Alyssa Nucaro knows the difficulties of teaching students in an impoverished neighborhood with her limited resources, but she also knows getting to know her students can go a long way toward improving their academic achievement.

Nucaro teaches seventh grade at Wooddale Middle School in Memphis. She said students often come into her classroom with trauma resulting from gang violence, shootings, and theft in their neighborhoods.

“It takes me anywhere from weeks to months to gain a student’s respect and trust,” Nucaro said.

This is why one of Nucaro’s favorite lessons focus on taking her students out of their surroundings — virtually. They study a commencement speech from Apple founder Steve Jobs and she tells them to imagine that they are there as he speaks.

“It is also a great way to introduce college/graduation ideas to students, in addition to teaching students about perseverance and exploring new ideas, even if those ideas seem impossible at first,” she said.

Nucaro spoke with Chalkbeat about why she became a teacher, what summer break is actually like for educators, and why she always starts parent conversations “with the positives.” She was one of five Memphis educators selected by nonprofit New Memphis for its second class of the Educators of Excellence Awards, which honors nominated teachers in some of Memphis’ highest-needs schools with a prize of $1,500.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

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

When I was attending Rhodes College, we needed to complete community service hours in order to graduate. I decided to start tutoring at one of the neighborhood schools and looked forward to going every week. I remember sitting in one of my neuroscience labs and contemplating if I could do this type of work for the rest of my life. At the same time, I was wishing I could be in my tutoring classroom helping some of my students, there was more important work to be done. It was at that moment that I realized, I wanted to be a teacher.

How do you get to know your students?

I believe the most genuine way to get to know students is through conversation. I begin by finding out their likes and dislikes, as well as their strengths and weaknesses. But most importantly, I empathize and am patient with each one of them. I find out about them individually to better understand them and meet their needs.

PHOTO: New Memphis
Alyssa Nucaro

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

My favorite lesson to teach is a close reading of a commencement address given by Steve Jobs. In the lesson, we talk about themes seen throughout the speech and how to apply these themes to life. It is also a great way to introduce college/graduation ideas to students, in addition to teaching students about perseverance and exploring new ideas, even if those ideas seem impossible at first.

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

I would be absolutely helpless without a dry erase marker throughout the day.

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

The neighborhood where I work experiences high crime and violence on a daily basis. Students come into the classroom with trauma and emotional deficits from being engulfed in an environment where gangs, shootings, and theft are prevalent. With that being said, it takes me anywhere from weeks to months to gain a student’s respect and trust. As a teacher, I can see the uneasiness and nervousness with almost all of my students daily, the worst part being that students are not even aware that these experiences are a severe distraction to their education and something no child should have to experience.

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

It was early on in my career when I realized that starting off a hard conversation with a parent about their student would go better if I first brought up the student’s strengths. It helps lighten the mood.

I was meeting with one particular parent, whom I had heard so many negative stories about. So, I decided to explain all the reasons why I love that person’s child first before going into details on the student’s negative behaviors. It worked. And, I’ve been starting with the positives first ever since.

What part of your job is the most difficult?

Not having the time or resources needed to reach every student appropriately. I do a pretty good job managing with what I have, but if I had more time, smaller class sizes and unlimited paper, I would be able to do so much more. As teachers, we know what we need to be successful, but unfortunately, there’s not always a way to afford the actual necessities. Many times, teachers spend personal money from their paychecks to have access to materials needed for students.

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

The biggest misconception about teaching is that we are “lucky” because we have two months off. Yes, we take a vacation, but we are always working, thinking, and planning, despite the summer break. We also have in-service [training for teachers] that begins mid-summer and intense planning, which requires a yearlong commitment.

 What are you reading for enjoyment?

Currently, I am re-reading Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur. I love poetry and write it myself, so I tend to read poetry over and over for inspiration.

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

The best advice I ever received about teaching is that I will never know everything. Students change from year to year, curriculum advances, new techniques are learned and I will keep evolving. This idea made me realize that I don’t need to be the “perfect” teacher, I simply need to grow each year and develop my skills, which is how I have been working throughout my career.