There’s no denying that there are differing opinions about “what works” in education. At times, the voices of teachers—the ones who most intimately deal with these complex issues—are lost in the mix. Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with three State Teachers of the Year from across the country to pick their brains about teaching, continuous learning, and the state of American education today. An edited version of our conversation appears below.

Joshua Parker is a Compliance Specialist in the Office of Title I of Baltimore County Public Schools and adjunct professor at the Notre Dame of Maryland University. He is the 2012 Maryland State teacher of the year.

Luke Foley, the 2014 Vermont State Teacher of the Year, teaches at the STAR Alternative Program at Northfield Middle High School in Northfield, Vermont. He uses a creative and experiential place-based curriculum to engage his students in their education, their school, and their community.

Jonathan Crossley, the 2014 Arkansas State Teacher of the Year, teaches English, oral communication, and drama at Palestine-Wheatley High School in Palestine, Arkansas. By using Socratic seminars, student-led questioning, and relationship-building, Jonathan led his students to the title of Most Improved for Literacy in the entire state of Arkansas (36% to 90% proficient or advanced). He is a Delta '10 TFA alum.

You’ve all had rich, exciting careers in the classroom. What are three things that you wish you had known when you first started teaching?

Joshua Parker:. Throughout teacher-preparation programs, most of what is emphasized is the content knowledge and pedagogy, but I find the soft skills and traits are what really make the difference between good and great. Brilliant lectures have died from the lips of apathetic teachers. Teacher-prep programs are great and necessary for being a teacher. But they are only the beginning of knowledge needed to become a great teacher. You need to be fueled from a desire within to research books and articles that are pertinent to your particular area. The knowledge you receive before you teach can’t match the knowledge you self-select after you start teaching.

(Photo credit: FutUndBeidl)

The first time I stepped in front of a class of 27 seventh graders—all at different levels, with varying needs and wildly diverse backgrounds and personalities—I knew this job was going to be anything but average. No matter how tired or stressed-out I was about making a particular lesson perfect, my students counted on me every single day to bring my “A game.” This meant figuring out on the fly how to teach mitosis when the light bulb on my projector burned out. Or hitching a ride to school from a tow truck driver after my car broke down so that I wouldn’t be late to my students’ first frog dissection. Or painstakingly figuring out exactly which student still needed help on which standard, unit after unit.

I still look back on my three years in the classroom as both the hardest and most rewarding years of my professional life. The skills I acquired—quick-wittedness, leadership, relentless prioritization—all set me up for success in my current role in the policy world. Yet, despite what current and former teachers know to be true about the demands of the job, data from a new Third Way poll of high-achieving undergraduate students shows that most Millennials have a very different, and somewhat alarming, perception of the teaching profession:

Zeke Berzoff-Cohen

Berzoff-Cohen and Intersection student leader Naomi Cornish speaking at Goucher College.

What would the movement for educational equity look like if it was led by our students? I wrestle with this question on a daily basis at The Intersection, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that teaches leadership, advocacy, and organizing skills to high school students. Founded three years ago with fellow Baltimore ’08 corps members Yasmene Mumby and Matt Stern, The Intersection aims to combat the collective sense of disempowerment among our students. Even for those steadfastly pursuing education as a means of personal and professional advancement, many of our students felt unable to address the structural barriers that kept their families in cycles of poverty and kept our city segregated. Digging into Baltimore’s history of white supremacy, we came to recognize that many people of color have come to feel civically disconnected due to years systemic discrimination in housing, police, education, and several other institutions. My co-founders and I knew that in order to address this cycle, our students needed to become leaders with the skills to organize and advocate for themselves and their communities.

We believed then, as I believe now, that young people deserve a seat at the decision-making table. In the past three years, Intersection student leaders have registered hundreds of voters, built a community garden in a food desert, played a leading role in a coalition that passed the Maryland Dream Act, and recently embarked on a campaign to reduce gun violence through youth job creation.

I was fortunate enough to share the incredible work of my students at the recent Teach For All conference in Santiago, Chile. The conference brought together Teach For All staff, educators, social entrepreneurs, system leaders, and students from across the world to explore ways to accelerate alumni impact and systems change. During the conference, I was struck by the repeated emphasis on both deep-level community engagement and student leadership as key ingredients to solving educational inequity. 

Choi and Kamras.

I distinctly remember sitting at my desk in the midst of my Tuesday grad school class, reading a chapter on the importance of self-reflection as a teacher. While I felt strongly about the necessity for teachers to practice self-reflection, I found it incredibly difficult to do in practice. Between juggling the never-ending needs of students, lesson planning, parent phone calls, and trips to Target, there is often hardly a moment to dedicate to yourself as a teacher.

Perhaps this is why I seize every opportunity to learn from the self-reflections of other educators, school leaders, and others in the field. Last week I had the opportunity to catch up with Jason Kamras (DC-Metro ‘95), Chief of Human Capital for D.C. Public Schools and 2005 National Teacher of the Year, to reflect upon the lessons (and mistakes) learned from IMPACT, the fallacy of the poverty vs. teachers debate, and the power of the parent perspective.

You've now been at DCPS for 17 years—7 years [as human capital chief], 10 years [as a teacher]—of all the work that you have accomplished, what are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of my time teaching 7th and 8th grade math at Sousa Middle School and the work that I did with my kids there. Despite all of the larger policy changes that we’ve been able to make, I would still view this as my greatest contribution thus far.

Inside the Ryman Auditorium. Photo credit: RecoilRick.

Last weekend was a great weekend. My husband and I celebrated his 40th birthday, and one of the things we did was attend a Nickel Creek concert at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. And, surprisingly enough, it was at this concert that the why of our diversity work was further clarified for me.

After a really incredible—and yet in some ways challenging—few days spent participating in staff-wide diversity conversations, I had wondered to myself about the nature of this work. It is hard. The analogy I am most often reminded of is when I try to clean a room in my house: as I empty the drawers, pulling out items tucked and hidden away over the years, the room tends to look far messier before it gets clean. Often, in that moment of cleaning when I’m surrounded by clothes, middle school yearbooks, and random bills, I wonder, why am I even doing this? I must admit sometimes that is my tension as we tackle our diversity work, too.

But as I looked around in the Ryman on Friday night, I was reminded why our work of thinking about race, class, nationality, gender, privilege, and history has to be part of our work. Nickel Creek is an amazingly talented group, and Nashville is a diverse city. Yet in the Ryman’s 2,300+ person auditorium, I saw only a few other folks who weren’t white. As I sat there, I began realizing why this task of thinking and working honestly—to be not only anti-racist but fully appreciative and inclusive of diversity—is so important and so challenging. We tend to live in homogeneous silos, and our lives can so easily be separate experiences even in a city as diverse as Nashville.

Brakke on the day before her first day of teaching in 1999.

Dear Mr. Adcock & Mr. Ramey,

It is with a very heavy heart (and after a lot of long hours full of tears) that I am writing to you to resign as an 8th grade Language Arts teacher at Henderson Middle School.

I sent this letter on July 25th, 2001. The recipients were my superintendent and principal, both of whom were more gracious and kind to this new teacher—a newcomer in nearly every definition of the word—than I likely deserved. I know the exact date because I’ve kept a copy of this letter at hand for nearly thirteen years now, so that I can keep close to my head and my heart what I felt on that summer day. Sadness. Guilt. Commitment. Gratitude.

Recently, I wrote about the importance of teacher recruitment, but noted it was just part of the equation of ensuring that our public schools thrive and adapt to the needs of students today. Another part: keeping talented educators in classrooms and schools for the long term.

Admittedly, as you just read in my resignation letter, I’m speaking as someone who left the classroom after a few short years of teaching. For me, the reasons to leave were profoundly personal and likely right at the time—yet it is truthfully the decision I question most from my past. What would be different in my life today had I stayed? How would it have felt to see my eighth graders all the way through to high school graduation five days a week rather than flying in a few times a year for homecomings, short visits, and finally, justly, to watch them walk across the stage?

Rachel Brody

Rachel Brody with her cousin and friend Gabriella, who inspired her to become a teacher and partner with kids to value their own unique potential.

“I cannot emphasize enough the importance of a good teacher.” 

- Temple Grandin, doctor of animal science, professor at Colorado State University, best-selling author, and autistic activist

Good teachers are essential for all students to reach their full potential – including the 67 million people living with autism worldwide.  April’s Autism Awareness Month provides an opportunity for all of us – special educators, general educators, and everyone who believes that all students can achieve at high levels – to reflect on our knowledge, skills, and mindsets around working with the 1 in 68 children who have autism. 

How are we learning from, and with, our kids with learning differences?  How are we recognizing the unique potential in all of our learners?  How are we setting a high bar for all students?

In the below reflections, two Teach For America corps members share the unique realities, opportunities, and celebrations of working with students with autism.

First grade students taught by Cait Clark (South Carolina '12) at Bennettsville Primary School in Bennettsville, South Carolina.

On March 21st, the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights arm released a chilling, but very real set of statistics that we’ll most likely be discussing for years to come. The data reveals racial disparities in access to rigorous secondary courses, certified and experienced teachers, and school punishment. But perhaps the most discomfiting revelation has to do with the frequency in which black preschoolers are being punished through suspension. Namely, black children represent only 18% of total preschool enrollment, but make up nearly half of all children who are suspended more than once.

I learned of these findings when I was at the TFA - New Jersey 20th Anniversary Summit. It was a day meant to celebrate how far we’ve come both regionally and nationally in our fight for educational equity, yet this sobering news reminded us how far there remains to strive. On a day meant to invigorate and inspire us on our way to helping our kids apprehend their dreams, we were forced to countenance the shrill reality that our nation remains fastened to a legacy of structural and historical oppression —a legacy that, by default, criminalizes black and brown even before they can fully apprehend a pencil. Multiple speakers referenced the unsettling data and we realized that insofar as structural oppression persists along racial, class, gender, or any other lines, true “high-quality education” is not merely a goal for the “underprivileged.”

We grieved and vented together. Next, we act. Below are a few interrelated reflections designed to spur our feelings into actions that will help to right this narrative.

Amanda Chavez Barnes

Amanda Chavez Barnes with her tio Paul

Pass The Chalk shares this reflection on Cesar Chavez Day, March 31st, in honor of Chavez and his legacy.

My mother was a huge fan of Selena Quintanilla Perez, and so, when the singer died at an early age in 1995, she bought every magazine she could find that had Selena’s image on the cover. We talked about Selena’s life and honored her memory by listening to her music.

But when Cesar Chavez had passed away just two years earlier, we didn’t see any magazine covers or newspapers with Chavez’s image emblazoned on the front, and we didn’t hear anything about him on the news or the radio. My mother—the woman who told me stories about being locked in a closet during the day with her younger siblings while her older siblings went out into the fields to pick crops with their parents—had never heard of Cesar Chavez. She had no idea who he was. And because the Metro Atlanta schools I attended never taught me about Latino history or celebrated Latino heritage, neither did I.

I didn’t know anything until my mom’s eldest brother, my tio Paul, came to live with us after serving a decade-long bid in a Texas penitentiary. Prison taught my tio what school never did. He learned about his heritage and himself in the oral histories that OGs handed down, and in the pages of the books that he had access to behind bars but had never seen in a classroom. And from the very first day Tio Paul arrived, he began to instill in me a deep sense of dignity and pride in my heritage.

(Photo credit: Julio Ibarra)

Recently, Nashville had the pleasure of welcoming President Obama to McGavock High School, one of our local public schools. It was a moment of great pride for our city as the president highlighted the work in Nashville schools that he would like to encourage throughout the country.

The event was joyful, with plenty of happiness and buzz among the many people who work long hours and early mornings, and tackle intellectual, political, and societal problems to make sure every child in our city has a great education. These folks—teachers, students, parents, district leaders, school leaders, political leaders, religious leaders, nonprofit leaders—often work in anonymity toward this goal, so it was fun to take a moment to celebrate.

For me, the best part of the event was when President Obama recognized McGavock High School teacher Barclay Randall. Mr. Randall, a broadcast teacher (who was taping the event with a few students and wiped away tears of joy as he was being lauded) had transformed the lives of many students—and in particular, that of Sara Santiago.

“When Sara was in Mr. Randall’s class, he helped her discover this passion for filmmaking,” President Obama said. “And pretty soon, Sara’s grades started to improve. She won the school’s ‘Best Editing’ award. Then she got an internship with Country Music Television—one of [the school’s] business partners. And then she was accepted to the prestigious Savannah College of Art and Design. And she gives credit to Mr. Randall for this. She says, ‘Mr. Randall gave me a second chance. He saw things I never saw in myself. He’s the person who helped me change.’”

I appreciate that President Obama took the time to recognize the work and accomplishments of a teacher. As districts around the country are deep in recruitment season, I am trying to reconcile the collective celebration and appreciation we seem to have for teachers with the reality that far too many prospective teachers still hear: “You are too”—fill in the blank: smart, driven, etc.—“to be a teacher.”

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We believe education is the most pressing issue facing our nation. On Pass the Chalk, we'll share our takes on the issues of the day, join the online conversation about education, and tell stories from classrooms, schools, and communities around the nation.

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The thoughts, ideas, and opinions expressed on Pass the Chalk are the responsibility of individual bloggers. Unless explicitly stated, blog posts do not represent the views of Teach For America as an organization. 

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