Three lessons from the Nashville English teacher who won a shocking $25,000 prize

At Nashville School of the Arts, it’s usually the students who are primed for the spotlight.

But on Tuesday all eyes were on English teacher Misty Ayres-Miranda, when state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and the Milken Family Foundation surprised her at an school-wide assembly with a check for $25,000 — one of thousands of awards to individual teachers that the foundation has handed out since 1987.

The foundation doesn’t share how it chooses awardees, who do not need to apply to win. Ayres-Miranda — who teaches ninth- and 12th-grade English and directs her school’s new Literacy Arts Conservatory performance program — had not heard about the prize before winning it. She said she would be giving much of the money back to her fellow teachers and her school.

“I’m so shocked,” she said. “There are honestly so many great teachers here. It could have been any teacher, and I wouldn’t have been surprised.”

Nashville School of the Arts is different from most schools — students audition for admission; arts are incorporated into every subject; and test scores are in the top quarter of schools in the state. But Ayres-Miranda said she believes some of what makes it special can be replicated elsewhere.

Here’s what the award-winning teacher had to say about testing, standards, and her students:

Why the Common Core State Standards don’t limit creativity in the classroom, as some have charged 

The good thing about these standards is that they are so open-ended. They give us a lot more freedom to tailor them the way we want to use them. Before the standards were a lot more detailed and specific, and some of the things weren’t necessary. Common Core English gives us more flexibility to play around and still meet the standards the state wants us to. I’m a lot more of a supporter of our current standards than the ones we had before.

A lot of teachers — and I understand why — get set in a certain way of teaching, and sometimes they are scared of trying something new, and afraid it won’t fit with the standards. Probably not every type of art will fit into every lesson, but there is a way to adapt it. If you’re open to that it will help your scores, because it will help keep your student’s interests. I’ve yet to meet a kid who doesn’t have some type of artistic — even if not necessarily strong — ability, some sort of love, and I think tapping into that, and making the kids care, makes everything easier to teach.

Why lessons should be guided by more than what’s on the end-of-year exam 

When I went to college, the first paper I turned in, I got a C-minus. I was really upset, because I had gotten all As in high school. I had a great college professor, and she told me what I needed to do differently. I was like, I never learned about citations, I didn’t learn about writing … I made a decision that I wanted to be a teacher, and really teach kids what they needed. Not, and I hope I don’t get in trouble for this, the stuff some tests say they have to know, but really what I know kids need.  To be honest, I don’t really focus on the [end-of-year] test itself until right before we take it, because it’s more important for them to work on their writing skills and the things they need to know for college.

This year, I am having to prepare them a little bit more for how to take a computer-based test. A lot of kids get testing anxiety when they have to scroll down and can’t see everything, and can’t mark things the same way. It’s really about telling them that yeah, you can do it, it’s just different. Honestly, it’s early in the year. I still have a lot of time to have fun with my kids before focusing on the test.

On the benefits of teaching at a school that chooses its theme and its students 

We are in a rare environment where kids aren’t judged based on their gender choices or whether or not they’re homosexual or heterosexual or different races. Our kids block themselves off based on their art. And the fact that we have an environment where everyone is accepted for who they are as a person is pretty amazing.

I would say to other schools, you know, there’s nothing wrong with a kid being who they are and being unique. And when you celebrate that, they accomplish so much. I really think we have a community that is very rare [and] that shouldn’t be so rare. It should be all across the board, at every public school.