Onalee Smith: Welcome to HMH Learning Moments! I'm Onalee and for today's Teachers in America episode we sit down with anti-bullying champion Rachel Swartz. Rachel teaches sixth-grade English Language Arts at the David A. Stein Riverdale Kingsbridge Academy in the Bronx in New York City. Now, here's Rachel.
HMH: Rachel, thanks again for joining me for Teachers in America.
Rachel Swartz: Thank you so much.
HMH: Let's jump in. So, do you remember the moment when you decided that you wanted to teach?
Rachel: I do.
HMH: What happened?
Rachel: When I was in high school, I kind of had a “mean girl” type experience. And so, I went from someone who had a lot of girlfriends to having no girlfriends and not really knowing why—and, you know, just the kind of mean things that girls can do. And, it was one of those things where there were a few girls that sort of said nasty things and did nasty things and then everyone in the group followed that kind of bystander mentality. I sort of turned to my teachers for guidance and support, and I didn't really tell anyone what was going on necessarily. But I think that they noticed a huge change in my personality and sort of thought, “Well, maybe there's something going on with that kid.” And I see that honestly in myself now as a teacher: I'm always looking and saying, “There's something going on with that kid. I'm not sure what it is.” And so I can see how they sort of thought that.
When I was in high school, one of my teachers—Mrs. Lewis, her name was—did the plays and the newspaper, and those were two things that I was really interested in. And I sort of got to know her a little bit better through those things, and she specifically took an interest in me. And, I could even say that she favored me.
HMH: What did she teach you?
Rachel: She taught theater and then journalism, which was with the newspaper. But she also did the after-school plays and the after-school club for the newspaper, so I saw her a lot. And so I think through that sophomore year, she sort of saw that there’s something off. And then by junior year, she really started taking that strong interest in me and giving me roles in the plays—but not roles that were, I guess you would say, easier or simpler. She gave me things that were different or kind of would empower me. And, at the time, I didn't really know that. Like, for example, in Alice in Wonderland, I played a character that was kind of like the queen, and she was very mean and nasty and sort of full of herself—and that really was not me. And so, I was thinking, “Oh my god, why did she give me this part?”
HMH: You got to play different roles.
Rachel: Right. Yeah, and I think that, thinking back, she did that to not only give me something to make me feel special but to make me feel empowered. Because here I am, standing up in front of everyone, and kind of being this strong female character that I maybe so badly wanted to be inside in my real life and couldn't necessarily do. So, that was really amazing.
And then with the writing—I always liked to write. I always wanted to be a journalist. That was what I wanted to do. But then once I met her and some other teachers who I had—other great writing teachers, Mrs. Dugard was an amazing teacher I had for creative writing—and they all sort of taught me just to use what I had in me and kind of find a way to give that back to the world.
HMH: They helped you decide? They suggested you become a teacher?
Rachel: They both encouraged me to do what I wanted to do. And I think that they told me I was a good writer and that I could definitely do that. But I just started to idolize them. And I think when you have nothing, that's what you sometimes do, right? So, I felt like my world was sort of falling apart around me. It was a very hard time. I mean, I'm talking I ate lunch in the bathroom—it was bad. I really had no friends, because the girls would then talk to other people, and then it was just everyone didn't like me, and you didn't know why. And it was just . . . it was really hard.
HMH: Horrible. That stuff goes on today. Sometimes in [bullying happens on] social media rather than up front.
Rachel: Yeah, today it's even worse. I mean, I was in high school when sort of social media was starting, and I purposely just didn't have it for that reason. People started letting me eat lunch with them so that I wasn't in the bathroom. Mrs. Lewis would write me passes to get out of things so that I didn't have to be with my peers. If there was a senior event when I was a senior or junior event, she would be like, “No, you're not going. You're going to stay with me, and you're going help me with this.” And she would give me something special to do so that I didn't feel like I was kind of this loser.
So, they didn't necessarily say, “Oh, become a teacher,” but then I think I brought it up to probably Mrs. Dugard, the creative writing teacher. So, Mrs. Lewis was older; she was like my mom's age. Mrs. Dugard was young; she's like my age. She was 28, I think, so like my age now. So, I thought she was the coolest. I really looked up to her. I thought she was beautiful, she was smart, she was funny, she was intelligent. I mean, she just was what I wanted to be. So I think that that's kind of what led me, and then I wanted to be what Mrs. Lewis was to me for someone else.
HMH: If somebody was asked to describe a teacher, I'm not sure that they would come up with those adjectives! And, having role models as teachers and teachers as role models is so important, whether they're men or women, but for kids generally—and, I think, for perpetuating great practices and great people going into the profession. So, thank you to Mrs. Dugard and to Mrs. Lewis on our behalf and your kids’ behalf.
Thinking about the 29 students in your class today: You're teaching a class every time you teach, but you're also teaching 29 individuals. You're trying to reach them. You're trying to have them trust you. You're trying to get their best work, and you're also trying to keep everything organized. Tell me a little bit about how you how you manage to teach 29 souls at once.
Rachel: Well, it's difficult when you think of it like that. But it's also very simple, I think. So you know you want to teach something that is going to mean something to the students in some way. So, I think that's where you start. You know they always say the best lesson is the best kind of way to manage behavior. And so I think that that's a start necessarily in terms of reaching them in some way. Because whenever I teach, I always think of the subject matter—usually more than the activity, if that makes sense. I want them to learn something when they leave my room. I want them to . . .
HMH: Like content—you want them to know something.
Rachel: Yeah, and I want them to have it relate to their life. That's like my thing—I want them to have something that not only is interesting to them, but they can relate [to] it in some way. So right now, we're doing the “World Wonders” unit where we're learning about all the wonders around the world that are sort of being destroyed by pollution and weathering and corrosion and all these things. And so, we're going to tie it in with the whole thing about pollution, and how we can start recycling more, and how can we start that in our community, and things like that—so it becomes realistic, becomes tangible. It becomes something that they can actually apply to their own life.
HMH: And that they care about. [Read more about culturally responsive teaching strategies.]
Rachel: Right! Yeah. Because when they start to realize how much waste we make, they're going to kind of all have this fire lit under them and say we need to make a change, and they're our future, and it's important. I think you have to get to know them, and it's hard to get to know them.
But the other thing I think that's huge, and that I think that we don't hear enough about in the education world necessarily, is collaboration. Collaboration is huge.