Today, May 9, is National Teacher Day, part of the annual Teacher Appreciation Week. Over three-fourths of the staff at Bellwether Education Partners are former (or current!) educators, and we are deeply inspired and informed by our years in the classroom.
Here are just a few stories from the team:
: I taught for about 10 years — preschool, kindergarten, first grade, a high school “know your rights” class, and an undergraduate seminar on education policy and politics. Michael was one of my first-grade students in my first year of teaching at a Los Angeles school. Michael got back in touch when he asked me for help in deciding whether to stay at his challenging magnet school or transfer to the regular public high school. He stuck it out and graduated on time. He says that if it weren’t for me, he wouldn’t have finished high school. I know that’s not true — I’m just glad I could be there when he needed a cheerleader. Every kid (and I do mean every
) needs someone in their corner.
: I taught sixth-grade English language arts for two years in Irving, Texas. (I now teach English to adults at the Washington English Center.) My former students still ask me about “Vocab-aerobics,” an almost daily addition to our lesson. We’d preview a word from the day’s text with a definition, a sentence, a picture, and then finally some kind of physical motion — think exaggeratedly slumped shoulders for “melancholy” or an aggressive palm raise for “preclude.” We would approach this with full-on Richard Simmons–meets–Dance Moms
enthusiasm (“we are getting our cardio ON!” or “let’s make sure we stretch first; Vocab-aerobics is a high-intensity workout!”). It was incredibly cheesy, and I’m still flattered they (mostly) humored me. Teaching changed my life. It was a privilege to both support and bear witness to my students’ dedication, drive, and empathy — not to mention their sense of humor. They are hilarious, talented, resilient, and every other superlative in the book. I am forever grateful for the opportunity to be Ms. S, and I keep in touch with many of my students today.
: I had the pleasure of teaching professionally for five years. I first taught English literature and language in the Republic of the Marshall Islands for a year. Following that, I worked as a behavioral specialist in Boston Public Schools for about a year. My last stint of teaching included three years at a charter school in Boston, where I first taught music and then moved on to teaching special education and math to fifth- and sixth-graders. A favorite memory is the time I taught the entire fifth-grade class (that’s 72 kids) the Michael Jackson “Thriller” dance break. Teaching definitely still informs me. One of the values I try to embody from my teaching days is being “kid-centric” in my thoughts, solutions, and outcomes. This helps to refocus my efforts on the true goal of my work — making a difference in the lives of young people.
: I had a very brief stint as a substitute teacher for high school students in New Jersey. Most of those experiences I have suppressed. I graded papers one time for [Bellwether executive assistant] Starr Aaron when she was TA’ing an undergraduate English class. Suffice it to say, it was the first time I fully acknowledged my own privilege of attending a high school where they taught us to write before sending us off to college. And now, as the mother of a Memphis high school English teacher in her fifth year, I have walked with her on the roller-coaster journey of urban education. She grew up wanting to be a teacher because her heroes were the teachers who loved her, challenged her, and led her to see a world where she could do and be anything. Her high school guidance counselor told her she was “too smart” to be a teacher (!!), and in becoming a great one, she defied that guidance!
Jennifer O’Neal Schiess
: I taught 10th-, 11th-, and 12th-grade English for three years in Nashville, Tennessee. I have many wonderful classroom memories — high school students are hilarious. One particularly rewarding memory was overhearing a student who often struggled academically talking with her friends about how much she liked my class: “Miss O’Neal really teaches us. She doesn’t just give us worksheets. It’s hard, but I like it. She cares about us and whether we learn anything.” I was in my first year and, frankly, didn’t know what I was doing half the time. Her comment meant a lot to me both because it gave me some confidence that I was doing something right, but also because it was a lesson in the power of respecting students as people and expecting them to rise to a challenge. Leaving the classroom was a really hard decision for me, but I’ve stayed in and around the education space my entire career. My teaching experience informs everything I do because I know firsthand what a difficult job it is and what a big difference teachers make. Plus, the high school I taught in was dramatically different from the high school I attended. Both were public schools in the outskirts of Southern cities, but the challenges my students faced in their personal and academic lives were a sharp contrast to my personal experience. It was eye-opening to me at the time and an inspiration for my commitment to working for equitable access to educational opportunities for all students.
: In the span of just a few years, I taught every grade from fifth to college freshman. As a lead teacher, I taught language arts and social studies to middle schoolers for two years at Kazoo School in Kalamazoo, Michigan. (Yes, it’s a real school. No we didn’t teach children how to play the kazoo.) I fell in love with the school’s Deweyan experiential philosophy and was fortunate to have a lot of support and a huge degree of freedom to get creative. I have mostly very positive memories, like reading “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut and having my students assess their strengths, and then handicap them as a way to discuss inclusion. Or building a huge tabletop model of World War I trench warfare using bags of topsoil. Or when a state representative came to talk to my class, expected a routine talk about how government works, and was instead met with pointed questions about his voting record. But there were painful memories too, as I struggled to serve students with a huge array of learning needs. Anytime I visit a school, I realize how formative my teaching experience was. And because I attended a big school of education and have spent my whole career in the field, I’m fortunate to have a lot of friends who are classroom teachers. Both things keep my policy work grounded.
: I taught middle school English and social studies at three different middle schools in the Bronx in New York City. It was the most humbling experience of my lifetime. I still miss the classroom, although I don’t miss the exhaustion that came after a busy day of thinking and responding on the fly. My favorite memory is when my students first started to see me as a person instead of just a teacher. We took all of our sixth-graders who met their reading goals to a camp in the Poconos. I played soccer with my students, and many were shocked to discover I was a good player. One student later wrote on a written assignment: “P.S. I like the way you play soccer.” Later during the same trip, after I engaged some of my female students in a sing-along, a student proclaimed: “Ms. Kaplan is like a best friend.” It was powerful to see my students in an environment outside of school, and I loved watching them get to be kids and have a camp experience like my own. I think of my students often and wish our system made it easier for hardworking middle schoolers to pursue their goals.
: I taught fourth grade for three years in Chalmette, Louisiana. One of my favorite memories was the Mardi Gras festivities that my school put on each year. I had never attended Mardi Gras before, so I never really understood how much people get into the Mardi Gras spirit in New Orleans. My school put on a parade of its own, and all of the students, teachers, and administrators would dress up in purple, green, and gold and parade around the neighborhoods near the school. Parents and families would line the streets to cheer us on and catch beads. It was really fun to learn about New Orleans’s culture through the eyes and experiences of my students.
: I taught fourth grade in Washington, D.C., for two years. A favorite classroom memory was E, a student who had already been held back for a year and was really frustrated as an emerging reader. An incentive we had for strong classroom participation was for groups to “win” a weekend field trip. We would usually go to the museums on the National Mall. However, when E’s group won, we went to the library. He found books about car racing and was hooked. For the rest of the year, E would go to the library Wednesdays after school to exchange books. He learned to love reading that year. Today, I’m still struck by how easy it is for us give up on kids and how devastating that is. Our classrooms, across the country, have to be places for kids to thrive. No kid deserves that any less.
: My first teaching job after graduate school was running several sections of college composition at a unique college for non-traditional adult students. While I was already comfortable in front of a room, I was nervous about the curriculum and leading my students to success, especially since almost all my students were older than me, by several decades in some cases. The stakes were high: This was their first semester back in school, and many had been out of school for years, now focused on working and supporting their families. Some were the first in their family to graduate from high school — all were the first in their family to attend college. I had to bring my students up to speed on college-level writing when many hadn’t done that kind of writing in years and, in some cases, were never adequately prepared by their high schools. I know that I failed to guide some of the most challenged students to success. This will stay with me forever. And yet some students went on to graduate and were able to change their family’s trajectory. An email I received in October of 2015 was the best gift: “It is with GREAT pleasure that I inform you that I graduated! You were my first experience coming back to school and first impressions are everything. Thank you for your kindness and toughness when needed. Thank you for your structure while still being vulnerable.” This student also admitted that she had revised the email four times before sending it to me — I consider that a writing educator’s victory! (I currently volunteer in the classroom at an adult education charter school, so I still get to see these small victories play out.)
: I taught high school for two years in north Philadelphia, and the first school I taught at subsequently closed. Working at a school as it was being shuttered provided me with invaluable insight into how the community experiences and reacts to school closure. In this instance, it was particularly traumatic since it meant there were no high schools in the neighborhood. It is impossible to pick a favorite classroom memory. So instead I offer this: After I left teaching, my friend who was still working in the school called me and told me that he started the year off with a questionnaire. When he asked his students what they expected of him, many responded, “to be like Mr. Marchitello.” I mention this not to self-congratulate or suggest that I was some fantastic teacher. I was not. Instead, I want only to remind myself and other current/former teachers that we can have a positive impact if in no other way than to show our students (perhaps for the first time) that they deserve teachers who love them, who are dedicated to them, and who will do everything in their power to support them. I know that this can feel like a small thing, but I believe it can be powerful. My hope is that my students went on to demand at least that much from their future teachers.
: I taught sixth-grade English and language arts here in Washington, D.C. One of my favorite memories is seeing my students reading books while standing in line for lunch. It was the start of the school year, and I had spent the entire summer getting books donated, organized, leveled, and neatly placed on the shelves of my classroom library. I developed a system for students to find and sign out the books that were on their appropriate reading level. I was surprised by just how excited my students were to have so many options and to get started reading. I’ll never forget the joy I felt as I turned the corner of the lunchroom and saw them reading, unaware of what was going on around them.
: I taught ninth-grade algebra at one of the Noble Network schools in Chicago. One thing I remember fondly is how the personalized learning experience of Khan Academy really lit a fire under my students. Even with (very) spotty technology, the kids were so happy to have a “say” in their learning, and as their teacher, I was delighted with their enthusiasm and with how the program could help challenge each student appropriately. With Khan Academy, all students had the same target in terms of the number
of skills to master, but they could choose which
skills to tackle based on their ACT score goal. Some practiced adding fractions, while others tried out pre-calculus. For many of my most difficult-to-motivate students, the use of Khan was like a light switch: These students had a new way to be successful at their own pace, and they started coming in before or after school to practice. My time at Noble very much grounds my work today. I have infinite appreciation for the importance of good talent strategies, and details like “average class size” in a financial model take on tremendous meaning as I know that each student really matters for the culture and learning experience in that classroom. Finally, the fact that I am living in the city where I taught helps to keep things real. I am lucky that I get to see one former student all the time: he works 25 hours a week at our neighborhood grocery store while taking college classes full time. I know this can’t be easy, though he is totally rocking it so far.