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.