the capability to serve schools as well as I would like to with supports! It is also difficult to not know how my students are doing after they are discharged — I wonder about them so often.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I’m not so sure that this was a misconception rather than an underestimation, but I really did not comprehend until I got into teaching how huge of a difference a teacher can make on a child’s life. Now what I know about the brain and mental health is that one positive, intensive relationship with a teacher can absolutely change the course of a student’s life — it’s amazing to watch.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

This is very nerdy of me, but I loved reading books that relate to behavioral health, so currently I am reading “Life Without Ed,” a book told from the perspective of someone who battled an eating disorder. I work with many kids with eating disorders, and it is such a terrible, heartbreaking disease that I greatly misunderstood before working on my unit.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

The best advice I received about teaching was to “fill your four circles consistently.” One of my amazing professors from Butler, Theresa Knipstein Meyer, gave a lecture one day about how crucial self-care is for educators. She showed us the theory of the four circles, where you have to consistently be taking care of different aspects of your health for the circles to be balanced and keep “your fire within” ignited. I think that it is so easy for educators to pour their entire hearts and souls into teaching only to get burnt out, and I have had to be conscious about taking care of every aspect of my life. This makes me a much better teacher and person, and I am so grateful to have learned that.

For this Detroit teacher, math is about teaching ‘what makes something true’

PHOTO: Michael Chrzan
Michael Chrzan teaching math during Math Corps, a summer program at Wayne State University.

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 the series here.

Asked what he teaches, Michael Chrzan says “mathematics.” Because in his classroom at Henry Ford Academy, a charter high school in Detroit, math is more than the calculations you need to tip a server or balance a budget. Chrzan, a third-year teacher, sees the abstract reasoning skills of mathematics — the proofs and deductions — as tools to help his students develop a firmer grasp on every aspect of their world.

This is just one of the ways he is unusual. A Teach for America alumnus, Chrzan also went through a traditional teacher training program in college. He is a African-American male math teacher in a country that produces far too few of them. And remember the Pokemon Go craze? He still plays.

Less than a week before Chrzan is to be honored as Teach for America’s teacher of the year in Detroit, Chalkbeat spoke with him about his dealings with parents, the toughest parts of his job, his social media habits, and how he finds  “greatness” in every student.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I’ve been teaching in some capacity — teaching or tutoring — since high school. I was a teaching assistant at a summer camp at Wayne State called Math Corps. I caught the bug for teaching there. I did that for three summers. I knew at some point in my life that I would get back into teaching. In college, I took a couple of computer science and math and education classes. And the computer science classes were fun, but I was like, this is just a hobby.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I taught geometry the last two years. It’s really a beautiful class because it’s the only class in high school where kids do the work of professional mathematicians. It’s the only class where they do proofs. So we get to have a really rigorous conversation about what makes something true, which is really important in our society right now.

Every year I pull in examples of deductive reasoning from outside of mathematics too.

One of the things I’m going to try this year is bringing in a Supreme Court decision and talking about the deductive reasoning that shows up there.

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

I had a conversation with a very young student’s mother who had the frame of mind that he was responsible for himself.

I was calling to talk about some issues that I’d seen on his homework, and just about getting it completed. That’s a really important part of the learning, that independent practice. And she was very much of the mindset that I needed to have that conversation with him, not her. It was not her job for him to get that done.

It changed how I discussed things with him because it got a much deeper understanding of what he has to deal with outside of these four walls.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The hardest part is motivating students. There are some students who have a really long history of messaging that they’ve gotten from schools, of the kind of person and students they are. I try to reverse that. You plant a seed when you’re the one teacher who’s telling them something different, but sometimes you don’t get to see that seed bloom in one year.

What was the biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

That I was ready for it. I did a lot of pre-professional teaching things. In college, I went to New York for two summers and taught in a program called Breakthrough. I did student teaching. I did Teach for America. I was like, I’ve got to be ready for this, I’ve got so much more experience than most people do when they enter the profession.

I was not ready. There’s is nothing that will prepare you for day in and day out being responsible for your kids’ learning.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

“Children of Blood and Bone,” by Tomi Adeyemi. It’s possibly one of my favorite books of all time. As a millennial, I’m very into social media. I will typically lull myself to sleep on Instagram. And I’ve gotten back into Pokemon Go.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

There are two. I can’t decide which I like better. The first would be, ‘don’t take anything personally.’ That really helped me understand that if I’m having a management issue with a kid, it may not have anything to do with me, that’s probably a kid who needs help. And that pairs up with assuming the best of my students. They came to class because they want to learn, and maybe something got in the way. I try to find their greatness, whether it’s math or otherwise. That’s a more human way to see students, and it opens them up to new things, like trying difficult mathematics.