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.

Belittled as a child, this Memphis teacher sets a high bar for her students

PHOTO: Ginny Terrell
Ginny Terrell poses with her Aspire Hanley third-graders. Terrell has been teaching for four years and will move to Aspire East in the fall.

Some 20 years ago, Ginny Terrell’s third grade math teacher called her “stupid.” Now, Terrell laughs as she names her current position: a third grade math teacher.

“I was that kid in school that everybody was like, ‘What’s wrong with her?’” said Terrell who has been teaching at the local charter Aspire Hanley for four years and will teach at Aspire East in the fall.

Terrell was held back in kindergarten and struggled from there on. Luckily, she had teachers that stayed with her after hours to give her the support that she didn’t have at home. At that moment, she knew she wanted to be like them.

PHOTO: Ginny Terrell
Ginny Terrell and her Aspire Hanley students.

As middle and high school loomed, Terrell told herself she had two options: sink or swim. So she worked hard — often twice as hard as her classmates, she said — and eventually enrolled in the University of North Texas in her home state.

During college, which took her seven years to complete, Terrell spent time in New Orleans doing service projects, where she often interacted with local youth. Then, she interned at a Title I school, where she noticed that her fellow teachers were unprepared to handle disciplinary issues, and that the “kids weren’t getting what they needed.” (Title I schools, eligible for certain federal funding grants, enroll a high percentage of students from low-income families.)

“I felt like it was the blind leading the blind,” she said.

That work, Terrell said, prepared her for a career in urban education. After graduation, she signed up for Memphis Teacher Residency, an alternative teacher licensing program that places college graduates at urban schools.

“They endure more than I could ever dream of,” she said of her students, 88 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. “… I can relate a lot to their home lives, their struggling in school and their not wanting to even be there.”

In this installment of How I Teach, Chalkbeat spoke with Terrell about why her decision to teach in urban schools was such a personal one. (This Q&A has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)

How do you get to know your students?

I get to know my students by really utilizing my first month of school. I really try to use every moment and every conversation to truly understand each of my students. I give them a little survey that is like a Facebook page on paper the second day they are at school. I send home a survey [for parents to fill out] about his or her child and that helps me know even more. I spend time talking with them at lunch, recess, and moments during instruction. I try to observe how they respond to my questions, how they respond to hard situations, how they respond to their peers and how they handle learning. I use morning meeting time to know each of my students by playing getting-to-know-you games and simply letting them do a show and tell.

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

For a lesson on perimeter and area, our class took a little trip to the playground.They counted blocks and other items around the playground and added them up to get the perimeter. My students tried teaching each other and asked questions during the lesson on the playground. They told me at the end of the year that was their favorite lesson because they could understand it. This idea came from reading a book “Becoming the Math Teacher You Wished You’d Had: Ideas and Strategies from Vibrant Classrooms,” by Tracy Johnston Zager. In the book it discusses the importance of including real life examples students can relate to in math and gave multiple examples in other classrooms. I thought that we should use the playground, which will stick with them because they use it every day and they love it!

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

An object I would be helpless without during the school day would be our clip system [moved up and down to track student behavior]! They could see where they were at behaviorally and how they can improve at every moment of the day. I could not live without a behavior system in my classroom. It is the basis of giving students structure and consistency. If you do not have a behavior system that is a well-oiled machine, you will not be able to get to your instruction and plan the engaging lessons. The culture you set, from day one, will drive your classroom.

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

Something that is happening in the community that affects my classroom is the crime rate. I have heard students coming in telling me they could not sleep because of the gunshots or abuse in their homes. Some of the crime happened on our [school] property between parents. This [hurts] student’s ability to focus, and [discourages] parents from coming to the school or even being involved. Students will start following what they see in their community, [so it] is hard for them to learn how to treat their peers or even teachers in a different way.

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

One of my students had a hard time functioning in my classroom. She could not really get along with peers and was sad a lot of the time. I reached out to the mom and discussed what was going on with her. Mom shared with me her life story and what has been going on at home. She wasn’t at all playing a victim or making excuses for her child. She instead asked me for help and support. We prayed for each other and I built a beautiful relationship with that family. It is so easy in the heat of the moment to snap or get angry with a student if he or she is not following directions. It showed me to seek to understand first, then take action. I could have done a lot more damage to the student in the classroom if I did not seek to understand. From that point on, I always make sure I take a step back and understand the situation instead of snap judgements. It taught how I can love each student in the way that will benefit them as future contributors to our society.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The most difficult part of my job would be not having enough parent involvement. There will be some parents that were very involved and supported the best they can in and outside the classroom. However, it has been difficult for some parents due to working three different jobs, not having enough resources or just not having the mental capacity to support. I cherish their thoughts and their support, so not having that [makes it] difficult to hold my students accountable outside the classroom.

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

I thought I had to dumb down my lessons so other students can learn. It is actually the opposite; having high expectations, students can reach the bar you set. I think I viewed my students as “low” academically, but they are not. Maybe they’re behind, but never low. They are so smart and can do anything you ask. It might take some time and you have to go back, but they are able and more than ready.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

“Nothing to Prove” by Jennie Allen and “Hope Heals” by Katherine Wolf and Jay Wolf

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

If you think you have arrived in teaching, you need to retire.

Detroit math teacher tends a greenhouse, welcomes parents into her classroom

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Marquita Reese, a math teacher at Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men, works with students to cook vegetables grown in the school's greenhouse.

How do teachers captivate their students? Welcome to How I Teach, a feature in which we ask great Detroit educators how they approach their jobs. Have a recommendation of someone we should profile? Write us at

Marquita Reese defies a traditional job title. At the Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men, an all-boys high school on Detroit’s east side, where she has taught for more than two decades, she is a chef, a gardener, and a meditation leader. Oh, and she teaches math.

Reese headed up an effort to build a greenhouse at Douglass, funded with federal grant dollars. Vegetables grown on the campus are used in cafeterias across Detroit’s main district. When it started in 2016, the program was lauded by Sen. Debbie Stabenow for simultaneously feeding children and teaching about science and nutrition.

Reese spoke with Chalkbeat about the garden, being a woman in the hard sciences, and welcoming parents into her classroom.

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

I graduated from Wilberforce University [in Ohio] with a degree in clinical psychology, but being a psychologist didn’t work out. Wanting to maintain a strong math and science grasp, I enrolled in the school of education at Wayne State, majoring in mathematics and sciences.

I said I’ll do math and science, not really considering that those are two of the most challenging areas of study.

I didn’t realize in retrospect that I was one of the few or only females that had a math and science background in the district. I would go into some meetings and would be one of the only females.

How do you get to know your students?

Students are given a survey and are required to write a short paper about themselves.  They must speak to their expectations and provide some insight about their goals for the present and for five years from now.  This year I included a three-minute meditation in the morning every day. Doing that at the beginning kind of relaxes the setting, and starts to build that trust between you and your students.

You run a greenhouse and garden on the grounds of Douglass Academy, and you also teach lessons about cooking. Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach your students about the garden. Where did the idea come from?

An activity I do before my students set foot in the garden is called colors of the rainbow. You take the colors of the rainbow, but you extend it, so I do teal, tan, indigo. For each color, they have to provide a fruit or vegetable that can be grown in Michigan and they have research their nutritional benefits.

In what region of Michigan can it be grown? When can it be grown, and at what temperature? They present it to the class, and they also have to do a PowerPoint. Then we we go for seed selections or transplants, they understand that some plants can’t be put in the ground at certain times. One year, we actually discovered that we can grow oranges in Michigan.

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

One of the things I felt very passionately about this year was changing the narrative society is putting out, especially looking at melanated young men. I was worried about these young men, their self worth, their self esteem, so I just opened up to them, told them how I’m feeling, and they expressed their views.

It was an emotional time for us all. Being melanated people, we don’t have a good idea of where our ancestors are from, so some of our dialogue is about that. We talk about what we don’t know and what we do know about African cultures.

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

Myself and an English teacher put together a parent group and a student group with all the parents’ email addresses. We’d send a message each time something happened in the classroom, homework or anything else, to the parents and the students.

Then I started getting notes from parents. They said ‘Hey, can we do this too?’

They’d text me like, ‘Hey, I don’t get this.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, you can come in and take notes, try to figure it out.’

It became an open door.

It was the SAT year, so they knew the importance of the child understanding the material. They never said, ‘It’s because I want to learn.’ They wanted to make sure that when their child came to them, they understood how to help their child.

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

I thought that the students and families that entrusted their kids to me had the same ideologies, learning style, and background as myself. For some, their exposure and educational experience or support was nothing like mine, so I had to refocus and adjust my teaching style and methods.

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

To be hard, consistent, and fair. As the students learn something new, so should I every day.