Podcast: Wilson in Boston, Massachusetts, for Teachers in America

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

Our guest is Wilson Boardman, a fifth grade teacher at the Curtis Guild Elementary School in East Boston, Massachusetts. Wilson has taught there for three years and previously he taught fourth and fifth grades in Denver, Colorado, with Teach For America (TFA) and summer school at the Denver School of Science and Technology. Wilson received his master’s in Learning & Teaching: Instructional Leadership in Mathematics from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

The Curtis Guild Elementary School serves kindergarten through fifth grade in the Boston Public Schools system. The school has approximately 300 students, with a demographic breakdown of 80% Hispanic, 18% Caucasian and the remaining 2% are 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.

Onalee Smith: Welcome to HMH Learning Moments. I'm Onalee, and for today's Teachers in America episode we sit down with Wilson Boardman who teaches at the Curtis Guild Elementary School in Boston, Massachusetts. Wilson is a fifth grade teacher who makes SEL the cornerstone of his classroom. Now let's hear from Wilson.

HMH: Hi, Wilson. Thanks so much for having us here in your fabulous classroom.

Wilson Boardman: Thank you. It's a pleasure to have you.

HMH: Tell me, how long does it take to set up your classroom like this? It feels a little bit like being in a kind of Zen zone for fifth grade.

Wilson: Well I'm glad you're getting that vibe because that is the goal. It takes a while. It takes a few weeks in the hot, un-air-conditioned summer building to get this place to a point where it feels ready for that. The whole goal, I think, is to get kids to feel comfortable with reading, comfortable even to the extent of making mistakes and being themselves, and so changing the lighting, changing the ambiance is important. 

The view of Wilson Boardman's classroom from the reading corner

HMH: So tell me when you knew you wanted to be a teacher.

Wilson: I think for me it was similar to many. I had a great teacher, a few great teachers, in high school, and because of that I thought I'd like to do something like these people. I had a Spanish teacher from Panama, and a physics teacher who I really looked up to, and a soccer coach, and those three kind of stayed in my mind when I went to college, but I didn't study education. So when I was finishing my degree I realized I still wanted to teach. I'd done a little foray into investment banking and the whole Wall Street world and realized that this just . . . was not for me. I wanted to be closer to the action and doing something and making a difference I suppose is the cliché term. It goes far deeper than that, right? And so I went through TFA. There's I think some good and bad to TFA, certainly around that time in 2010. But now I'm a classroom teacher and I appreciate I guess being part of that program at that time. 

HMH: What was the hardest thing from your first year teaching?

Wilson: I think for me, and to this day I still deal with it, is a sense of perfectionism, feeling like nothing is good enough. And the truth is nothing is good enough. I mean, particularly in high poverty schools. I think society looks at us and says we need to fix poverty, and the schools are where that happens. So, I think I take that to heart too much sometimes and feel like I’m just never doing enough, whether it's like instructionally or connecting with kids. So the first year, my first year was a mess. It really was. There were some highlights. But I do cringe a little bit when I look back on it.

HMH: Do you remember a particular moment?

Wilson: I remember a particularly good moment. I think my brain has, I honestly believe, has like blocked out some of the bad stuff, which is most of the year. I remember a good moment was actually similar to what you saw this morning where students were, towards the end of the year, starting to talk about problems that they had had, actually with each other but in a really healthy and open way and one kind of based around forgiving each other for problems and one student who had had bullying issues, had bullied other kids, was essentially called out by his peers, and he not only took it in stride but he actually broke down and cried and said he was sorry and that . . . that was probably the only good thing about my first year. 

HMH: How old were those students?

Wilson: They were fourth graders.

HMH: Fourth graders, yeah. I mean to be developing that kind of language and that ability to be accountable and resolve conflicts. I mean be good if all us adults could do that too, right?

It was fascinating seeing this morning's morning message, and just describe a little bit about the rose and thorn circle and how that works and why you do it. 

Wilson: I'm sure I picked it up from not just one probably multiple educators over time. I know in grad school I had a class where we would do that. And I remember thinking "Why in the world are we talking about a little bit of news while we're paying thousands of dollars as grad school class before we start the class?" But as a class progressed, I realize how important it was to the community . . . being vulnerable, taking chances, making mistakes.

HMH: You mean the classroom community? 

Wilson: The classroom community, right. I do. And so I've tried to replicate that here. We do a truncated version of that rose and thorn, highs and lows, three times a week, Monday, Wednesday, Friday. Well, Friday is actually the longer version, which you saw today. And I deeply believe by meeting students or showing students that not only you care about them but they're safe here to be able to share those things, and it could be something small, you heard some student say, “I'm glad it's Friday.” That's fine. Right. That's fine.

HMH: Who isn't glad it's Friday?

Wilson: Yeah true! Yes please. But then some students will open up about clearly deeper and more meaningful things, and making that space for them is super important even for academics, especially for academics. If you don't feel like you're known and loved in a place, it's really hard to get up in front of the class and tell them why two plus two is four or whatever you think it is.

HMH: Teachers are so overwhelmed, and I think it's easy to feel that doing that kind of thing is either one more thing or we don't have enough time. But clearly you believe you do have enough time.

Wilson: I believe it's the first thing we need to make time for. And I think that's one of the hardest things. One thing I have learned over time as a teacher is that you got to just fight for what you believe is right. I mean you do. I should probably be getting them ready for their state test. It comes up in less than a month. If history proves right, they will score not nearly as well as wealthier peers, whiter peers. But I don't think . . . I don't think we're running a factory of test score earners. You know what I mean? 

HMH: Or test takers, right? That's the skill you get, and that's it.

Wilson: I see there's benefit in those things, and I get that they're underlying. I don't think the tests are all bad. I think there's reason to have tests and whatnot, but I don't want to treat kids like test takers. 

Hallway in the Curtis Guild School decorated with art by the students.

HMH: How accountable do you feel for the results your kids get?

Wilson: I think more accountable than I should. In Denver and through Teach For America, Denver has a salary bonus for teachers with higher test scores, and I was always pushing of that. TFA also, at least at the time, in 2010, was big time emphasizing, “What's your data look like? Are students growing?” So much so like cheating was a rampant problem among us core members, us teachers, and TFA.

HMH: Did you cheat?

Wilson: I did. I cheated on, not to tell you, I mean I have no problem saying it. We would have to turn in spreadsheets. And having worked in investment banking I could work a spreadsheet pretty well. So, I knew how to do very easy little random 0–4 and then hard code a few extra fours so the data would look like they're averaging about 82 percent proficiency on their exit tickets for reading data or math data.

HMH: So, an exit ticket is when they leave the classroom? And they say how they got it or whether they got the lesson, got the standard?

Wilson: I didn't even do half of those exit tickets, but I felt so much pressure to because I thought that . . . Part of it too was I just . . . I started to realize I thought it was just garbage. I didn't really care about the spreadsheet of exit tickets as much I cared about just trying to make the next day happen. But at the same time I think I internalize. And it's not just TFA and Denver public schools that did this to me, right? It's me, too. In fact, it's mostly me, but I internalize that what their scores were was who I not only was as a teacher but who I was as a person, my proficiency as a human being. That's poisonous, right? And that's what leads to cheating. That's what leads to all these I think.

HMH: It really begs the question you know what, what is the role of a teacher and even what is school for?

Wilson: Absolutely. Absolutely. 

HMH: What do you see as your . . . the most important role you play with your fifth graders? 

Wilson: I tell them that I would rather them be a caring, loving, kind individual who can't read than the opposite—a great reader, a PhD with just an evil heart. I tell them Harriet Tubman couldn't read, and she's a hero of mine. Mother Teresa didn't have a PhD, and she's a hero of mine. I remember in Denver some of the kids I told that to and they were shocked. "You don't want us to go to college?" No, no, no, no. By all means, by all means, get as much education as you can, because it is a tool for you to have a richer life and hopefully to open doors for you, and I don't want to deemphasize that at all.

HMH: Yeah. What's the goal that you have for these fifth graders? We're about halfway through the year. What do you hope they achieve when they go to middle school?

Wilson: I hope they love to read. I hope they love to learn. I want them to be curious and critical thinkers—not only critical, I was telling a student yesterday, not only critical of the content, which I do hope they look at with a critical eye and think about asking questions of “Why does this exist?” or “Why not?”, but also to look inside themselves and ask the same questions: Why did I do that? Why do I respond to her like that? Why did I yell at him like that? Why didn't I say anything? 

HMH: Learning is about learning about yourself and becoming a self-reflective adult. Yeah, it's not really what people talk about when they talk about public schools or what teachers should be doing when you read about teacher strikes. Do you think you're paid enough?

Wilson: That's a loaded question. I think that we have a pretty strong salary scale compared to most places in the country, and sure cost of living is high here, it is. And sure, I would love to be paid more personally. 

HMH:: But you're an investment banker. You know how much people get paid.

Wilson: People can make a lot more. I do not think teachers are paid enough. I mean that's certainly the case. At the same time, I don't want to appear entitled to my fellow teachers across the country who are paid far less than we are here in Boston. I would think that it would be very important across the board, even in Boston, for us to have higher salaries and, even more, so be recognized as professionals just as much as your doctors and lawyers. But yeah. 

HMH: Last year one of the former teachers of the year actually stood for a role in Congress. [Learn more about Jahana Hayes, the 2016 National Teacher of the Year who became Connecticut’s first black woman in Congress.] Would you ever think about taking on education policy?

Wilson: Yes. So I'm actually applying to law school. This is my . . .

HMH: Does that mean you're leaving the profession?

Wilson: Means I'm leaving the classroom. That doesn't mean I'm leaving education. I am all the more active in the union now than I have been even in the last few years. I'm interested in labor law. I'm interested in education policy. But to me it's a problem that when decisions are . . . often when decisions are made about what teachers are to do, it's the 20 year veteran who might be called out of her classroom to come down to the state house or wherever to sit at the table with the politicians and attorneys and what have you, the PhDs, to talk about what life is like in the classroom. And so, my hope is that even though I only have seven years of classroom experience that with the JD and a master’s in education that I can voice and have a greater voice for my peers, for my students, and be a part of what I would see as positive change for public education.

HMH: So if you could wave a magic wand, would you abolish tenure and that idea of, you know, longest in has the loudest voice? Would now not be so relevant?

Wilson: No, no. I don't mean to mis-portray that a veteran teacher shouldn't have that voice. I think she should. And at the same time, I think it shouldn't take 20 years of teaching or 15 years of teaching to be listened to. So if I had a magic wand there might be many things I'd do. I wouldn't wave tenure away though.

HMH: Right. We were talking about teachers as "she." You're one of the twenty-seven percent of the teaching force across this country that's not female. Got any thoughts about that? 

Wilson: I do. I think it is a blessing, though I only realized this more and more that I am in a female-dominated space. It is probably the best thing and one of the best things, at least, that has happened to me without me even realizing it. I wanted to teach high school math. High schools generally have a higher percentage male teachers than female teachers . . .

HMH: And almost all male principals.

The Curtis Guild Elementary School, a public school in Boston

Wilson: Right. Right. Well versus elementary school . . . looks a little bit different than high schools, and so I luckily got to teach in elementary school. I didn't realize how lucky I was. What I've realized is true—through my wife's experiences and through the Me Too movement—are, I'm sure, are true in these spaces too. But it just seems so much more foreign to my experience. And of course I'm a white male talking here, so clearly it's more foreign to my experience. And at the same time because I'm in a school that is predominantly female staff, I believe that this school just doesn't make space for these kinds of negative, toxic masculinity kind of issues. I think that just that's not appropriate and doesn't come in.

HMH: What happens if you see it in your kids? What do you do?

Wilson: That does happen. We talk about it. We talk about it. You hit it head on.

HMH: You put language to it.

Wilson: That's right. Name it.

HMH: What's the most sort of poignant or important feedback that a student's given you about your teaching if you can think of a particular story or particular moment?

Wilson: I think about a student of mine named Charles who was not my student at first. He was in a classroom . . . He was in another fourth grade classroom down the hall and he had been essentially terrorizing the classroom. I mean he had . . .

HMH: How old was he?

Wilson: Nine. He had been in fights with fifth graders. He'd been fights with kids in his classroom, in fights with second graders. He broke a mirror in the bathroom. He lit paper on fire in the bathroom and all sorts of things and to me, as I was on my second year teaching, I was frightened by Charles. And so, it so happened that at the end of the first semester, the principal approached me and told me that Charles should move to my room. I protested and said, "This is crazy. I am a, I am not that good of a teacher. I'm not, you know where my class is finally getting going. We have kind of a community feel to our class. Please don't bring him in my classroom."

HMH: Why was he going to be moved to your classroom?

Wilson: Because the principal had a sense that Charles was not jelling with his teacher nor his class and needed a restart before being expelled.

HMH: Even though you're a second year teacher?

Wilson: Even though I was a second year teacher.

HMH: Or because you are a second year teacher?

Wilson: Maybe and also because I was a male, because I am male. They wanted Charles to have a male teacher perhaps for the first time, so they thought maybe that would work. And I begged, really, that he not be moved into my class, but my principal said well perhaps you should do a home visit first. Perhaps before he comes in, do a home visit. See how it goes. And so I visited Charles' house, and I got to know his mother, and I got to know his younger brother Royal. And Charles and I played Grand Theft Auto together, and I thought . . .

HMH: Are you any good at Grant Theft Auto?

Wilson: Terrible, terrible! It's also appalling. But anyways so Charles came into my classroom the beginning of the second semester, and we're talking about fractioned division or something, and he raised his hand. And I go, "Charles is raising his hand, this is good." So I call on him, "Yes, Charles?" And he says, “Mr. B, when are you coming back to my house to play GTA again?” And the other kids say, "You went to his house?" Yeah, yeah. So that not only started me “Oh I'll come to your house, too. Sure, we'll do home [visits].” So, I started going to more homes, whereas before I had been really reticent because I'm so scared that parents would find out I wasn't qualified to be their child's teacher.

HMH: Wow, you had imposter syndrome? 

Wilson: Oh yeah. Believe it or not.

HMH: Because you're a young teacher?

Wilson: 23-year-old teacher.

HMH: Yeah I recall that.

Wilson: And so now I was visiting families and talking about whatever they want to talk about, playing video games, talking about . . . sometimes talking about schools, and I realized quickly at least that particularly for Charles there’s a lot more about these kids that I didn't realize. Like for example Charles, Charles had seen his father die from a heart attack in the front yard not but a couple of years prior. I didn't know that. No, no wonder he's breaking mirrors and lighting things on fire.

Wilson: I realize they had moved from St. Louis after some other traumatic events and then the same was true, well not the same, but similar things were true for other teachers, or other students rather. So it opened up relationships with students that I previously thought had decent relationships and it just opened up new doors. I was also able to use that in the teaching too, right? That came into the classroom. It wasn't quantifiable.

HMH: You're a really reflective practitioner. I often say that teaching is sort of the loneliest job in the world because even though you're surrounded by noise and personalities and you know they're kids and you're often not with other adults and if you are you know the bell is ringing, you're trying to get to the restroom. How do you learn and how do you create a community for yourself?

Wilson: Great question. I learn by doing a little bit of outside research. I can't say it's that much... 

HMH: Like research, research, or . . . ?

Wilson: By reading research. I have some friends, including my mother-in-law, who forward me the latest article that they read about social emotional learning, for example, or differentiation, some EdWeek article about this, that, or the other. I think the best way, and even though I haven't done a great job this year, the best way that I've learned about instruction is through a program called Do It Yourself Coaching where I film myself, teach, and then watch that and I comment on my own teaching. 

HMH: Like athletes, you know. My favorite story, Beyoncé watches her concerts every single night after she's performed. 

Wilson: No, are you serious?

HMH: See you've got the stuff of rock stars and professional athletes.

Wilson: I think that is the best. I really wish we dedicated more time to it in schools. I wish we were filming ourselves [teach for professional development], more discussing the films more . . . in safe spaces, not with your evaluator.

HMH: Do you look at other teachers' videos and you show yours?

Wilson: I do. That's the program. Even two nights ago I was watching a teacher from a local charter school. And honestly had a little bit of an insecurity attack of “Oh my gosh, am I supposed to teach like this? It's so beautiful. I don't know if it's good or not.”

HMH: Performance anxiety right?

Wilson: Yeah.

HMH: That's your perfectionism coming back right? Yeah.

If you could change one thing about what you're doing in the classroom today and try and keep that front of mind what would you, what would you wish to do better? Just one thing.

Wilson: Yeah, right. I think I would spend more time planning my work. I mean as sad as it sounds like that is such a central part of the job. As sad as it sounds, I don't feel like I do enough. I do not . . . in fact, I know I don't do enough. It's hard to know what enough is, but I would plan more. 

HMH: Yeah that is so true. It's hard to know what enough is when you, when you're teaching you know, enough of the actual instruction, enough of the planning, and almost no time for reflection.

HMH: Well it's been a fabulous conversation. I feel honored to have met you and to witness your reflective practice in this conversation and I wish your beautiful class of fifth graders the best year can have and may they be good people. They'll do fine on the test. 

Wilson: Thank you, I really appreciate your time. 

Onalee: Thanks for listening and learning with us. Join our community and read our Shaped Blog by visiting hmhco.com/shaped. That's hmhco.com - backslash - 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 please consider rating and reviewing or sharing with your network. HMH Learning Moments is produced by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt The Learning Company. Thank you for listening and we'll see you next time.


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Research for this piece included contributions from K. A. Jagai and Ireen Hossain, Girls Write Now writers.

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