getting to know you

These Teach-Off finalists unlock math for students with real-world context

Terrance O'Neil, left and Tim Livingston will participate in the first-ever Great American Teach-Off March 7.

For Houston educators Terrance O’Neil and Tim Livingston, math is all about context.

Too often, they say, students give up on math because word problems feature information or elements students can’t relate with. One recent example that stumped students, Livingston said, was a math problem featuring a person purchasing an $85 thermal to go camping.

“Some of these kids have never been camping,” he said. “And they were confused. One girl asked what a thermal was and why would a person buy one for $85.”

So they say students, especially those from low-income families, often need context — or information they can relate too — to help them better connect equations to real-world problems.

“A student should be able to relate to the problem,” said Livingston, a math coach in the Spring Independent School District. “The context grants them access.”

Together O’Neil and Livingston represent one of the two teacher teams Chalkbeat readers chose to participate in the first-ever Great American Teach-Off. The live event, which debuts at the SXSW EDU conference March 7, is designed to elevate the craft of teaching and showcase the many decisions that go into just one lesson.

Each team of teachers will demonstrate a mini-lesson on stage in front of a panel of judges and a cheering audience. A lively discussion among judges, coaches, and the teacher teams following the lessons will help attendees “see” teaching with new, clearer eyes.

Before O’Neil and Livingston head to Austin, we caught up with them to discuss the Teach-Off and their teaching philosophy. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What inspired you to go into teaching?

TIM: I guess I always had a knack for teaching. When I was in the military, I spoke to my wife and said, “I think this is something I want to do.” I love children. They were always drawn to me. And I could always communicate with them in a way they understood. Once I finished up my second enlistment, I went forward. And once I got into it, I saw what I wanted to be true, came true.

TERRANCE: The initial push came from my parents. I grew up in one of the roughest communities in Houston. They continually pushed us to get a good education. It was a nonnegotiable. They believed it was key to escape the community we grew up in. Once I left the community — because of education — I knew I needed to go back to that same community to help. I went back to my former community as a teacher. I fell in love with the kids. I learned quickly how one teacher can change the perspective of a student who might not get any sort of positive reinforcement when he leaves the school.

How would you describe your teaching style or method?

TIM: When I first began teaching, I would give out all the energy. My students would point out how my armpits would sweat. It was high energy, 24/7. But as I matured as an educator, I’ve learned to let it not all come from me, but put it in the mathematical task.

TERRANCE: I try to demonstrate that I’m passionate about the content — math or science. I always try to start with some sort of real-world connections. And I feed into that. I want to see the students excited about what they’re learning. Depending on the demographics of your class, you learn to use different real-world connections. I want them to do the work. To get them do that, I have to demonstrate some passion first.

Why did you want to be part of the Teach-Off?

TERRANCE: Probably because we think we’re better than any everyone else. [Laughs]

TIM: Next question! Honestly, I was intrigued by the vision of what Chalkbeat was trying to do. It got me hook, line, and sinker. Teaching is an art. And to hear that someone understands it’s an art and craft, I said, “This is it.” And my heart is for mathematics.

How were your schools affected by Hurricane Harvey?

TERRANCE: We had well over 100 students that lost everything. Everything. The devastation affected us severely. It was dramatic for a while. But our kids are resilient. Some are still displaced. But the district has done an excellent job of serving these students. They’ve done things that I wouldn’t have expected them to do. Some students had to move to outside the district, into other suburbs. And our district sent buses to get them so they wouldn’t have to switch schools. Not to mention, the district and many campuses have developed grant programs to serve those families. Here at McNabb, we’re still helping families with food and clothes. It’s been something amazing to watch.

What do you expect the audience to see at the Teach-Off?

TIM: Everything! All of it! They should expect laughter, energy. I love impromptu. That’s one of my strengths. So the whole notion of the event that something is going to change, that doesn’t make me nervous. That brings me in.

TERRANCE: That genuine love for teaching. Sincerity. That passion. And of course that content. You have to be passionate, and you have to be teaching something.

TIM: They can expect a demonstration of the depths of what it takes to teach mathematics correctly. It’s more than just adding and subtracting. It takes effort to plan to teach and reflect, and that’s what I love about this.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received regarding teaching?

TIM: The issue is never mechanical, it’s adaptive. Meaning, there is no fix that someone can prescribe to me that does not consider my students, the school we’re in, the story that is our classroom. Every problem is adaptive. I can’t go find an answer. I have to collaborate with teachers and students. All those things have to be considered.

TERRANCE: My first superintendent would tell us all the time, “If you are really teaching how you’re supposed to teach and what you’re supposed to teach, it will be seen in the learning in students.” Your success is not what you do as a teacher, but what your students can do after they’ve been with you for a year. That difference there, that determines how effective I am as a teacher.

Future of Teaching

Tentative contract includes big raises for IPS teachers

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Teachers would receive significant raises under a tentative new contract with IPS.

A month after voters approved a vast funding increase for Indianapolis Public Schools, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration and the district teachers union have reached a tentative deal for a new contract that would boost teacher pay by an average of 6.3 percent.

The agreement was ratified by union members Wednesday, according to a statement from teachers union president Ronald Swann. It must be approved by the Indianapolis Public Schools board, which is likely to consider the contract next week, before it is final.

Swann did not provide details of the agreement, but it was outlined in union presentations to teachers on Wednesday ahead of the ratification vote. The deal would cover the 2018-19 school year, and teachers would receive retroactive pay back to July 2018. The prior contract ended in June.

Raising teacher pay was a key part of the sales pitch district leaders used to win support for a referendum to raise $220 million over eight years from taxpayers for operating expenses. The referendum passed with wide support from voters last month, and although the district will not get that money until next year, the administration can now bank on an influx of cash in June 2019. Teachers could receive another raise next year, once the money from the referendum begins flowing.

The proposed deal would bring pay raises for new and experienced teachers. First year teachers in the district would see their salaries jump to $42,587, about $2,600 above the current base salary, according to the presentation to teachers. Returning teachers would move up the pay scale, with most receiving raises of about $2,600.

The deal also brings a reward for teachers who are at the top of the current scale. The top of the scale would rise to $74,920 by adding several stops above the current maximum of $59,400. That means teachers who are currently at the top of the scale would be able to move up and continue getting raises.

Many longtime teachers in the district also earn additional pay for advanced education, but teachers who joined the district more recently are not eligible for that extra money.

Teachers who received evaluations of ineffective or needs improvement in 2017-18 are not eligible for raises.

The new contract is the second time in recent years that teachers have won substantial raises in Indianapolis Public Schools. After four years of painful pay freezes, Ferebee negotiated a contract in 2015 that included a large pay increase. Teacher pay is especially important for the district because it is competing with several surrounding communities to staff schools.

Health care costs would go up this year, a policy shift that was advocated by the Indy Chamber, which urged the district to reduce health insurance spending as part of a plan to shift more money to teacher salaries.

The contract includes a provision that was piloted last year allowing the district to place newly hired teachers at anywhere on the salary schedule. It’s designed to allow the district to pay more for especially hard-to-fill positions.

Teachers at some troubled schools, known as the transformation zone, would also be eligible for extra pay on top of their regular salaries at the discretion of the administration. That money would come from state grants specifically targeted at transformation zone schools.

The idea of allowing superintendents to pay some teachers in their districts more than others is controversial.

Teacher Pay

‘Our teachers have waited long enough’: Educators say Indiana needs to act now on teacher pay

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in Decatur Township work on physics problems with their teacher.

Educators and advocates are pushing state leaders to take action this year to raise teacher compensation — not to wait for additional research, as Gov. Eric Holcomb proposed last week.

“Our teachers have waited long enough,” said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “It doesn’t take a two-year study to discover what we already know: teachers need to be valued, respected, and paid as professionals.”

Holcomb’s proposal last week to study raises in the upcoming budget-writing session and make bigger steps in 2021 didn’t sit well with some, since lawmakers and advocates spent the fall talking up the need to make teacher salaries competitive with other states. But given the state’s tight budget situation, Holcomb suggested studying the impact of raises for at least a year, as well as looking at how much money would be needed and how districts would be expected to get the money to teachers.

Read: Raising teacher pay likely to be at the forefront for Indiana lawmakers and advocates in 2019

The proposal drew quick criticism. Education leaders and advocacy groups took to Twitter to express their hopes that Holcomb and lawmakers would find ways to address teacher salaries this year as well as into the future.

“IN must respond now,” State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick tweeted Friday morning, remarking that too many teachers across the state are leaving the profession because pay is too low. “Kids deserve & depend upon excellent teachers.”

“We can’t wait to act because Hoosier children are counting on all us to come together to ensure our schools can attract and retain the best teachers,” Justin Ohlemiller, executive director of Stand for Children Indiana, said in a blog post titled “The time to act on teacher pay is now.

ISTA’s 2019 legislative agenda, released Monday, will continue pushing for lawmakers and state leaders to find creative solutions to raise teacher pay and make Indiana competitive with other states.

And ISTA says they might have voters on their side. A recent ISTA poll of more than 600 Hoosiers, conducted by Emma White Research, shows that funding for education is a priority across the state, with more than 86 percent of those sampled supporting sending more money to public schools. About 72 percent of people polled believe educators are underpaid.

But it’s unclear if there would be enough money in the budget to spend on across-the-board raises after other funding obligations are met, such as funding needed by the Department of Child Services to deal with effects of the state’s opioid crisis. Senate Democrats have called for $81 million a year to ensure 5 percent raises for teachers and counselors over the next two years. Republicans have strong majorities in both chambers.

Neither ISTA, lawmakers, Holcomb nor other education groups have released specific plans for either how much they’d like to see set aside for teachers or strategies for how a pay increase could feasibly be carried out. However, the effort has brought together some unlikely allies — the union, a vocal advocate for traditional public schools, rarely aligns its education policy with groups like Stand and Teach Plus Indiana that have favored increased school-choice options, such as charter schools.

With limited dollars to go around, the focus will have to also be on how to make existing education dollars go farther, Meredith said. She, along with Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma last month, pointed to the need to curtail spending on administration, which, they argue, could free up money for other expenses such as teacher compensation.

Some have also pointed to the state’s recent budget surplus and reserves as evidence that Indiana could spend more on education if there was political will to do so.

“The surplus has come on the backs of educators and their students,” Meredith said. “Elected leaders must do more. They must do more to declare teacher pay a priority in this session, and they must take action.”

ISTA is also hoping lawmakers will act to:

  • Restore collective bargaining rights so educators can negotiate work hours and class size, as well as salaries and benefits.
  • Remove teacher evaluation results from decisions about salary until the state’s new ILEARN test has been in place for a few years.
  • Invest in school counselors, psychologists, and social workers
  • Strengthen regulations for charter and virtual charter schools, including putting a moratorium on new virtual schools until those safeguards can be enacted.
  • Study districts that have focused on how to best teach students who have experienced trauma.

Indiana’s next legislative session begins in January.

Correction: Dec. 11, 2018: This story has been updated to reflect that Stand for Children Indiana doesn’t take a position in regards to private school vouchers.