Podcast: Alexa Tegtmeier in Boston, Massachusetts, for Teachers in America

On the HMH Learning Moments podcast today, we have our sixth episode of season one of the Teachers in America series.

Our guest is Alexa Tegtmeier, a third-grade teacher at Curtis Guild Elementary, which is part of Boston Public Schools. Alexa has been teaching for five years and just completed her second year at Curtis Guild. While she was an undergraduate student at Northeastern University, Alexa took a class in urban education that inspired her to volunteer with JumpStart through AmeriCorps. Then, with Teach for America, Alexa taught a summer school course in Chicago, Illinois, and spent two years in Miami, Florida. She received her master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins University School of Education before returning to teach in Boston, Massachusetts.

Curtis Guild Elementary School serves kindergarten through fifth grade. Rose previously spoke with another teacher at Curtis Guild, fifth-grade teacher Wilson Boardman. The school has approximately 300 students, with a demographic breakdown of 80% Hispanic, 18% Caucasian, and 2% that is largely African American and Asian. 65% of the student population is classified as English learners. The school embraces a spirit of diversity, collaboration, and hard work—and staff are committed to their students’ personal and academic achievement.

Below is a full transcript of the episode.

Alexa Tegtmeier in her classroom, recording Teachers in America

Onalee Smith: Welcome to HMH Learning Moments. I'm Onalee, and for today's episode of Teachers in America, host Rose Else-Mitchell, HMH’s Chief Learning Officer, sits down with Alexa Tegtmeier, who teaches third grade at the Curtis Guild Elementary School in Boston, Massachusetts. Now let's hear from Alexa and Rose.

Rose Else-Mitchell: Do you remember the moment you knew you wanted to be a teacher? 

Alexa Tegtmeier: I kind of always wanted to be a teacher growing up. I come from a really big family with a lot of kids so I spent so much time with my younger siblings and cousins.

Rose: You were the oldest.

Alexa: I was the oldest. Yeah.

Rose: So you played school.

Alexa: Yes. Oh all the time. And my Aunt Christine would always talk to me about how she thought I would always make a great teacher. And it kind of was just a thought that was just always instilled in me. So when I went to college I started to major in elementary education and psychology.

Rose: Were you a good student?

Alexa: Oh, I was. I loved learning! I would talk to my dad every August—beg him every day to go get my school supplies. I was such a nerd. I had a little bait and tackle box [with] all my pencils and my erasers.

Rose: I was one of those kids that when vacation and holidays came along—and you know that meant you weren't going to school—and all the other kids went “yay,” I was . . . I was sad.

Alexa: Yeah.

Rose: Yeah.

Alexa: Yeah, definitely felt some of that.

Rose: You teach your class with 25 kids. You have to teach all of those kids and you have to teach every one of them individually. How do you manage that every day?

Alexa: I think that's a really big misconception a lot of people have . . . is that we get these kids every year and we get this curriculum and we just teach it and they learn and we move on and it's far from that. I have to differentiate a lot of different things because I have a range of students. I have students who are reading at a fourth-grade level. I have students who are reading at a second-grade level or first-grade level. I even have a student who barely speaks any English. She came to this country a couple of years ago and in September was mostly only speaking Arabic or just not speaking at all. So it takes a lot of planning and it takes a lot of collaboration. So I'm really fortunate to have a really great team here at the Guild of ESL teachers who bend over backwards to support students and teachers just by implementing different methods to help students understand content better. So a lot of visuals [and] sentence stems. I teach a lot of small groups so that I'm able to really split kids up—sometimes into grouping by levels but sometimes it's also beneficial to have them mixed, depending on what we're doing.

[“Boston Public Schools enrolls over 17,000 English Learner students, representing 31% of the District’s total student population. An additional 13% of students (more than 7,000) are former English Learners who have attained English proficiency while enrolled in BPS.” Read more from the Boston Public Schools Office of English Learners.]

Alexa Tegtmeier's third grade classroom

Rose: So today before the lesson started, you not only reminded them about the fractions goals that they were going to be working with but you also reminded them about teamwork, and you structured a lesson specifically around them working in teams or groups. How long did it take you to plan that lesson, and why were you doing something that was sort of different from the curriculum?

Alexa: The lesson that I taught today, I decided to start with teamwork because we need to be teaching them teamwork, critical thinking skills, kindness—and teamwork is just something that we have to work on a lot in here because I have 24 kids and sometimes we butt heads but it took me a couple hours to plan the lesson. What you saw today was one of the stations that we are doing. There's gonna be three total surrounded around fractions. I decided with my co-worker to stray a little bit away from the curriculum just to make it a little bit more interesting. Our kids really require hands-on learning, especially with a lot of the ESL students. They really need a lot of manipulatives and pictures and this lesson was really allowing them to get the opportunity to draw things out—visually see those fractions, instead of just flipping through a worksheet.

Rose: You're teaching multiple lessons a day and a week and they each take two hours to plan. I mean what kind of hour week do you have?

[Read more about how many hours a day teachers work (and how many are spent on actual instruction) in this breakdown from the National Education Association.]

 Alexa: Fortunately for me, I work really closely with my other third-grade teacher and we will divvy up the planning—and we worked really hard this summer writing units. We wrote about five units this summer so that we’re . . .

Rose: So you didn't just have the summer off then?

Alexa: No, no. I think we spent probably a good solid month writing math plans—so taking information from both curriculums. I think that's also another misconception a lot of people have is that we're just handed a curriculum and off we go. The main part of teaching is really thinking about your students and how they learn best, and we made that executive decision together and we're really thankful because our principal supports us and told us to go with it. And we've been seeing some really awesome outcomes with our students compared to last year, which is always really nice to see.

Rose: You taught in a charter school network before you taught here. Tell me a little bit about that and what differences did you notice.

Alexa: So I taught for a year at a charter school in Mattapan, which is just a little neighborhood right outside of Boston.

Rose: High poverty?

Alexa: Yes. Yeah, it was interesting because it was my first experience teaching elementary school. I was coming from teaching middle school and it was . . . the energy there was just incredible. And I really came to see quite soon that if we hold kids to high expectations they really, really can make monumental growth. And it really reminded me, coming from Miami, that no matter where kids are coming from and what their zip code is, what their background is, that they can really achieve anything. I was amazed with the amount of growth students were making in reading over the course of the year . . . math skills . . . It was really, really empowering. We worked with a lot of great principals and school leaders there that didn't have the typical workload as a normal public school principal so they were able to get into our classrooms a lot more. So I was really able to teach . . . learn how to teach with urgency and really invest kids in the content and curriculum that we were pushing.

The Curtis Guild Elementary School, a public school in Boston

Rose: Wow, I love that phrase “teach with urgency.” That's a great catch cry. When you say that the principal was able to get in and see you teach more—a lot of teachers don't like that. I mean, it's a cliché that teachers like to have their doors closed. It sounds like that wasn't you.

Alexa: So, I learned to like it because . . . again because they didn't have the normal workload of a principal. We had an ops team to do all that stuff. We were assigned assistant principals or principals, so we got to have a one-on-one meeting every week and they would come work on things with you. And I would get an email right after they left my classroom: “Keep doing this. Stop doing this. Work on this. Next steps here.”

Rose: Did that feel like micromanaging?

Alexa: Honestly, I wanted to grow. That year I grew so much as a teacher. I still have all of my observation notes from Brian, and I read them all the time just to remind myself: “OK. You know things were rocky this week. I'm going to read this little note to remind myself. Bring it all back. Center myself to start the week off fresh [and] ready to go.” Because we got all of that feedback and it was kind of embedded into our community that this feedback is love. We are trying to be our best selves so we can get these kids and we can move them, so that they can grow and that they can be academically successful and grow into little humans that can go off and accomplish really great things in the world. So when you are getting that feedback, it wasn't something you would ever take personally. It was like “OK, this is my next step to being the best I can be.” And it was just also having that kind of mindset of there's always room to grow. There's always new things that you are gonna be learning as a teacher, which was interesting cause we brought that into our classroom, right? We would tell our students, “I'm not trying to offend you. I'm not trying to be mean to you. I'm just giving you feedback cause I love you and I care about you and I want you to be your best self.”

Rose: Do you imagine that you're gonna have that kind of energy and reflection about teaching for the next five years?

Alexa: I think I will, because I spend so much time anchoring myself into the relationships. Because at the end of the day, that's what keeps you going . . . is the relationships that you're making with these kids. Because day to day, it can be really, really hard. But then you just remember that one student who finally got that sight word or that one student who finally moved a reading level or finally learned how to be kind—like use kind words in a confrontation with another kid—and you see them just growing before your eyes and they're with you for most of the day. So it's because of you and all of the teachers at your school who collectively work together to build that kid up.

[Read more about the importance of building teacher-student relationships.] 

Rose: Yeah. Do you ever have a moment where you think I can't do this anymore?

Alexa: Oh yeah, like once a week, but then you get a pep talk from a co-worker across the hall or go talk to my principal or my assistant principal. And you just have to remind yourself what . . . what your purpose is in here. I have a little box actually of little notes that I had for my middle schoolers or kids I get notes from here and sometimes it just takes just opening that, picking one out, reading it, and being like, “OK, I got this.” 

Rose: That's why I'm doing what I do.

Alexa: That's why I'm doing what I'm doing. 

Rose: Is there a piece of feedback or something that a student said to you that you particularly remember?

Alexa: I was reading some of my letters a couple of weeks ago from some of my middle schoolers. And I looped with them, so I was with them for a really long time and I had like . . .

Rose: Like a couple of years?

Alexa: Two years.

Rose: Two years?

Alexa: Two years. I had a solid, solid relationship with many of them and was reading a letter that a girl wrote me, and it was talking about how I made her smile when she was having really hard times at home and that I pushed her to do her best work in math—I taught math, which is not one of everybody’s favorite subjects—and she said that I was . . . she was sad that I was leaving because she wanted me to keep seeing how hard she was working and that she was so proud of what she did and to hear her say that she was proud of herself just made me feel so full because that's what I want. I want kids to feel proud of themselves at the end of the day. I want them to be proud and take ownership over what they're accomplishing and feel confident in moving into the next grade or the next situation that they found themselves in.

Rose: Yeah, and that idea as well that she was doing it for you. I think sometimes as teachers it's hard to kind of admit that actually part of that relationship building is that kids actually will perform, or do the work, or try because of you.

Alexa: Yeah, and I feel like I never really thought about how much of an impact that teachers are making on students. I mean we were with them for most of the day.

Alexa Tegtmeier and a few of her students during a guided reading block

Rose: But yet when we talked about doing this podcast you said you sort of felt funny about it because you don't talk about your job.

Alexa: Yeah, I mean I . . . I'm not really one to go off and talk about kind of the things that we're accomplishing here. [I] kind of try to keep in my room. I mean I obviously talk about my kids, gush about my kids to my families and my friends and that kind of thing, but talking about teaching practice and stuff like that isn't something that I normally do.

Rose: Well, it's also that people don't talk about it anywhere. I don't think it's just you, right? I mean, you think about you go out for dinner, go to a party.

Alexa: Yeah.

Rose: People don't talk about that even though everybody went to school at some point. You know many, many people have kids . . .

Alexa: Yeah. 

Rose: . . . those kids go to school. I always think that the general population is generally pretty incurious about it.

Alexa: No, I agree. And I think it's an issue too because people don't really know what's going on. 

Rose: Yeah.

Alexa: You know I went to a school where I got everything. There's resources, there is materials. I never felt like I wasn't being supported academically. I was in classes where kids were never behind. But people don't realize what some of those schools are dealing with right now. I mean lack of funds and are lending to us not having enough money for resources, materials, and that's hard. Teachers just start reaching into their own pockets to buy books for their library or additional curriculums or materials. Something as simple as Expo markers because it's just not, you know—there's no wiggle room in the budgets.

Rose: So do you know how much money you've spent on your classroom or your kids this year yourself?

Alexa: Oh God, I don't even want to think about it. I've spent a lot, a lot. 

Rose: Like hundreds?

Alexa: Oh yeah. I mean it lasts for the most part. And I do take a good deal of time to set my room up for my students—to kind of create a place that they can kind of call a second home where they're coming in and they feel at home, and they feel safe, and they feel comfortable.

Rose: What's the most frustrating thing about teaching?

Alexa: I think one of the most frustrating things about teaching is . . . I honestly just think it's just the difference between different school districts based on community or zip code. I taught for a year when I was still at Northeastern at a school in Brookline, which is right outside the city. Wealthier community. And then a couple months later I started working in Roxbury teaching preschool, and I was floored about the difference between the schools. We were getting rid of notebooks because there was too many, you know, sending them home with kids, getting rid of them in Brookline. So I just . . . it just kills me that a school can be two miles from each other and they could just be so different. In Miami we worked . . . my school was a mile and a half down the road from a Country Day School. And it was disgusting how different the schools were. Disgusting. It really broke my heart because the kids that were in front of me were . . . they had so much potential, and I could only give what I can give. And I was so fortunate to work on a team of teachers at that school that lived and breathed those kids. They would do anything for them. I would do anything for them but we just didn't have what the other school has, and the end of the day when those kids all graduate—fingers crossed, hopefully graduate—they go off to compete with everybody else in the world. It's gonna be different. It's just gonna be different.

[Read more about the digital equity gap and how teachers can help.]

Alexa: We didn't have computers in Miami, or we had a cart that we shared with sixth, seventh, and eighth grade—so typing, like one finger, you know what I mean?—whereas other kids are getting technology classes and all of these different electives. Where we had so much teacher turnaround that we didn't have a social studies teacher for three months. So I think that's what kills me, because then it just perpetuates the whole system.

The reading corner in Alexa Tegtmeier's classroom

Rose: If you were king of the world, as they say, or if you could actually change policy even here in Massachusetts, what would you do differently for teachers or for schools?

Alexa: I just think there needs to be more equality. It makes it so tricky too, because now we're . . . students that have been in these low-income schools are so behind. So now we have some of the best teachers in these low-income schools working their butts off to try to make up for that or just try to get students . . . push students farther along without just sending them through. I think back to my first year in Miami, and there definitely were a handful of students that I tried every day so hard to either make a connection with them or work with them, and I had such a big class for one of my classes—it was 32 kids all very, very, very low. So sometimes you just had to be like, “You know what? We got this today, and that's OK. You know we didn't master the standard, but we got this little chunk and we're gonna use that as a celebration.”

Rose: You know, when I became a parent I read about this idea called “good enough parenting” or “good enough mothering.” And I think that's true about teaching: for everything that you want to be able to do and the passion and energy and high expectations you bring, there's a lot of days where your lessons are a “good enough lesson” or a “good enough teaching day.”

Alexa: I completely agree. Yeah. I mean, otherwise you're gonna burn yourself out. And part of that was happening to me in Miami. I was far from my family. Those kids thought they were my family—I lived and breathed them. I lived with my coworker who taught science and we just talked about school all the time. We were at their recitals. We were at their sporting events. We were going through many firsts with them. We were helping them apply to high school, helping them apply to their first jobs, celebrating their successes.

Rose: You really were their family, and they were yours.

Alexa: Yeah, they were incredible and that was really, really one of the hardest things I had to ever do is leave there.

Rose: Yeah.

Alexa: Like top five hardest things I've had to do. Just because they have such a special place in my heart.

Rose: Yeah. Oh, and they needed you. What do you think is the one quality that makes you a particularly good teacher? Not just what you do. What's the sort of essential quality?

Alexa: I would have to say that I'm always looking for ways to improve. I also collaborate a lot. And I think that when teachers kind of isolate themselves from others, they're not helping themselves be their best self. I work on such a great team here, and we're really able to kind of look at our strengths and weaknesses and make next steps from that to see how we can improve our teaching craft. I also get really fixated on things and that motivates me to become better.

Rose: That's great. And is there anything you do to . . . outside of your school community and your teaching partners here to deepen your learning and continue to be such a reflective practitioner?

Alexa: I try to sign up for as much professional development opportunities as I can that our district puts out, which are really helpful. I also do a lot of research and will buy a lot of books to help me in different areas that I want to work on. So one of my goals this year was to really work on guided reading. So I sought out a lot of different resources, looked at a lot of different other teachers teaching guided reading, and kind of started from there and worked on my practice.

The Curtis Guild Elementary School, a public school in Boston

Rose: So do you have any last message to . . . I guess to us? Is there a wish that you'd have for us or a recommendation to us to help teachers like you?

Alexa: I think something that I was really pushed to think about a lot when I started teaching elementary was to think about the student’s experience. And I think that by putting out materials, you need to be thinking about what students are gonna be thinking when they get something like this in front of them or when their teacher is using this lesson. How are they gonna feel? How are they gonna access it? I think about the student experience all the time. I think it's so important.

Rose: That's great. And I love that you said “what they think,” which is a little bit about their academics, but most importantly, what do they feel?

Alexa: Yes. 

Rose: And what does access look like and when you think about the diversity of kids I met today in your classroom. Thank you so much for spending time with us. This has been a great conversation, and I wish all third graders, including my own, could have a teacher like you. 

Onalee: Thanks for listening and learning with us. You can join our community and read our Shaped blog by visiting hmhco.com/shaped. That's hmhco.com/shaped. You can follow HMH Learning Moments on iTunes [Apple Podcasts], Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. We hope you enjoyed today's show. Please consider rating and reviewing or sharing with your network. HMH Learning Moments is produced by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, The Learning Company. Thank you again for listening, and we'll see you next time.

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Read Alexa Tegtmeier’s Shaped blog post: 3 Reasons You Need a Teacher BFF.