Podcast: Tracy in Marion, North Carolina, for Teachers in America

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


Our guest is Tracy Childers, a science teacher at Foothills Community School, a STEM magnet school, which is part of McDowell County Schools in North Carolina. After graduating from college, Tracy spent the next 30 years in supervision and management in the textile industry. He decided to pursue teaching to honor the memory of his two daughters, Casey and Courtney, after they passed away in an automobile accident in December 2002. In the 16 years he has been working as an educator, Tracy has been a middle school science and math teacher for 6th, 7th, and 8th grade. His current school, Foothills Community School, is a Project Based Learning (PBL) school with mixed-grade classrooms.

Below is a full transcript of the episode.

Onalee Smith: Welcome to HMH Learning Moments. I'm Onalee. I produced this podcast. And for today's episode of Teachers in America, we're joined by Tracy Childers. Tracy is a science teacher at Foothills Community School, part of the McDowell County school system in Marion, North Carolina. Foothills is a STEM magnet school for grades 6 through 8, and they use a project-based learning, mixed-grade classroom approach. Tracy is the father of two, stepfather of three, and the grandfather of four. He began teaching in his 50s after spending 30 years in supervision and management in the textile industry. After more than a decade working as an educator, Tracy had been considering retirement before finding his current role at Foothills. Now I'm excited to turn it over to Tracy.

HMH: Hi Tracy, thanks so much for coming in and spending some time podcasting with us.

Tracy Childers: Hello. Thank you for inviting me. I'm glad to be here.

HMH: So, I’d like to start by talking about a teacher in your life that had a real effect on you and who you think back now to as someone, as a teacher, who inspired you.

Tracy: My sixth-grade teacher. His name was Jack Hodges, and he was an amazing man. I really enjoyed being in his class. I was a fairly rambunctious young man, disorganized. My grades were good, I just had a hard time getting my thoughts organized. Mr. Hodges was wonderful; he didn't scold. He directed me. I love sports, so he used that to direct me, and really my sixth grade was a real turning point. I've always been thankful that Mr. Hodges was there when I was in sixth grade. Also, my older brother is a career teacher and just hearing him talk about the profession, seeing him and knowing him sort of drew me in. 

HMH: So, where did you start your career?

Tracy: When I graduated from college I went to work in an industry as a supervisor and manager. So I worked in the textile industry for 30 years.

HMH: And was that local to where you live?

Tracy: I lived in western North Carolina and in east Tennessee. I changed jobs several times, but it was all within a hundred miles. I never felt the love for my job like I do now. I was good, I mean, I was competent, I did a good job.

HMH: You were a manager, right?

Tracy: I was a manager.

HMH: You had a lot of people who worked for you. 

Tracy: I did. I say often, talking to people, that my next to last job I had was in a facility where I had 160 people under me and five supervisors. We worked seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. I was responsible for the results. But I've never had a harder job than being a classroom teacher. I've never remotely had a more rewarding job than as a classroom teacher. So when I changed careers, looking back I wish I had changed earlier.

[Producer's note: A growing number of people are entering teaching as a second profession; about 40% of teachers with five or fewer years’ teaching experience enter teaching through alternative teacher preparation programs. This changed about 20 years ago as alternative routes to traditional teacher education programs become commonplace throughout the country as ways to certify and bring individuals who already had at least a bachelor’s degree into teaching. Learn more about the pros and cons of becoming a teacher later in life.]

HMH: So how long have you been teaching?

Tracy: This is—I just ended my 16th year.

HMH: Oh, congratulations.

Tracy: Thank you.

HMH: Pretty impressive. Yeah. So why did you switch? 

Tracy: Well, a sort of a long, winding story. In December 2002, New Year's Eve, my daughter's Casey, 24, and Courtney, 22, were in an automobile accident and they were killed. That was a fairly life-changing event. It was hard. It is difficult dealing in a job [where] I was going to just became kind of hard. I wanted to remember the girls. I wanted to do something out of devotion—not devotion, that's the wrong word—but a memorial to them. My brother said once why don’t you think about teaching and, oh my gosh, I don't know. But I wanted to give. I wanted to go to work every day saying, I'm giving this in memory of my children. And teaching offered that, that you can give back, you can. It's a giving kind of job. So I do it every day and sort of in their honor.

HMH: That's such an incredible thing, Tracy.

Tracy: Thank you. But it motivates me and I've loved it. I mean, the paradox is I'm doing it for them but I'm doing it for me. I love what this is. I get a new family every year. I mean there's a hundred—well, my current job, the kids move up and I move up with them. 

Teachers in America guest Tracy Childers.

HMH: Oh, you loop. 

Tracy: We loop. Yeah, we loop. 

HMH: Oh, that's so good. I love the research that shows how great an effect it is on their learning and on the solidity of the relationships.

Tracy: Absolutely. The next year they will hit the ground running. I know them, they know me. They know the expectations. I know where they are, know their strengths and weaknesses. So you really hit the ground running. So I really like the fact we're doing that.

HMH: Every year you get a new family.

Tracy: I get it added to. At the school I'm at our homerooms are called families. So when I get a sixth grader in my family, I keep them for three years. So I really get to know them. I really get to know their families and it makes that connection much better. Then in the seventh grade, in eighth grade they become my leader. So when I get a sixth grader in my family, they're modeling, they're helping. They're helping me because they know the process. So I really like the way that ….

HMH: It's such a different model of education and progression through the grades. Right now it's almost like you're growing leaders. It's almost like what happens in good work environments where people are moving up in their competencies and are mentored by a manager.

Tracy: You have great insight. That's our plan, we want to make the kids future-ready. You know, in a lot of classrooms filled with wonderful people working very hard doing the best they can, everything is sort of isolated. I go to math and then I go to language arts and social studies. That's not the way the world works.

HMH: Right.

Tracy: And so we're trying to model that in a safe place.

HMH: Yeah.

Tracy: They're not out in the world, but you are kind of seeing what it is. We try to give them a safe environment to fail. I learn more by making a mistake than I've ever learned by doing it right. So we want to give them that safe environment.

HMH: So that means you have a pretty integrated approach to curriculum. If everyone's not sort of so faculty-like.

Tracy: Very much. We are project-based, that’s our model.

HMH: But you're a science teacher.

Tracy: I'm a science teacher, and every teacher in middle school is a reading teacher. You really need to be. Plus I integrate math, and we'll play in a nine-week project, and whatever standards that I'm teaching that nine weeks will tie to the project, and what math is teaching that project. I'm very much involved with science, with social studies, language arts, and math. What they're bringing in so I can connect my class to what's going on. So every class they go to sort of connects to every other class. Plus it connects to a common project.

HMH: So the project is completely cross-curricular.

Tracy: Totally.

HMH: And is that what makes up for grade for the nine weeks or are there other ways that you . . .

Tracy: In my science class let's say I'm teaching ecosystems, and their project involves building a greenhouse. They'll be graded on how they complete that greenhouse, but they'll also be graded on how they understand ecosystems. So whatever components I'm teaching in ecosystems, they have to master each component. And then they get how did you do it.

HMH: So there's both knowledge and application.

Tracy: Yes. Yes, absolutely.

[Producer's note: Project Based Learning is a teaching method where students work on long-term projects that investigate and respond to a real-world problem or a challenging question.]

HMH: In the school you're at, Foothills Community School is considered a pretty innovative school.

Tracy: It is.

HMH: Partly because of the integrated curriculum but also the approach to STEM.

Tracy: Correct.

HMH: Tell me a little bit more about how you are contributing to that innovative approach.

Tracy: Let me draw back three years ago. I was very much thinking about retiring. I didn't want to do that. It's about that time and this job came up; it was posted in our county. I read that job description and I went, “This is the job I've been looking for 45 years.” I was almost as nervous applying for that job as I am right now. I got the job, and my principal is an amazing lady who has a vision that worked, that we're following. She was an instructional coach in the county. Our superintendent is a man who supports us and supports our innovation. So we're a team, we're collaborative. So we all are contributing to where we're going. I think my contribution, my goal, is to have every child one year closer to being a productive adult, whatever that encompasses. And so that's sort of the frame we're all looking for. Are we serving that child? Are they mastering the material or serving their emotional needs? How is the family involved. Every child is different. I mean, they're human beings. They're not numbers. They're not data. They're human beings. So you need to understand how that child learns and how it doesn't learn. A lot of what we use day to day is extremely important but to use that data to say, “OK, these children are mastering, but these aren't.” So I need to deal one-on-one with these children to find out who they are. How do I make it relevant, and then how do I bring them up to master.

HMH: So you talked about mastery, and that's a different kind of model than a lot of skills use.

Tracy: I'm very passionate about this. In mastery, say you're a fifth grader and you take a fractions test and you make 40 on it. How do you overcome a 40? So that sort of stuff. You are tattooed with that 40 in mastery. If you're in sixth grade and you take a practice test and you make a 40, “Ok, Johnny doesn't understand this. We're going to have to work with him to scaffold with him during our school time.” We have something called WIN, What I Need. So, Johnny would need help with this math during that half an hour every day he would be giving him. So let's say it's three weeks later. Johnny gets assessed again and boom, he knocks it out the park; he's now mastered it. He's now shown me that 40 goes away. So it's not an albatross around his neck. He's mastered it. He checked it out, and we move him to the next level. We may move Johnny now. Mary may have gone there two weeks ago. So once they've mastered sixth grade, we're able to push them off a lot of times. A really bright child in a class that is being led together will get bored. We're not going to let you get bored. We're going to push you.

HMH: Think back to the past school year. What's been one of the high points of the year.

[Producer's note: Self-care is essential for teachers, as according to the Alliance for Excellent Education, the stressors inherent in the profession cause 40 to 50% of new teachers to leave within their first five years on the job. Read more from the National Education Association.]

Tracy: Okay. High point is a young man that I've had for three years. He came to me as a sixth grader. This young man was a struggling reader. He really was, and he wanted to do well. But he's painfully shy. We make our kids present, and he'd stand in front of the class and look at his feet and mumble. But over the three years he had wanted to be successful. He had that drive inside. He wanted to be an astronaut, that was his goal. He learned all about NASA. At the end of the eighth grade they do a passion project. They get to pick, this is my passion, and I'm going to do a project. It can be anything: welding, singing, acting. Wanted to do and he got up and presented in depth. It went from NASA to microbiology; he presented a paper on vaccines in emerging pathogens. It was beautiful. His head was up, he was engaged with the audience, and he was looking around and his voice was. . .. I cried in the classroom. It was amazing. He's almost like the poster child for our school. He's still middle road as a reader, but he's now got the heart to say, “I can do this.” So that was the high point, watching him present the last day, last week of school.

HMH: Was there a tough moment this year where you felt like, I'm not sure I can keep doing this? 

Tracy: There are always days when they walk out and you go, I’ve got no more tools. What are we going to do. Self-care is a real issue with teachers. Teachers are so involved with the kids and the community and what's going on and the next thing and the next thing. You sort of lose self-care. You can get down; you can get fatigued. You can get burned out. It usually happens in February. I call it the long month of February. The kids, they don't want to be there, and you don't want to be there. I have amazing colleagues who are supporting me. My wife is a retired school teacher. She's very supportive. So you get through that, especially if you look at the kids. You get up the next day, and it's like it's a new day. We're going to do this. I’ve had a few, one young man who I just couldn't reach. I actually called him up to my desk and said his name and said you're a hard nut to crack. I just told him, I said, “You got to help me, please help me. If I fall on something that grabs you, that attracts you, you tell me, you come to me after class, Mr. Childers.” That's it. And eventually we found it. But you don't want to get where when a child comes into your room. I said to you don't want to. But sometimes you do. So those are the low points dealing with that. 

HMH: I think back to what you said about feeling responsible in the textile plant for 160 people and the results. It's really the same thing. You're responsible for all of these people and their results, and their results are not just numbers as you say. Their results are who they are as a human being.

Tracy: Correct.

HMH:I can hear that in your voice.

Tracy: Yeah. Yeah.

HMH: So what do you think the benefits are of being somebody who comes to teaching as a second career. Are there things that you feel like you took from your experience as a manager in an industry that are able to inform. 

Tracy: One of the advantages was that I was 52. I worked as a middle manager, so I had people over me and I had people under me dealing with it. So you have time and you learn to reflect. You don't learn to be swayed by this is the worst thing in the world or is it the best and while you reflect you got. I had a 30-year career, so that I came into teaching with the ability to reflect: ok, that didn't go well, what can I do differently? Who can I go see who can help me? And a lot of young teachers don't do that. They’re just like, oh this is horrible I'm no good at this. They don't get that, wait a minute, all first-year teachers struggle. If a first year teacher tells you they didn't struggle, they're lying to you, I'm sorry. So having that advantage of being able to reflect plus working with people, working with, in the industry you work with these different personalities, and you learn to navigate.

[Producer's note: Nationally, about 10–15% of teachers are in their first year of teaching. Without proper support, this first year is a particularly difficult time that leaves many new teachers feeling discouraged.]

HMH: As you think about the year ahead, what do you hope will be something you can achieve next year with your kids or yourself.

Tracy: I want to get better at connecting to the community. I work really hard connecting to the kids, but I want to draw in their families. I want them to be involved in it. I need to be a better emailer. I need to be a better phone caller. I need to make my class feel more open to the parents, so they feel comfortable coming in and visiting me and the kids. I also want to get better at connecting the real world to our kids today, I want it to be relevant. I've had kids say, why am I learning this, I'll never do this. I better have a quick two-minute speech. See it is relevant, and here's why. I want to get better at choosing things. My principal is amazing. She's amazing. We turn in weekly lesson plans, and she reads them and she'll give us notes. When I was teaching genetics she looked at my lesson plan and she wrote me back and said, that's a great lesson plan five years ago, and like. “Tracy, time to maybe look at something else,” which is a great advice. I respect that; I appreciate that. So I went out and looked at another lesson, which was much more engaging, which was much more what it needed to be. So I don't want to get lazy. I don't want to say, well this worked last year, I had a great year last year. These are new kids. It's a new time. You've always got to think—I was born in 1950, so my education experience has nothing to do with these guys, nothing. So I'm always having to update what's out there.

HMH:Where do you get those ideas when you're looking for more engaging lessons or plans?

Tracy: The internet's an amazing thing, I love it. There's National Science Teachers’ Association, and Teachers Pay Teachers, and there's colleagues and workshops. There's quiet time to sit down. What are they trying to learn? How did this lesson plan go? How can I engage them? How can I blend technology with good old-fashioned teaching? And a lot of what I come up with I'll hear or see or read and then tweak it, change it make it fit me, make it fit my kids. One of the two most important lessons I learned as a first-year teacher was, I went in and I tried to be the TV teacher, the teacher you imagine you should be. So I'm very rigid, and I get to Christmas. Now, this is not working. If there's anything a middle schooler can do it, it’s see a fake. 

HMH: Totally. 

Tracy: And so at Christmas I went, I'm going to follow best practices. I'm going to search with the best teachers. I'm going to find out as much as I can but I'm going to be me. And then the next year I was able to start new and be me. It was a great realization. 

HMH: If you could wave your magic wand and change something about either your particular teaching context or more generally the profession of teachers, what would it be?

Tracy: I think high-stakes integrated testing is the worst thing that happened in public education in my lifetime. It changes how people teach. It changes how they see children and not in a good way. Children become numbers instead of human beings. And that's totally sad. It's a hard thing to resist as a teacher. I'm all about accountability. I worked 30 years in ensuring accountability. It's totally important, but integrated high-stakes testing, making a third grader take a three-hour reading test, it's horrible. So find a way to have accountability for teachers and schools without abusing the children. There are better ways. I want teachers to think of themselves as professionals. They don't, they don't. And if you want to be treated like a professional, act like one, carry yourself like one. Speak up when asked. Go to meetings, be involved. You're a stakeholder. Education is changing dramatically. The world is changing. Globalization has changed every institution. So teachers are going to have to get involved. They're going to have to step up and say, we need to be part of this. So I would hope teachers would become . . . we are professionals. You need to treat us like professionals. Know that we need to act like professors.

HMH: That's great. So I hope you're not thinking of retiring.

Tracy: Well, I'm 69 at Christmas. 

HMH: So?

Tracy: You sound like my principal.

HMH: Seems like the Foothills Community School is a great match for you.

Tracy: Yeah.

HMH: But it also seems like your approach, your innovation, your professionalism, and your ability to reflect and make your practice better is of huge benefit to them and especially to your students.

Onalee: This episode of Teachers in America is dedicated to Tracy's daughters, Casey and Courtney. It's in memory of them that Tracy decided to become a teacher. We want to thank you all 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 Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Stay tuned for future episodes of Teachers in America, including our next episode, which is an interview with Rodney Robinson, the 2019 National Teacher of the Year. We hope you enjoyed today's show. Please consider reading and reviewing and sharing with your network. HMH Learning Moments is produced by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, The Learning Company. Thanks again for listening.

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Research for this piece includes contributions from Joanna MiralShaped staff.

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