Podcast: Brittany in Cincinnati, Ohio, for Teachers in America

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


Our guest is Brittany Mamphey. Brittany is a fifth grade reading, language arts, and social studies teacher at Mt. Healthy North Elementary School in the Mt. Healthy City Schools District within Cincinnati, Ohio, where she has taught since 2013. She is a 2012 graduate of Bowling Green State University and completed her master’s degree at Miami University (Oxford) in 2016 in the areas of transformative urban education and curriculum development. Brittany is passionate about social justice and character education. She was a panelist at SXSW EDU 2019 in Austin, Texas, in a session featuring teachers from Teachers in America.

Congratulations are in order, as Brittany has just completed work on her second master’s degree at the University of Cincinnati in educational leadership. 

Below is a full transcript of the episode.

Onalee Smith: Welcome to HMH Learning Moments. I'm Onalee, and for today's Teachers in America episode we sit down with Brittany Mamphey who teaches fifth-grade reading language arts at Mt. Healthy North Elementary School in Cincinnati, Ohio. Brittany teaches in an urban setting where [teacher] turnover is high, but today you'll hear what keeps her coming back to the classroom. Now let's turn it over to Brittany.

HMH: Let me start with why teaching? Why did you go into teaching?

Brittany Mamphey: There's a few reasons. My mom is in sales and my dad's in accounting and knew for sure I didn't want to do that. Sitting somewhere and in a cubicle and not having the interaction necessarily with other individuals except via e-mail. That's not me. I want to communicate. I want to talk. I also had a lot of impactful teachers growing up.

HMH: Do you remember one of them? 

Brittany: Yes, I do. Miss Connie and she was my eighth grade math teacher and I remember from sixth and seventh grade I kind of was not in advanced placement, classes but a little bit higher classes. And I remember it was like September–October and she came to me in the cafeteria in eighth grade she said, "Hey, why are you not signed up for my Algebra 1 course?"

Brittany: And I'm like, "I don't know." She was like, "You took prealgebra last year and everything else was advanced. Why don't you give it a try?" And she gave me that confidence. And math is still not my strong subject. I still think I got C's in the class, but her taking that time out of her day to approach me and say, “Hey, I believe in you. Give it a try. We're going to get through this together.” That made me very confident and trusting of teachers.

HMH: Yeah, and do you remember the moment that you decided to be a teacher?

Brittany: Yeah, so in high school there was a program that we had through a career center that you went to your senior year where you took some classes at The Ohio State University and tried to dabble a little bit in teaching. And they had came in and did a presentation at my high school about what teaching was, and this is what the program is if you signed up for it. And first of all I was like, Hey I only have to go to school in high school half a day and then I get to go to a college campus. That's pretty cool.

HMH: So it was a mixed course where you were basically getting college credits while at high school? 

Brittany: Correct. And I was like okay, I can spend half a day in high school and half a day here. And Mrs. Kidwell, she was the teacher who gave that presentation and the way that she spoke about teaching and how impactful it was, it had me sold.

HMH:So, your influences for teaching obviously came from teachers.

Brittany: Absolutely.

HMH: Do you think you might be having that effect on some of the kids that you teach?

Brittany: I think I am. There's a few kids at parent-teacher conferences where the parent's like "She said she wants to be a teacher". And I'm like "Oh no no no no no no no." And I mean that's like the highest form of flattery. But it's also I'm glad that they are interested in education and they want to be teachers, but also I mean as we're going to discuss in this podcast the things that go along with that I'm like, no.

HMH: So, tell me about your first year teaching. I certainly remember mine.

Brittany: It was awful.

HMH: It was, right?

Brittany: It was absolutely awful.

HMH: Tell me what was most awful.

Brittany: Classroom management. I mean the amount of control that I had over students was very minimal. I thought that I could just come in and teach and that would just be it, but it's much more. It's much more than that. It's about building relationships with kids and gaining their respect and then you showing them respect for that kind of work. My first year teaching it was an interesting year because I was a long-term sub. So, I was there from October all the way to the end of the school year. So, having that title is like long-term sub. The kids...

HMH: Play around with you?

Brittany: Yes, exactly. And they I think because of like "sub" they just assume that certain behaviors were acceptable. So what I did is when I got hired on that summer I read a lot of books. I went to veteran teachers about classroom management and I said if it doesn't work out next school year I'm done. Like it's a wrap. If I can't manage my kids I'm done teaching because I know over the summer I've given it 150 percent to get this turned around. And the next school year was a thousand times better.

HMH: So, what was your key to success do you think?

Brittany: My key to success was creating a classroom management plan. My classroom was very structured. I created a plan that, how are kids going to pass in papers? How are kids going to get up and ask for a tissue? How are kids going to get into groups for group work? It seems very authoritative but in order for your classroom to run you have to have certain procedures in place or it's absolutely chaos. So, my first two weeks of the school year obviously were diving into academics but it's also unit zero was what I call it, unit zero. Before we even get started with stuff I'm teaching classroom expectations with my kids.

HMH: I love what you said that you have to earn their respect and they yours, right? It's there's nothing automatic that says because you are the teacher you should be in charge. Why do you think that is? 

Brittany: I've only taught in one sort of demographic which is urban education, which we have a lousy retention rate of teachers. So, they're used to a revolving door of teachers. So, after my first year they were like, “Are you coming back? Are you coming back Ms. Mamphey?” And I'm like, “Yeah I'm coming back.” So, each year I think when kids—even kids that I don't have in fifth grade—when they see my face that I've returned, they know that I'm invested in them and they know that I care about them. Even little first graders who see me in the hallway and like “Hey, I've seen this lady last year.”

[Read more on the Washington Post about teacher retention rates, particularly in urban school district.]

Brittany: It automatically sort of earns you, this is a person who has been here more than just a school year and is really dedicated to my success. So, I think kids see that and I think that automatically, I mean you have to build a relationship that doesn't automatically give you the respect. But it definitely contributes to that. When you're consistent they know.

Brittany: Sometimes their home lives aren't very consistent, but they know that they can count on you each day. Each day you're going to be there. Each morning, I'm going to be standing at my door saying good morning. Put your things up. Grab breakfast.

HMH: Yeah. What you're talking about is sort of the basics of creating a sense of security. I mean it's actually a lot like parenting. The idea that you'll always be there. The idea that they can, you know, do something wrong and things will still be okay. That's a pretty profound idea and I don't think one we talk about very much. That's what teachers do. They're creating a sense of security for kids.

Brittany: Absolutely. 

HMH: So, what are the things that you think threaten that sense of security in the building. You mentioned teachers leaving and the high turnover. That in itself is, it's an administrative challenge to replace a teacher. But I think you're also saying it's kind of an emotional on sort of a psychic challenge for the school and for kids. What are some of the other things that rattle kids' sense of security? 

Brittany: Home life, obviously. Whatever is going on at home and sometimes as a teacher it's hard not to take that personally. I've had kids all of a sudden. . . I feel like we've built like a really positive relationship, and something can be happening at home and they expressed those behaviors towards me or towards other classmates. You just have to realize it's not personal. It's not you that they're disliking at the moment, it's the situation they’re in that they can't change. One thing that I try to instill in my students is you don't like your home life, you don't like what's going on right now at your house. And I know you're a kid and you can't change it, but one way out of this whole cycle that you're in right now that you don't like is education.

Brittany: It's education. And whether that be college or whether that be a technical or vocational school that you choose to go to for plumbing or HVAC it doesn't matter, but having some sort of skill that is invaluable that will get you a career will get you out of this cycle that you do not like. 

HMH: That's a pretty important discussion. So, you teach fifth grade. And you've taught other grades in elementary school. You talked to little kids about that idea? 

Brittany: Yeah. Lowest grade I've taught is fourth grade so my fourth and fifth graders. That's exactly what I talk about. We talk about the potential of going to college, and a lot of them of course want to be athletes and there's nothing wrong with wanting to aspire to go to that highest level of the NFL or NBA. But as we all know that’s a small percentage of people who actually make those careers. So, what's your plan B?

HMH: Yeah.

Brittany: What else are you going to do? I think the biggest thing for me with my demographic is when I have kids at home who are going through a lot of things such as homelessness or hunger or domestic violence. Why is social studies important? Why is the main idea important when I'm thinking about what I saw last night in my household? Trying to make that correlation because in their mind what Ms. Mamphey is teaching, this is irrelevant because what's going on in my life right now I can't fix. So, I think trying to correlate the content to how that can transfer and help their situation. And it’s hard for a fifth grader to see five or six years away of how learning about the main idea and supporting details is going to help you in life.

HMH: Their experience trumps everything else, right? 

Brittany: Exactly.

HMH: Continuing the conversation about kids feeling secure at school. Last year [2018] was the highest number of students who were shot or injured in schools around America. How do you think the sort of spates of school shootings and obviously your whole career would have been spent with lockdowns and other kinds of things? How do you think those kinds of issues around school safety affect your kids? 

Brittany: I think they're very aware of it. They're very cognizant of those things that are going on. And you think that, “Oh they're in fifth grade. They don't know what's going on.” But they very much are. And it does contribute to how they feel. And when we have those evacuation drills or those lockdown drills, I will say for the most part my kids take those very seriously. I think that they're very aware of those things that are happening because those are the things that are also happening maybe in their community as well.

HMH: And what about you? How does that affect you?

Brittany: It just it sickens me that in a school building that we have to have these sort of drills and lockdowns and it also is scary that I'm responsible for these 25 lives as well. If something were to happen. One of the trainings we did a few years ago was an ALICE training and it talked about the teacher, I'm on the third floor. So it would be my responsibility to see, look in the hall. Like are we are we going to stay or are we going to flee? And that's a big decision to make if that were to happen whether I'm going to stay in there with my kids or if I'm going to flee, you know while the active shooter is on the other side of the building. It's a very scary thought, you know.

HMH: What do you do to keep yourself well and reduce stress, because teaching is a stressful job. How do you take care of yourself?

Brittany: There's a certain point and it sounds very cold, but you have to disconnect and you have to cut it off. So, I have a few apps that I use for parent communication. After a certain time I will not answer those messages on those apps. 

Brittany: I still have my e-mail going to my phone, which I probably should change. But also on the weekends I try to use that as sacred time. Like that's my time. To be with family and friends and do what I need to do to make myself well. Because if I run myself ragged then it's not doing anything for my kids. And it also puts you on edge with your kids and you start to get very irritated by the smallest things. You're like that's it's me, it's not you. I'm just very irritable at the moment.

HMH: You're super self-aware. Would that everybody had as good boundaries as that at work. I read a business article the other day about the fact that one of the ways to deal with stress and kind of rejuvenate yourself is to treat your weekends as though they're like mini vacations. Sounds like you've got that and got that sorted.

Brittany: I try, I try.

HMH: I love that word sacred. And yeah being able to cut off digitally, I mean we’d all like to do that a bit better, wouldn't we?

[Read more on EDTECH about how many hours teachers really work.]

HMH: Do you want to be a principal, because now your next master's degree is in leadership?

Brittany: I would love to get into educational administration. That's my next journey.

HMH: What appeals to you about that? 

Brittany: What appeals to me about that is the fact that you're able to mentor teachers and you're able to shape the different teacher leaders in the classroom. That's appealing to me.

HMH: Right. And of course together as you're bringing together teachers in a school you can also change the culture of a whole school, right?

Brittany: Absolutely. I feel like me being in administration, I want to be a teacher's principal, and I'm there for kids obviously, and I'm there for parents. But also you're that liaison between teachers in your building and whether that be the board office or whoever your supervisor is as well.

HMH: Right. Yeah, it's funny teachers, teachers sort of have a boss, but they don't sometimes, right? I mean sometimes they feel like their boss is the union because the union helps grant them salary increases et cetera or negotiates on their behalf, but sometimes they can feel like it's their principal. I mean, you know, in the corporate world, and most research shows this, is people leave their job or stay in their job because of their boss. And it's interesting to think about what does it mean to be the boss of teachers and what can you do to be their mentor. I love that phrase: teacher's principal, principals' teacher, teacher's principal. So, let's talk a little bit about technology. Love it or hate it?

Brittany: We love technology, love technology. Of course! 

HMH: All right. Me too. So, tell me what's your favorite technology to use not in your personal life, not when you're having your sacred time. But you know to do your job. 

Brittany: My favorite type of technology used with students is anything that is live: where it gives live feedback or they can lively and put answers. One example is Quizlet live where it's interactive and it's very real time. Where they're competing against each other and they can see who's winning and they can see what's right. And it also allows for collaboration as well.

HMH: Why do you think the live part is so important? What are you trying to get from that?

Brittany: Kids have to have immediate feedback.

HMH: Right.

Brittany: And technology gives that to them, and allows me to give that to them. Google Classroom is something that I love to use as well. I love that when kids can type up an assignment and I can highlight it and put comments and insert the rubric in they can instantly have it returned to them and focus on those areas. 

HMH: Yeah. So, the instant feedback it's not just for the kids. It's also for you, right? So that you can adjust what you're doing a little bit more in real time. When you think about the job of teaching, is there some part of teaching that if you could wave your magic wand and change the job of the teacher, what would you do?

Brittany: Give more time for teachers to collaborate and have that authentic relationship with one another.

HMH: What does that look like? 

Brittany: That looks like time to plan together. Oftentimes we do have a schedule. We do it, but definitely not as often as we should be.

HMH: How often would it be?

Brittany: Probably once a week to see interdisciplinary things aligned. For example, if I'm teaching something in reading then you know the science teacher's also covering it. If the story or the lesson this week is on Mars, then she can also cover some science and aligning the curriculum in that regard. 

HMH: And why would you want to do that?

Brittany: It increases student engagement. Kids are more engaged. I can't tell you how many times that we've read different things and reading that has to do with science and I literally go over to my teaching partner like the kids are asking questions about. I don't. . . I don't know. And she'll come in for like a mini lesson to talk about it. And it would just be amazing if that's where the curriculum map was at the time and my curriculum map was there as well.

HMH: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I mean school being so segmented into domains I think actually makes it harder for kids rather than easier, because that's not how the world is. 

Podcast guests Brittany Mamphey, Rachel Swartz, and Georgette McClain prepare for their panel at SXSW EDU 2019

HMH: So, as you think about all of the pieces of what it means to be a teacher, which is obviously knowing your content, knowing your curriculum, thinking about the curriculum in holistic ways, being mindful of students and what they've experienced outside of the classroom, what do you think it means to be a teacher today and how is it different from how it may have been in the past?

Brittany: Oh, a teacher today you're a jack of all trades. You do everything. You're a nurse. You're sometimes a mom. You're sometimes a social worker. Even though we have an awesome school social worker. Sometimes you're disciplinarian and then teaching almost seems to come last to all of those things. It's almost like Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Until your student's needs are met then the education can't happen. Like the teaching can't happen. So, I've got to make sure all my kids needs are met before I can actually engage them in learning. Definitely you're jack of all trades. It's not just coming in doing a lesson plan, executing it, assessing, you're done. You're a judge, you resolve conflicts. You do so many things every day in the split-second decisions that you make in a day and how it affects the kid's life. And one thing that I learned later on in my career is it's okay to be wrong. And I had a really hard time with that with my kids with apologizing to them. You know if I've jumped to conclusions or if I've was too harsh with the consequence, it was really hard for me to say, "I'm sorry. I apologize I was wrong." And that goes a long way, I've learned, with kids. As an adult to say "I messed up, I'm sorry. Will you accept my apology?"

HMH: Yeah, that is a way to build trust and a way to give kids power in the classroom, right? I think that's part of what can be challenging for so many kids in school is that school feels like a powerless place. If home is powerless as well it, can exacerbate it. So, ways that teachers can give back power is a great goal. What's your one wish for your students at the end of this year? Your fifth graders.

Brittany: I want them to be authentic. I want them to be more caring. And I want them to grow academically overall. That's why I'm here. But definitely those character-building traits are important as well. And I want them to be ready to go to sixth grade and be mature and responsible for their own actions. Right now, it's something we're struggling with is you have to own your own behavior.

HMH: Yes, you do. Well, this has been such a great conversation, Brittany. And my daughter is in third grade. But I wish that when she hits fifth grade or fourth grade she's got a teacher like you. So, thank you for everything that you do for your kids and for the profession of teaching every day.

Brittany: Thank 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 and will please consider rating and reviewing or sharing with your network. Your support is so important to us. HMH Learning Moments is produced by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt The Learning Company. Thanks again for listening and we'll see you next time. 

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