Molly Cooksy began her career as an educator while she was still in school herself, volunteering through her church in an early childhood setting. She has been a swim instructor, run an after school program, been a Big Sister through the Big Brother, Big Sister organization, and she’s now pursuing a graduate degree in early education through the TWM MAT Fellowship.
LEARNING FROM THE BEST
I love Western Mass- it’s a good place to come home to. It was a great place to grow up. But I’m very aware of the privilege I had and I know that many Massachusetts students don’t have that experience. I have a lot to learn as a teacher and being in Springfield and Holyoke is great because you see so much.
I learn a lot from the teacher I work with. She uses all sorts of different techniques to engage her learners and help them focus. She has kids that need to move around a lot and be physical, so she has standing desks, and wobble chairs, and cushions, and weighted things and playdough. She’s just really creative about how to make her classroom a safe space and a learning space for all of her students. I’m really excited that I get to learn about that from her because I hope to be able to do that some day in my own classroom.
TEACHING MORE THAN YOUR SUBJECT
I used to think teaching was just knowing a subject and teaching the content. But now I realize that part of teaching, part of my job, is to help students figure out what strategies work for them. How do you learn best? How are we going to make that happen? How are you going to stand up for yourself and develop your self-advocacy skills? These are all things that aren’t considered math class anymore, but they’re crucial to a student’s development. If we want them to act and react in certain ways, we have to teach that. And we adults have to understand why we’re asking them to do something and be able to explain it. Students are the consumers of education, and they should have the autonomy to make decisions about their education and the adults in their lives should be ready to support that, and be willing to advocate for them, to help them.
EMBRACING THE PROCESS
Kids aren’t born with self-advocacy skills. They don’t know yet what works for them as a learner and they have to learn how to ask for those things. If you ask a student "What do you need to focus and to learn?” unless another teacher has already worked it out with them, they probably won’t be able to answer that question accurately. So there’s a period of time- like growing pains- while we try things out.
And that makes me nervous while I’m still training. Trial and error feels hard as a new teacher because you know what the stakes are and you want to get it right for those kids. So embracing the process is hard, but it’s something I know I have to learn how to do. The teacher I’m learning from is so calm and has a very clear direction so I can see how much is possible, but it’s hard to know where and how to start.
Successful schools work hard to build a strong community of adults in addition to the students. We don’t all have to be best friends, but there does have to be respect and support among the staff. You have to work at that, just like on any team. You have to practice being patient with each other. You have to step back. Previously I’ve taken feedback personally, like an attack on my effort and my abilities. The power of a great team is that I don’t feel that anymore. When I get feedback, I know we’re all trying to help each other improve and we’re all working hard to improve ourselves. It’s really helpful to have colleagues that validate what you’re feeling, but still challenge you to be better.
Teaching had always been a long-term goal of Adam Reid’s. So after starting a food co-op in Florida, and then moving to Massachusetts to work with the Pioneer Valley Worker Center, he decided it was time to make the leap from social justice work in the field to teaching social justice in the classroom. With an undergraduate degree in History and a Masters in Latin American Studies, Adam was immediately drawn to the ethnic studies program he found while student teaching at Holyoke Public Schools as a TWM Masters Fellow.
TEACHING AS SOCIAL JUSTICE WORK
The Ethnic Studies curriculum is just phenomenal the way it’s centered around student empowerment, social justice, and social change. It is so cool because we do so much around critical race theory, and learning about systems of oppression and teaching students to have a critical lens through which they can not only understand system of oppression, but how they can start to challenge it in their own communities.
I’ve done a lot of activism work in my life prior to being a teacher. To me, Ethnic Studies is centered around imagining a world that has a greater degree of equality and justice for all people and it provides the tools for students to begin to engage with that and understand it. I think giving them the tools to think critically about their position in the world enables them to be a part of the change. That can be really, really powerful for someone who might not otherwise have the language or the tools to fully challenge or try to change the situation that they’re caught up in.
GETTING MESSY IN THE WORK
There are a lot of things that are really challenging about this work and a lot of things that are really great. In the moments when we really get rolling on something and they begin to connect their own existing knowledge and experience to what we’re learning- that’s incredible. We talk about power and society. We are starting to ask ‘who has power?’ They’re so quick to realize privilege and oppression and they understand it already, they get it. We’re just giving them the tools to process it, and hopefully challenge it and change it.
It can get messy when you’re in it- sometimes you think ‘OK, now we’ll see just what they’re understanding and learning’ and you’re not quite sure where it will go until you watch them start to go back to texts they’ve read and start to connect to their own life. Seeing the moments when the lights go on, when they make that connection- that’s amazing. It reminds me why I’m doing this.
THE TWM MASTERS FELLOW EXPERIENCE
I was the first TWM Masters fellow. While completing my Masters in Teaching degree at Smith College as part of the Project Coach Graduate Fellowship, Teach Western Mass gave me an additional stipend to live on, and in turn I was committing to work in one of their partner schools for two years afterwards, or longer, hopefully. TWM helped find me a practicum placement in one of their schools while I was getting my degree so I could have a really good student teaching experience.
I was initially looking for a job in high school education but through my experience student teaching at Holyoke High School I was introduced to the ethnic studies program and was immediately interested. I found out that there were social studies teachers doing something a little different than traditional U.S. history. I met one of the people who oversees the ethnic studies program and I just asked if I could check it out. I had time to observe classes so that’s what I did. It was really cool to sit in, see what they were doing, and get to meet the teachers. They were so warm and welcoming.
I went out of my way to talk to people and meet other teachers. I was fortunate that I already had two mentor teachers so I was already getting a view of two different classrooms. I wanted to see as many different ways of teaching as I could and the more I engaged, the more they would reach out and share what they were thinking and doing. There was a lot of casual collaboration which was really helpful for me as someone just learning how to teach.
Then, when I was ready to look for a full time job, I knew what I wanted to pursue, and TWM helped by putting me in touch with the schools that wanted to hire someone with my interests in Western Mass, and they invited me to job fairs.
Sarah Greany is a second grade teacher at Maurice A. Donahue School. She previously worked as a pre-K teacher and a paraprofessional.
WAY MORE TO TEACHING THAN READING AND MATH
Parents are sending me their children and entrusting me to care for them. There’s way more to teaching than reading and math. It’s always been a mentorship role for me. I look for the chance to share experiences from my own life and earn my students’ trust. Too often my students struggle to understand the importance of what happens in school, so I look for the chance to make those connections to their future. They might be interested in video games, so I’ll talk to them about what skills a video game designer needs or we’ll talk about the increased income that comes with a high school and college diploma.
DIVERSITY DEMANDS AN OPEN MIND
We value open-mindedness. Many of my colleagues weren’t born here, but come with a sense of respect for the reality our students are growing up with—whether it’s homelessness or immigrating from a country they’ve never been to. Our teachers need to have an open mind that will help those children feel included and trust them. That’s not something that they teach you in school, but it’s highly valued here and is making a difference in our community.
A FEW OF MY FAVORITE THINGS ABOUT WESTERN MASS
This is a community-oriented place and there’s so many opportunities to get involved. NYC, Boston, the Berkshires—you can hop in your car and drive to the beach in a couple hours. It always strikes me that we do lessons on weather that we’re lucky to be in a place that has four seasons. It may sound cheesy, but it doesn’t feel like the holidays when you don’t have beautiful snowfall and cold weather. There’s amazing hiking, skiing, running and biking trails. And beyond that, there’s always our great restaurants, shopping, and music venues!
Formerly a sales and business analyst, Kim O’Grady decided to change careers and follow in her father’s footsteps. She is a Master Teacher in math at Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership’s Forest Park Middle School.
PARENTS PLAY A CRITICAL ROLE
I believe that we are all in this together and that whatever is going on in school, should be continued at home. Students need to be getting consistent messages from teachers and their parents, so we look for ways to get parents involved. Too many parents only hear from a school when there’s a problem. I feel it’s our job to go above and beyond to make them feel welcome. My colleagues and I look for opportunities to connect with parents around positive things. Whether it’s “coffee time” with our principal or pizza nights, we’re looking for opportunities to help parents develop a positive relationship with our schools.
OUR TEACHERS GO THE EXTRA MILE
Our teachers are incredibly determined. We had one student who just didn’t want to be at school. He wouldn’t do homework and was acting out in class and at home. His teacher was really struggling to engage this student because she really cared and was determined to help. I admit I was skeptical when she recommended this student try out for our end-of-the-year school play. At first, he was hesitant, but the more she discussed it with him, the more interest he had in having a role. It was like night and day once he started doing it. He made friends, he started trying harder in school, things improved at home. It’s an example of our teachers’ determination to stick with a student no matter what. His mom recently signed him up for acting lessons. It reminds me of the importance of what we do.
THE CHANCE TO BE THE TEACHER THAT CHANGES A LIFE
You can always name that teacher in your life that has had an impact on you and your life. In Springfield, you have such an amazing opportunity to make a difference. Many of our kids come from difficult backgrounds. They’re not just coming to school for education; Many of them are looking for a connection, for mentorship. Having the ability to impact these students in a positive way—not only educationally, but emotionally too—is what makes my life here so rewarding.
Lori McKenna has been an educator with Holyoke Public Schools for 11 years, teaching grades 9-12. She has been an active part of her school community, serving as a member of the instructional leadership team, working as a tutor for students, and leading professional development for fellow teachers.
ENGAGEMENT IS KEY TO HELPING ALL STUDENTS SUCCEED
I love teaching because I believe teachers can have a tremendously positive influence on students—no matter their background. Our schools serve students who are still learning English, students with special education needs and IEPs, students who have experienced many difficult challenges in their lives, as well as students who are on task for successful academic achievement. I work to understand where each student is and how I can be most effective in helping all students succeed. I believe the best way to do that is to establish meaningful relationships with my students. If I can build connections with my students, create clear rituals and routines in my classroom, and show them that we have a relationship of respect, all of my students will be set up for academic success.
TAPPING OUR GREATEST PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT RESOURCE—OUR TEACHERS
Our district recently launched Holyoke University, an opportunity for educators across the district to teach classes to their peers and share their expertise and unique experiences. Whether it be using restorative justice or learning Spanish to better communicate with your students, Holyoke teachers possess a wealth of resources and Holyoke University taps into that. I’m currently teaching a class called Questioning and Engagement Strategies, which I hope will give teachers strategies to ensure that they are using higher order thinking skills in their lessons and that they are engaging all students in the classroom for these activities. Some of these strategies are ones that I’ve developed myself and some are ones that I’ve learned through my own professional development that I’m sharing because I’ve found success with them.
HOLYOKE TEACHERS LEAVE THEIR EGOS AT THE DOOR
Trying something new can be scary. What if I try something new and someone drops by my classroom and it looks like a failure? I’m proud that our teachers take risks and are comfortable trying out new strategies that will help their students learn. If you are open-minded and willing to try something new, that’s how we get better. That’s how we best help our students. We are intentional about collaboration and doing whatever it takes to see our students succeed. I had a student who was disengaged in my classroom, but because I speak regularly with her other teachers I learned that she was excelling in my colleague’s class. We worked together to figure out what it was that unlocked that student in her classroom. This ongoing collaboration makes us better—makes me a better teacher, makes us all better teachers. We leave our egos at the door for the sake of our students.
After teaching stints in both France and Niger, Lorie Banks found herself at home among the cultural and linguistic diversity of Western Massachusetts. She has taught the 7th and 8th grade students of Holyoke for nearly a quarter of a decade and is still finds joy and wonder in the middle school experience.
THE MIDDLE SCHOOL EXPERIENCE
It’s a fascinating age, middle school. They are learning who they are as individuals and beginning to express that individuality and assert their independence. At the same time, they still need to be nurtured. Once they’re in high school, they see teachers as peers, but in middle school, teaching is much more like a guidance role. When I was deciding what I wanted to be, I had this community of nurturing and healing in my life that really spoke to me. My mother is a nurse and my sister is a nurse, but I knew I didn’t want to be in the medical field. I saw teaching as another way to be a nurturer, and middle school is the perfect age for that.
TEACHING THE GENERATIONS
Over the last 24 years I’ve built a position in the community. And I can’t say it any other way. I just can’t leave the kids. I’ve now been teaching long enough that I’m teaching some children of children I taught at the beginning of my career. So, for a lot of my students, I already have that familial relationship. The kids are truly my favorite thing about my job, about Holyoke. It’s fun to see the similarities between the kids in my classroom now and the parents that used to be kids in my classroom. I have students in my classes to whom I’ll say, “Your mother would never do that” or “your father was always like this or that.”
The other night I had dinner with a former student who is now an interior designer, I get invited to the weddings of other students, I taught the mayor of Holyoke. They still want me to be a part of their lives as an adult. That’s a wonderful feeling. It’s amazing to be able to continue my relationship with my original students in this new way. Only a few professions allow you the kind of deep, lasting connection to the community that teaching does.
DOING WHAT IT TAKES
My school is unique. We were the first school to go into receivership in Holyoke. I was one of only four or five out of 40 teachers that chose to stay once the school was in receivership. Every new teacher that came here knew what they were signing up for. We are trying to bridge the gap between where our students are academically when they come to us and where the state wants and expects them to be by the time they leave us. It is hard, hard work, but we’re invested in this work, we signed up for this work. We knew it was going to be hard, but we are open to growing as professionals and increasing our collaboration. We are all on the same page. If I knew the secret to a great school, I’d be an administrator! I think it’s a combination of strong leaders, teachers who love what they do and are willing to put in the effort and the fight. Investing in the community, too. There’s no one thing. Yes it is difficult, challenging work, but we’re all invested in doing it, and that’s the foundation.
Growing up in Springfield, MA and attending both traditional district and charter schools, Imani Hines gravitated towards leadership and diplomacy opportunities and thought her future was in government. After completing two years teaching 6th grade math in Dayton, OH, Imani realized that the impact she wanted to have was in the classroom, ensuring that the next generation of Springfield youth had high quality educational options.
THE POWER OF PREPARATION
UP is the first school where I have been coached on academics, behavior, and classroom management, and the first time I’ve had someone in my classroom on a regular basis giving me feedback. They are invested in me as a person and a professional and I could feel that from day one. The first day of professional development in August our coaches were demonstrating their commitment to feedback and growth in front of us: they were sitting in the back of the room, live coaching and providing feedback to each other during the Professional Development sessions! That’s when I knew the expectations of teachers here were going to be different from anything I’d previously known.
We are all constantly growing, getting better. Everyone has something to offer. The first four weeks of Professional Development a coach was working with small groups of teachers every single day. By the time the first day with students rolled around, we were ready. We had practiced our lessons, we had practiced what we would do, how we would adjust if something didn’t go according to our plan. We were prepared, and being prepared is powerful.
UP wants to develop strong teachers because they know that pays off for the students. They want teachers who are intelligent and know their content thoroughly, but they also want teachers who are deeply invested in the work and community.
‘GETTING OUT’ AND COMING HOME
When I was in school, being successful seemed to be defined by having one of two careers, a doctor or a lawyer. As such, I wanted to become a lawyer as well. I felt a strong pull towards public service: I was a class legislator, I participated in Youth and Government at the YMCA, I did Model UN in High school, I was a member of my neighborhood’s community council. I’ve always wanted to find ways to fight on behalf of people, and until college I thought the only way to do that was to become a lawyer and become a really good legislator.
Being in the classroom in Dayton gave me a new perspective on ways that I could best help and support my community through education. I knew there was a lot of work to be done from my own experience in Springfield. Being in Dayton solidified in me the importance of ensuring a quality education for students no matter what their background. It was painful to watch kids attempt to pursue things and being told “no” instead of “try this” simply because of lack of resources in their own community. So I decided I wanted to be a part of an effort to provide those educational opportunities to all kids.
In this community we’ve always celebrated those who have left, who ‘got out’. We have all kinds of different events which celebrate people who have left and “made it” Just look at who is invited to speak at our convocation events and the type of students who are acknowledged on our website. We aren’t telling the story of the people who have stayed and reached success by contributing to the community. I want to show my students that there are opportunities in Springfield, that they have the power to make the changes, to have an impact right here in Springfield. Atlanta, New York, L.A.- they don’t need you. But we need you. We need your mind. We need your ideas.
THE KIDS NEED US NOW
It is urban, but not super urban. The difference is this: we have all of the challenges of the big urban centers without any of the big urban center money. We have kids with deficits, who have experienced trauma, but we don’t have the resources to support them. It falls a lot more on the teachers, then, to do more than teach content.
Listen, Boston is going to get someone who is just as qualified as I am to teach my subject, or any subject. It’s Boston. Here it’s not as competitive because Springfield isn’t sexy- yet. But you need to go to the places that aren’t hip and sexy and cool because if I’m not teaching here, there is a good chance that I won’t be replaced. There are openings now from teachers who couldn’t be replaced. But our kids don’t have time to wait until Springfield becomes ‘hot’. Plus, in the not-so-sexy places, you get to create more than you can in the already-cool places.
A VOICE FOR WESTERN MASS
I’ve noticed that Western Mass has been underrepresented in decisions being made state-wide. Programs such as Teach Plus Policy Fellows and the Teacher Advisory Cabinet of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education provide opportunities for teachers like me to have input on policy decisions statewide, and get a sneak peek into the inner workings of DESE. These programs always have an overflow of Eastern Mass teachers, and in the case of Teach Plus only recently began to recruit teacher voice from Western Mass. People are starting to take notice of us in Western Mass. We’re on an upswing. Now we’re getting recognized for our voice and opinions. It’s important that we have people here who are here for the kids in the classroom, but it’s also important to be here to make real, lasting change outside of the classroom, too. It will be difficult, but it is worth it. We’re not in it for the income, we’re in it for the outcome.
Phelipe Johnson grew up in Pittsburgh, PA and worked in a nation-wide not-for-profit organization before enrolling in law school. After working with students for two summers during law school, he realized that teaching, not law, was his calling.
THE SUPPORT TO SWITCH CAREERS
I don’t have a traditional background in education, so during my first year I wasn’t thrown right in as a teacher, I got to serve as an associate teacher. That position is awesome for someone who is new or changing careers. I got to gain experience, float, observe, adapt to the new culture. I was able to do everything a teacher does without the responsibility so I got to learn for a full year. All new teachers at Springfield Prep are assigned a coach, too. You meet with them once a week and they’re always in and out of the classroom and giving you suggestions about what you can do to improve your practice and classroom.
The community of teachers is awesome. I really appreciate the open door policy, especially as a new teacher. There are always people coming in, and there are always people willing to help, and always willing to give feedback. We have a co-teaching model, which is great because you can bounce ideas off each other, give feedback to each other while you’re in the classroom, and because there are two of you in the classroom, you’re able to get things done more efficiently.
SHAPING EXPECTATIONS THROUGH TEACHER VOICE
I think we do have a lot of autonomy built in, but everyone is also on the same page. As a teaching staff, we do a lot of norming so things are the same across grades and across subjects when it comes to culture, expectations, and standards. So when a first grader is walking down the hall and he sees me, a third grade teacher, the student knows that I have the same expectations for him as all of his own teachers. Some of our students have inconsistencies in their personal life, so we want to make sure that school is a place where they know they can come to and things will be consistent, where they feel safe, and where the expectations are high.
CREATING CONSISTENCY THROUGH HIGH EXPECTATIONS
The clear expectations and culture of continuous improvement is everywhere, not just among the students. In the spring the teachers have a working day with different sessions where we can give feedback to school leaders on specific topics like the design of the school day, curriculum choices, professional development offerings throughout the year, etc. They ask for feedback from the teachers and actually listen to what we have to say. I’d never heard of that before, where you could be open and honest with administration about what was going well in the school and what needs improvement. It’s good to know that your thoughts and words and opinions matter in your school. It builds morale, it creates community, it empowers teachers.
ADJUSTING TO WESTERN MASS
Coming from a bigger city you do have to adjust to Western Mass and being in a much smaller area. You may see someone at the gym, then you’ll see them at Target, then you’ll see them walking down the street and you say hello to them because it’s like you know them, but you don’t. It takes some getting used to, but it’s great. I can go to the Puerto Rican bakery on the weekend and see some students and some parents, and my being there shows them that I’m invested not only in their child’s education in school, but I’m invested in the community itself.
Some people do see Springfield in a negative light, but if you come here, you realize that the people are no different than anywhere else. And there are also so many hidden gems. It can get a bad rap, but there are a lot of great hidden places and things to do, you just have to look for them.
Militza Semidei, a native Spanish speaker, has taught in Holyoke Public Schools for 17 years in a variety of roles. Four years ago she was a part of the team that pioneered Holyoke’s first Dual Language program- a program that is now beginning to be replicated in other schools.
BREAKING BARRIERS, UNITING CULTURES
I teach in Spanish, my native language, which provides me with the opportunity to share the language and culture with my students. Being able to see their growth over time is wonderful. A lot of the students come to me with no second language skills and by the end of the year they are beginning to have the ability to read, write, speak and understand Spanish while acquiring cultural competence. That’s what we’re about in the dual language program.
Being immersed in a language that is not your own can be challenging and stressful. When the kids are motivated, happy to come to school, and when they want to learn- anything is possible. Every day I strive for my students to feel comfortable in school and understand that we are here for them. Parents need to know this, too. When that happens, content learning and second language acquisition can happen. I have an afterschool club for third graders who I had in kindergarten. Back in kindergarten, the Spanish language abilities of these students were limited. They really couldn’t speak, read nor write in the second language. Now I’m able to have fluent conversations with them. I see it as breaking down barriers and uniting cultures. To add to that, students can do so much more meta linguistically because they can process in two languages. They have a bigger set of language and processing tools to use when they’re problem solving.
BUILDING CONFIDENCE THROUGH LANGUAGE
All of our students become flexible thinkers with the ability to build life-long friendships with children of different cultures and language backgrounds. Most of my students are English native speakers. We have some students who speak only Spanish, and some students whose first language is English, but Spanish is spoken at home. They are all here because their parents want them to be bilingual.
We have a 50/50 model- 50% is taught in Spanish and 50% is taught in English. The students learn reading, writing, math, phonics, and science in both languages. Students are increasing their first language skills and acquiring a second language simultaneously. Most of our Spanish speaking students make great progress in both languages because they have support in their native language to access the grade level content to be on grade level. Part of the day they are learning in their second language and might be struggling a bit, but the other half of the day they’re thinking “I’m being successful in my own language.” We want to build students’ confidence by providing scaffolds in the second language to promote higher order thinking and problem solving skills that will allow the movement to the next zone of proximal development while providing them with critical thinking in their first language.
SPREADING THE WORD
In our dual language program, we have a lot of interest in enrollment from English speaking families but not that much interest from Hispanic families. Our biggest challenge at the moment is to figure out how we can get more Spanish speaking students enrolled in the program. If we have a true 50/50 model, the Spanish speaking students can serve as role models for the non-Spanish speaking students providing more opportunities for language competence in the classroom by allowing for cooperative learning and practice of the language.
The program began with only Kindergarten and this year we're up to third grade and we added a Pre K. The expectation is to grow to 5th grade. It’s exciting because other schools in Holyoke are thinking about implementing the Dual Language model. All of us believe in the Dual Language Program and its ability to help second language learners, both in English and Spanish. We believe they will be successful students who think critically in both languages and are multi-culturally competent in a global world.
The 2017-18 school year marks Ybi’s 8th year in education and her 2nd at UP Academy Kennedy as an ESL teacher. She moved to Brooklyn, NY from the Dominican Republic in 1995 and has recently moved to Western Massachusetts.
DESTINED FOR TEACHING
I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, ever since I was a kid. I think it’s because I have a lot of teachers in my family. My dad was a principal of a school in the Dominican Republic and he had a lot of prestige, a lot of respect in the community. I think as a kid it looked fun to me, so that’s what I decided I wanted to be.
When we moved to the United States it didn’t seem so glamorous anymore. I’m not sure when it happened but there were definitely a few years when I thought, “huh, maybe I’d rather be a lawyer, or something else, but not a teacher.” But by the time I got to college, I knew I wanted to be a teacher again, I just wasn’t sure when I’d be ready to commit to it.
Right out of college I worked at a non-profit and a school came to us asking to partner. I knew at that moment that it was fate telling me “this is what you’ve wanted, go get it.” I knew that was the place for me. I was instrumental in forming the partnership and then I got to be a member of the founding teaching group. I’ve been in the classroom ever since.
I’ve always tried to be a culturally sensitive teacher; that’s always been important to me because I didn’t have that growing up. I find that here, in Western Mass, it’s even more important to be intentional about bringing in other cultures, experiences, people, and languages into the classroom because one of the biggest differences I’ve observed between New York and here in Springfield is the sense of mobility. In NY, if you wanted to explore things, you had that option. You could explore the different neighborhoods, boroughs, museums; and for the most part, it didn’t matter how disadvantaged a kid was, they could explore, so many of them did. It’s different here. I have kids that have never been outside of their neighborhood. That’s a huge difference. I didn’t know that was a thing- not exploring.
Since they don’t have the mobility to go explore what’s around, I try to give them the tools to get exposure to things within the classroom. It helps them build empathy and an understanding that they’re not the only ones that go through this. I think it helps them be better world citizens, too. It helps them understand differences without judging those differences. The more we can expose them to others the more context they’ll have when they have to work with other people in the future.
BUILDING COMMUNITY TO BUILD LEARNING
I work with a lot of new-comers. It is really difficult work. This year I have had new students start every week. So you make progress with a group of kids, and then a new student starts and they are on a totally different page and you have to adjust your teaching to make sure every student is getting what they need. And sometimes you have to pause the curriculum and find a way to make that new student feel loved and welcomed before you can do anything else. But you have to balance that with still challenging and engaging the kids in the class that have been there for 9 weeks or 10 weeks. It can be frustrating for the students. It is so interesting to observe the other students when the new new-comers arrive. Sometimes the other kids forget that they were in that position just a few weeks or months ago. They forget what it’s like to be a new-comer so quickly, so I try to do things that build community amongst the students immediately.
One thing I like to do is an introductory question game. The new students get to ask questions about me and I let the other students try to answer the questions. They ask silly questions. “How old are you?” My favorite, “Do you live with your parents?” “Is your favorite color pink?” It breaks down a lot of barriers in a short amount of time. They get to see pretty quickly that I’m open and welcoming. Sharing stuff about my life makes them more comfortable sharing about their life, which isn’t always easy when you’re in a new place. I’m trying to build that community for them with the other students so they know there are people to look to when they’re in that mainstream class and feel like they need some help.
HELPING STUDENTS HELP THEMSELVES
We have to find ways to make sure we help those students help themselves without being a disruption. There are really simple things that we all take for granted when we become accustomed to using a language. I make sure all of my students know how to say commonly used classroom phrases like “May I use the bathroom?” and “I need help” or “I have a question”. Teaching them these phrases isn’t about ‘learning English’ as much as it’s about giving them a little control over their experience and that helps them be able to focus on learning.
We do simple things like making sure that there are dictionaries in the classrooms, for example, and pre-annotating work for the students so they aren’t getting overwhelmed by the number of words in a sentence that they don’t know rather than focusing on the words that they do know. We don’t want them to shut down because of the learning curve, we need to do everything we can to help them access whatever small amount they can so we can build on it. If we can give them those little bits and pieces, we can make a huge difference.
We’ve tried ‘strategic seating’, too- pairing a new-comer with a student who can help them without getting completely distracted. We are very cognizant that we have to set boundaries for the students in these situations, though. So many of these kids want to help the new kids so badly that they’ll spend a lot of time with them and miss out on their own learning. So we try to encourage them to help but also understand they can always say no and ask a teacher to help.
Seth Burt grew up in Western Massachusetts and was inspired by his high school physics teacher to become a teacher himself. After majoring in Physics in college, he took a year to complete his MTELs and he is now in his 4th year teaching high school science. He has also served as a member of his school’s Teacher Leadership Team.
A DIFFERENT PATH INTO THE CLASSROOM
I was inspired to pursue teaching by a teacher I had at my own high school. He made learning an amazing experience. He managed to make connections between what he was teaching and real life. It struck me as really incredible and I always wished I’d had more teachers who could do that- make learning authentic. It was during that year that I had him that I decided I wanted to be a teacher myself. What better way to honor his influence in that decision than to teach the same subject he did?
I decided to major in Physics rather than the more traditional Education major for teachers. I wanted to have the depth of knowledge within the subject so that if my students had those really deep questions, I would be able to give them the best possible answer. It was a very trying experience when I first entered the classroom, though. I thought teaching was just about conveying content to the students. I learned very quickly that it was much more than that. Knowing that made teaching mean even more to me. Rather than it just being about relaying information to your students, it became about building relationships with those students, making it personal for them, and making sure their best interests are followed at all times.
My advice for someone following this same path into the classroom is to understand that knowing the content is only part of the battle, but knowing your students, how they operate, how they think, how they learn is another big piece. Understand that you have people in front of you. People who don’t necessarily know who they are or who they want to be. They are not computers who are just ready to absorb information. They come from all backgrounds, all walks of life, all skill levels, and all those things have to be considered when you’re offering the material to them.
MATURING INTO YOUNG ADULTS
I love the chance to unlock the sense of wonder in students, to get them interested in the material on their own, to get them asking questions about the material, and to get their excitement up. It’s a wonderful thing to experience- seeing the light bulbs go off. I’ve had kids say “when we went through that unit on electricity and magnetism- that really piqued my interest and I’m starting to think about studying electrical engineering.” That’s really cool. We have such a need for young, fresh-minded engineers, so to get these kids interested in it is certainly a reward in and of itself.
These high school students are young adults who may or may not know who they are and what they want to do. I don’t want to lead them down a specific career path, but instead, open their eyes to what paths are open to them and how many different ones they can consider. A student comes in at only 14 years old, after middle school- some of the most turbulent years of their life, maybe- and all of a sudden the expectations are so different. We have an impact on them as they mature through high school into the person they’re becoming. That’s big. That’s incredible.
WHERE THE WHEELS OF PHYSICS MEET THE ROAD
I have a very hands-on approach to teaching. Everyone who comes into my classroom has a different style of learning and processing information. So I try to include lessons that work for those who learn in a very hands on way, and visual learners, interpersonal learners, and students who do best working on their own.
I use a lot of Project Based Learning, too. I pose an essential question that has more than one right answer or maybe it doesn’t have a right answer, and often it’s a challenge for the students to come up with the best possible solution with the materials at hand and the resources I give them.
In October, we finished the physics unit on Newton’s Law of Motion, so I challenged my students to create a catapult. They had to create a model and explain to me how the catapult demonstrated the concepts that we had learned. That allowed them to see and to feel the real world connection between the materials and the equations they’re learning and the math that they’re using. It’s where the wheels of physics meet the road. A catapult flinging things across the room! What student doesn’t want to do that? It really drives the student engagement through the roof because it’s an opportunity for the students to own their own learning.
Seeing those light bulbs go off, seeing the smiles on the students’ faces, there’s laughing, it’s so incredible. During the final ‘test’ of the catapult, every shout of success, or even the moans of despair when it doesn’t work, is proof that they’ve learned from the experience. That’s growth mindset: “it wasn’t perfect, but I learned a lot.” That’s a valuable life lesson that goes beyond physics. You don’t fail until you decide you’ve failed. You can keep trying until you decide to give up. It’s one of the proudest parts of my teaching style and practice.
Mary Kay Brown
Mary Kay Brown has more than a decade of experience managing and administering magnet grants for schools and ten years of workforce development work with a focus on making the connection between school and career by providing career education, training, and opportunities for students.
OUR COMMUNITY SUPPORTS SPRINGFIELD STUDENTS
Through our school’s “enrichment block,” community organizations lead five-week learning programs designed to help our students by exposing them to activities and subjects that they might not normally have access to in a typical school day. Our partners, including the Jewish Community Center, the City of Springfield Public Health Department, Martin Luther King, Jr. Family Services, Dakin Humane Society, Community Music School, Junior Achievement of Western MA, and many more, send professionals into our school to work with students to expose them to a variety of activities, interests, and social issues such as music, healthcare discrepancies, the ethical treatment of animals, and financial literacy. Students learn how the workplace readiness skills inherent in all these fields make them well-prepared students and are exactly the skills they’ll need to thrive in a twenty-first century workplace.
There’s nothing worse than having Peter not talking to Paul. Our teachers value communication, collaboration, and creativity in addressing challenges. Counselors, teachers, and parents meet as a team each week to make sure that no student here is falling behind. Together, we strategize ways we can help students with attendance, behavior issues, or academic challenges. Our school culture values out-of-the box thinking and supporting our kids no matter what. Our teachers also meet weekly in vertical- and grade-level teams to look at student work, practice instructional moves, look at student data, and strategize best practices to support student achievement and positive school culture. As a Magnet Expeditionary Learning School, our teachers work together to design curriculum units that integrate a social justice theme. Our Habits of Scholarship—respect, responsibility, quality, and perseverance—are critical components of Expeditionary Learning Schools and are as important to learning as academic content. Our teachers also strategize around ways to use these traits to support a positive school culture.
SMALL TOWN LIVING WITH BIG CITY ACCESS
I grew up outside of New York City and worked in Midtown Manhattan for a number of years, and I worried that I’d be missing out on all the culture by moving to western Massachusetts. I was wrong. Springfield is beautifully positioned because it’s an hour and a half from Boston, two hours from New York, down the road from Hartford, and Northampton and Amherst are right up the road. We enjoy the benefits of living in a small community, while still being able to get into a car and be in the middle of the action.
Growing up in Springfield, MA, and having a less-than-perfect educational experience and having no plans for college, Dez Caldwell never thought he’d find himself on ‘the other side of the teacher’s desk’. Sixteen years later, he returned to his hometown to lead the improvement of an historically underperforming school.
THE JOURNEY THROUGH AND INTO THE CLASSROOM
I went to a high school that, at the time, was considered the place where kids who didn’t have much of a future should go to pick up a trade, go on about their lives in either manufacturing or the military. But when I got into high school I found some amazing teachers who really invested in me. They instilled in me the confidence that I lacked previously.
In my senior year I was doing well enough to take an internship tutoring middle school students. The teacher kept telling me “you should go into teaching- you’re so good with students.” At that point I thought “I never want to be on that side of the desk. Nope. I like you, but I don’t like teachers that much.”
One day she asked me to be in charge of the class for a few minutes. I went student to student and helped them with their math and realized that a few students had similar questions, so I told them we weren’t going to do individual work- we were going to do a lesson. That was my first time standing in front of a class, with chalk in my hand, and the teacher came back in and gave me this look like “I told you this was what you were supposed to do.”
I wasn’t convinced, I didn’t apply to college. I wasn’t planning on going to college. College was for rich kids. It wasn’t for me. She did research, and she found a scholarship where I could go to college for free if I devoted time to teaching in Springfield afterwards. I still wasn’t completely sold, but she kept pushing, so finally I filled it out, she mailed it, and the next thing I knew, I got a scholarship and was going to college.
I had an amazing experience at Springfield College and when I graduated I became a 7th grade ELA teacher at Duggan Middle School. That began my professional journey.
TAKING PRIDE IN YOUR ROOTS
For my generation, there was an idea that in order to ‘make it’ you had to leave. There was this feeling that if you stayed in the area, it was because you couldn’t leave, it was failure. So one of the first things I tell my students is “yep. I’m back”. I want to show them what someone from here can accomplish. I want to talk about all the positive things that are going on because when we’re in the news, it’s not typically for positive things. It’s all about instilling pride in where we are and who we are.
At my school in Durham, we graduated 96% of the students and every student got accepted to college. In Hartford, we were able to graduate 100% students and 100% accepted and enrolled in college. I was at a point in my career where I felt like I was doing some really great things and I was hearing about the things that were happening in my own city. Ultimately I thought, “I gotta go back home.” So, the most exciting part is that I now have the ability to help my friends and family. Kids in the school are related to me. I have students in the school who are children of people I went to school with. I have students in the school who are children of students I taught. That’s a big deal to me. If I’m putting my skills to use, I really feel strongly that it should be for people I have a long-term connection with. In a place I really feel deserves the absolute best. And I sure hope I’m part of the absolute best for all the students an families and educators I interact with on a daily basis.
NOBODY IS BROKEN, HERE.
I want my young teacher to know, you’re not coming here to fix our school or our students. Nobody is broken here. Yes there are things we want to and need to improve. You’re here to do that. But we’re not dealing with broken people, broken systems. We’re dealing with things that need to be improved, and you can be a part of that process. Don’t come to Western Mass thinking there’s an inherently disconnected or shattered thing that requires this savior complex person to don a cape and fix it. We are a very strong and proud people who are capable of doing these things on our own.
Like all places, there are challenges, but the rewards far, far outweigh the challenges you’ll have. The beautiful scenery, the awesome people you interact with, the absolutely beautiful homes that are affordable, it’s an absolutely wonderful place. Now that I’m back, I question why I left. So if you can handle the snow, and you’re ready to roll up your sleeves and get to work, I’m ready and waiting to hear from you.
Joretha Lewis has over 15 years of educator experience as a classroom teacher in both urban and rural environments, literacy coach, district instructional coach, implementation specialist, and school leader. Originally from Philadelphia, PA, she worked at Clayton County Public Schools, and now calls Western Mass home.
WESTERN MASS- THE HIDDEN GEM
Western Mass truly defines what urban education is. Usually when people think about urban education they think about the major metropolitan cities. But Western Mass provides everything a big city does- the colleges and universities, both two year and four year, access to a number of different traditional and non-traditional educational options. And in addition it provides a community that wants its students to be successful. It wants its students to excel and go on to a two or four year university and ultimately come back to share their story, to serve the community that served them, and inspire the next generation. You don’t find that in your typical urban education setting.
I immediately fell in love with the school, the community, and the natural essence of Western Mass- it’s such a hidden secret and hidden jewel. Western Mass kids are resilient. They are passionate. The kids want to be here. They want an advocate. They have a desire to be successful. What else could a principal ask for?
MORE THAN BOOKS, MORE THAN CLASSROOMS
I have two favorite parts of my job. One is getting to see how building solid student relationships helps students grow both academically and socially. The other part is getting to work with a dynamic group of teachers who truly understand what it means to be in the business of educating kids- that educating kids is bigger than just books. It’s really about impacting the whole child.
Teaching in Western Mass, especially in Springfield, it takes a different, dynamic type of teacher. When I say it takes a dynamic teacher- I mean when we educate a child, we are educating them academically, socially, and emotionally. So sometimes, dealing with that triangulation means you have to adjust, you have to change instruction on the fly, or have a tough conversation.
My teachers are dynamic because they are brilliant at creating an environment where kids feel safe and want to learn because they know the adults really care about them as an individual, and as a human, not just as a student. The teachers understand that what they do here every day impacts how these kids grow and mature outside of our four walls, too.
When I walk into my teachers’ classrooms I see my teachers giving our kids their all. I don’t mean just all their content knowledge and what’s in the books. I mean all their knowledge of the world, and what it truly takes to be an ideal citizen. That’s a balance of education, social awareness, and emotional balance. My teachers aren’t just teaching academics, they’re teaching character.
ADVICE FOR NEW TEACHERS
The advice I would give to an up and coming teacher in Western Mass is this:
Understand the community you serve and understand the value that already exists in the community you serve.
Understand that what you teach your students impacts them outside of the four walls of your school, so teach them how to advocate for themselves, and how to communicate effectively.
Understand that things will change and you must be willing to be flexible and adjust on the fly. But the change stretches you, causes you to become a better teacher, it does not break you.
Born and raised in Western Massachusetts, Rachel Romano found herself living at home after her New York City apartment became uninhabitable after September 11th, 2001. Initially intended to be a quick stay before heading back to NYC to pursue a career in advertising, Rachel ended up substitute teaching in Springfield Public Schools, a decision that would radically change her career trajectory and expose her to the challenge and promise of improving education for western Massachusetts’ students.
CREATING A PROOF POINT FOR WESTERN MASS
I went to public school and always thought it was the great equalizer. When I arrived at a middle school in Springfield more than 15 years ago as a substitute teacher, I realized that was not true in all places. I became a full time middle school ELA teacher shortly after and was really committed to working with and making progress with the kids that came into my classroom far behind grade level. I worked hard at that for several years and then began to realize that for me- being only one teacher in a school that was struggling, in a district that was under performing- wasn’t creating enough change in the lives of the kids I served.
I was fortunate to work with great colleagues who were dedicated to improving outcomes for kids and we gave one of the first tries at school turnaround in Massachusetts in 2007 before most people had even heard the term ‘school turnaround.’ We designed a turnaround plan and implemented it as best we could given the little bit of autonomy we were given. It was very inspiring to me in many ways and while the school didn’t have all the autonomy it needed to turn around, we made some progress with just the bits of autonomy we had. That experience of having just a little more autonomy in a district school is what got me thinking about and excited about starting a charter school. That was the catalyst for most of the vision for Veritas Prep- a school where we could reset the bar for achievement in Western Mass and provide a proof point for the potential of these students.
IN SEARCH OF...
We are always looking for people who are really committed to our mission, to social justice, and to improving outcomes for students.
We are looking for people who are going to put students at the forefront of their thinking and decision making every single day without fail.
We are looking for people who are humble enough to know that they will never have all the answers- that we as a school don’t have all the answers even as we may be outperforming our peers.
People come into a school with their own baggage, their own history, and their own context, and that’s unavoidable- we’ve all experienced some version of education. But we have to recognize that the student experience now is so different from most of our own and that’s because it’s a different time, it’s a different era, it’s a different generation. For many teachers it’s a different community from the one they grew up in, or currently live in, or have previously worked with. It is important that we get to know, and understand, and respect the students and the specific community that we are serving and be careful not to assume too many things.
We ask our scholars to work so hard, and to do things they can’t currently do, and try things that they are afraid to try. We ask our scholars to fail constantly because that is a part of learning. If we don’t do the same, we’re hypocrites. There’s no room for negativity in the work we do- there’s always a daunting challenge or task ahead so if you’re someone who likes to figure out why something can’t be done- you’re probably not going to be a good fit here. We embrace our struggle and try to be honest about our own strengths and areas for improvement. Don’t think you have the answers. Even when you’re successful in your own classroom, or when the school is making progress, you and we have so much room to grow. It’s about coming in with an open mind and being ready to learn and grow alongside your students.
In the end, we are looking for people who are dedicated to improving and growing their craft as an educator, and people who are ready to learn because teaching in our urban districts in Western Mass is probably up there with the hardest jobs in this country. It is demanding emotionally, physically, mentally, and it requires somebody to give their heart, soul, and mind to this work.
The need in Western Mass is far greater than it is in Boston, or New York, or other metro areas. That’s a fact. The need for exceptional talent and educators in Western Mass is off the charts. If you want to be somewhere where your work is really going to change the lives of young people, then this is where you need to be, right here in Western Mass.
The opportunities are endless, too. The opportunity to come in to a school and make a significant difference in the lives of children here is tremendous. The opportunity here to grow into meaningful leadership positions is one I don’t think you get elsewhere. If you are dedicated to the work, and you are willing to learn and grow, you can have a great career here as a teacher, a leader, an educator in Western Mass.
And, of course, I just think that Western Mass is a great place to live.
MORE THAN A FEELING
Here, we believe it is fundamental that the people working closest to the students can actually drive, inform, and lead changes in the school. And do so quickly! There is no red tape in the way. If teachers want to change the schedule for next week, or for next year because they believe it will improve outcomes for these students, they have a lot of flexibility and authority to make it happen.
The autonomy allows us to move fast. If we see something that needs fixing, we fix it. If we see that we need to order something, we just order it. Teacher’s needs are met very swiftly here and teacher voice is a part of every decision we make. It is a big part of why our teachers are happy and our morale is high- because not only do they feel empowered, they actually are empowered.
It is unbelievable what you can accomplish when you have a team of smart, passionate people all moving in one direction toward a singular goal. While the work is really hard, you can achieve small successes every day. Seeing those and celebrating those successes together- that feels really good.