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Indy’s Leading Changemakers: A Conversation With Kara Davis-Myers, Special Education Teacher

During her corps experience, Indy '16 alumna Kara Davis-Myers’ middle-school ELA students made tremendous progress, outpacing general education peers at the same grade level. She shares how she fostered trust, community, and a love for learning in her classrooms. #OneDayINdy

Teach For America Indianapolis Kara Davis Myers

Across the country, special education is one of the highest-need K-12 teaching areas. In the last 10 years, Teach For America has placed more than 40 special education teachers in schools in low-income communities across Indianapolis, many of whom have achieved significant results with their students through building authentic relationships and redefining what's possible for their students.

During her corps experience, alumna Kara Davis-Myers' students progressed by an average of more than two years of growth in her middle school ELA classrooms, outpacing general education peers at the same grade level. She shares insights into her experience of fostering trust, community, and a love for learning in her classrooms.

Why special education?

When I got assigned special education after getting into TFA, I was concerned. I didn’t know anything—not even what an IEP (individualized education program) was or what special education services looked like. My understanding and knowledge were really limited, so I was very resistant. But I decided to trust the process and take a leap of faith.

As I learned more, it really, really shocked me. The kids shocked me. I had such a limited perception of kids with learning disabilities. When I got into my school and started co-teaching and self-contained classes, I saw that my students with learning disabilities were exceptionally bright in so many areas—but marginalized. The more time I got to know each one as a whole person, more than “special ed student,” the more it opened my eyes to see how much we lacked support and understanding for them—because I once had the same limited understanding. This understanding inadvertently led me to a fiery passion to advocate for students often misunderstood.

Can you give an example?

There was this one kid, Kirk* (name changed), in my 7th grade class who was very challenging and defiant about certain things at the beginning of the year. He had a very “don’t touch me, don’t look at me, I’m an outsider” attitude. If you’ve ever read The Outsiders (by S. E. Hinton), then imagine Pony Boy. I knew that he came from a rough home and that he struggled with writing and spelling but I noticed how gifted he seemed to be in other areas—such as reading comprehension. Consciously and cautiously, I began to build a relationship with him by showing him that l was not be afraid of his unpolished and unkempt parts—that I saw him for who he really was and even more so for who he could be. As the year progressed, he began reciprocating that relationship by raising his hand when | asked a question, and putting forth effort in my class day in and day out. He began to read, and to see himself reflected within the pages of books—the underdog, the forgotten. He would listen to audiobooks and come to my optional afternoon lab class, or ask me to come read when I went to the cafeteria. He challenged himself so much in my class and, while he still had a rough edge, didn't give me any behavior issues.

l have coffee daily in my class and, one day, l spilt my coffee onto the floor. | just kept teaching, telling students to ignore it, and we kept going. About 5-10 minutes later, Kirk gets up and goes to the bathroom. When he comes back, he’s brought all these paper towels for me and starts cleaning up my coffee. I know that sounds so miniscule, but to me this act on Kirk’s part was a huge act of respect and care. It meant galaxies that he cared enough to do that.

By the end of the year, Kirk had the most books read in the class and the biggest jumps on IREAD growth scores. I knew that he knew I cared about him, and I knew he cared about me too. I was so touched just to see his transformation from beginning to end—l was completely and irrevocably moved.

“The more time got to know them as a whole person, more than “special ed student,” the more it opened my eyes to see how much we lacked support and understanding for them—because I once had the some limited understanding. This understanding inadvertently led me to a fiery passion to advocate for students often misunderstood.”

Kara Davis-Myers

What does it mean to have a self-contained classroom?

Self-contained classes are a separate cohort from gen ed classes. Let’s say we have three gen ed cohorts of math, English, social studies, and electives. For non-gen ed students, they have the same subjects but instead of gen ed teachers, they have special ed teachers as their “main teacher." They follow a cohort with us.

It goes at a slower pace and is designed to be a smaller classroom setting—15 students max—to provide students extra support with learning, as well as daily accommodations.

You used the Read 180 program in your classrooms - what is it?

Read 180 is an intervention curriculum that helps give resources to students to be able to read and grow a lot more. It offers students with skills to learn like academic vocabulary, speech skills, and writing skills, with a select library of leveled books from low to high reading level. Those books are key to getting the kids invested in reading—there is a lot of accountability. When they read a book, there’s a quiz that had to take, as well as activities that go along with it. They can pick different modules of learning across topics like dancing, the civil rights movement, and more, on computers and get to practice fluency through a mic, or practice writing. It’s very computer-led and individualized.

We had class competitions with number of words read. Our goal was to read 1 million words by the end of the year, which invested them and motivated them to read. I vividly remember there were several times when I would see them discussing books together: What page were you on? Did you get to the part when...? I read that...? Hearing them talk about that and show interest was really monumental. I don’t even remember being like that when l was in school. I remember having to read. Seeing my kids develop a love for reading and wanting to take books home, read, and bring them back—the program really fosters that interest.

What have you learned most from being a teacher?

The first two weeks were a struggle. There were all these kids—what am I going to do or say? Even the first month, l was very nervous. I felt like I had to be on point every single minute of the day, and if not, these kids wouldn’t trust me.

Over time, I learned that being my authentic self was what impacted my students more than being this perfect/ideal image of what I thought a teacher could be. I learned I had to share my imperfections, my challenges and hopes with them and apologize when I would fail. Modeling that helped them understand themselves and know that it's okay to also be imperfect, that there was grace, and that I would accept them for their authentic selves.

How did your own childhood and school experiences impact the way you teach your students?

In third grade, I remember struggling so, so much with counting in math. I also had a behavior issue and didn’t want to be in school—it all stemmed from being in a home environment where I wasn’t getting acceptance or support, and seeking it at school. I had a teacher who was very quick to judge me, and unsupportive when I didn’t understand. I didn’t trust her at all, it fostered a defiance for education in me.

Fortunately, I also had other teachers who did support me emotionally. When I went into their classrooms, l felt safe and included, no matter if I had lice in my hair or didn’t have food that day. From my experience, my number-one thing as a teacher is wanting my classroom to be safe, letting my kids feel they can trust me, and supporting them in the best way I know how emotionally.

That experience I take with me in my teaching. It taught me to support my kids emotionally and socially—within and outside the classroom. It reminded me that my kids are going through so many different things at home, and I need to be the one to not judge them—to accept them, and help them find their voice.

Also, my own teachers showed me what good teaching was. I had teachers who challenged me, and when I did something wrong, they didn’t just let me get away with it. They confronted me and pushed me with higher expectations, and were hard on me because they believed in me. I’m tough on my kids in the same sense, because I see the advocates and activists that they can become. I believe in the outstanding potential of my students because they show up every day within my class.

What’s next after the corps?

I’m very passionate about kids who have been exposed to trauma in their lives at a young age because of how deeply it resonates with myself. During my first year in the corps, I designed a school for a Marian class project, creating this model of a trauma-based informed school that provided a holistic education for kids. In the long-term, I see myself working in a cross-sector of trauma and education by continuing to pour my authentic self into my work. A holistic education is not just academics, but one that supports each student as a whole person, providing them with skills to become emotionally intelligent, socially capable, expressive through music and art, and so on. If there’s a math question about baseball, the people doing better on that question are likely baseball players because they have real-world application. I envision a school where students are planting gardens, playing instruments, doing art therapy, and more. | envision a school that is healing for all who attend. Childhood trauma has such an overwhelming hindrance on education, and if that barrier were to be removed, then the possibilities are endless. All in all. I want to continue to learn, to grow, to be exposed to different educational models, and various age groups, all the while being mentored by profound and impactful leaders.