Onalee Smith (OS): I feel I’ve gotten to know you pretty well as we’ve been able to travel together for a few months now as we record the podcast. Can you tell our listeners a little about yourself?
Noelle Morris (NM): I am an individual that lives between her head and her heart every day. I am curious about everything. Many of my sentences end in question marks. I frequently wonder both to myself and out loud: What if . . . ? How can I . . . ? Why does . . . ? This curiosity leads me to volunteer to test a concept, ask if I can join, and talk to everybody anytime. My daughter acts like it bothers her, but then I catch her smiling, and I know it’s because she thinks I am awesome. I have never met a stranger, for real. I love throwing one-liners from eighties movies, tv shows, and random conversations that I hear as I listen in to life. I am always walking with my Beats and music blasting in my ears.
OS: In our conversations with teachers, you ask them to pick a “Walk-Up Song” that empowers them. Clearly, music is an important part of your life. What’s your Walk-Up Song?
NM: Currently, mine is “Alive” by Sia. Even at fifty, I hear my mother saying, “Turn that down or you are going to be sorry when you are older.” My playlists are everything from eighties, alternative, rock, and rap with a few country tunes here and there, especially if it is Dolly Parton or Lady Antebellum. My daily existence always includes music, which is why my dad nicknamed me Boogie. At some point, I’ll dig out the picture with me sporting my favorite tee.
OS: We talk with teachers about the lives their students live, as well as their own childhoods and their memories of school. What was your childhood like? How do you remember your experiences in school?
NM: I am filled with gratitude that curiosity, spunk, and vulnerability has taken me on an amazing life journey—personally and professionally. I am in the “second semester” of my 25th year in education. Last spring after one of my presentations, I was asked, “Have you always been this funny and easily able to connect to people?” I went silent. How would I explain that I loved the stage at age two, had an immediate audience of six aunts and uncles, and had a little sister that I knew how to influence—but hit a rocky patch my fourth to fifth grade years. I was met with a move from our small town, Williston, Florida (where I had lived since moving from Mobile, AL, when I was four), and a dad that was loving but didn’t know how to be part of a family. And then yet another move within Florida at the most perfect time (not)—middle school.
Though I look at those couple of years as sad, it was leading to the year when the “true Noelle” found her voice again, thanks to: having the worst teacher ever; seeing a student wearing a shirt that said, “Disco is Dead. Rock and Roll is Alive”; being sat next to another new student from Long Island; getting placed in the low reading group; and standing up for a student that was not treated fairly. For standing up for my fellow student and talking "too much," I was not allowed to go on the end of year field trip to Disney (I will never forget that, by the way).
From sixth grade on, I enjoyed my ability to make people laugh—but I never liked being called “funny.” I thought funny was a characteristic that people did not take seriously. Funny people were often considered a sidekick or connected to someone considered chubby—and I didn’t like anyone being put in a corner. (I’d love to quote the Dirty Dancing line, but I don’t need to; you’re already thinking it. Am I right?) I went on to have the most phenomenal eighties high school experience and then college life at Florida State University. I graduated in December 1992 with a degree in English and a minor in biology, but I had no clue what was next. I literally had no future planned.
OS: So, what led you to teaching?
NM: Without direction but facing impending college loan payments, I decided I would substitute teach and get my teaching license. Fifty dollars a day doesn’t allow you to quite make ends meet, so I also sold Birkenstocks. I worked six days a week; 7 AM to 11 PM. I was able to have two long-term substitute contracts and make great connections. In 1994, I got my first break. I was hired to teach 7/8 English and science. I thought, “Seriously, with my degree, I am going to rock this!!” And if you’re laughing to yourself now, you know what I’m about to say. . .
OS: I can imagine it wasn’t easy! Especially when we see so many teachers leaving the profession within 5 years. What got you through your first year of teaching?
NM: My first-year teaching was anything but magical. I cried so much. The one bright spot was meeting a veteran teacher with three years of experience, Debbie. At an alternative school, three years of experience can be considered Yoda-like wisdom. Debbie became my teacher BFF. The only thing that ever caused us to separate was one Saturday a year when UF played FSU, AKA “rivalry weekend.” Thanks to Debbie and my principal, I survived year one.
Years two and three would be the years that would change the course of my path. I met a professor, a district mentor, and a New York publisher that gave me resources, feedback, a chance, and, ultimately, a voice. In this time, I also became an aunt; had strong results with improving my students’ reaching levels; started writing teacher materials; and listened more to who my students were, how they viewed the world, and what they wanted to share so I would be a better teacher, sister, and aunt. This time can be summarized as, “Look at me. I am making it and I know it.”
OS: Once you found your groove, what’s a moment in your teaching career that shaped your future?
NM: In 1995 specifically, I became a part of the Orange County Literacy Project. I implemented the 90-minute literacy block as designed. I was thrilled to have five brand new Apple Macintosh computers. I always called them this. We didn’t quite say Macs then. I used my overhead projector like a boss and loved our shared reading time. Talking books, practicing strategies from Janet Allen, and making my students laugh through our challenges led to my classroom having some of the highest growth in the project. My mentor, Dr. Rose Taylor, talked to me about what my natural talent and intuition were adding to the project. She asked me to join a focus group and facilitate professional learning in the district. My answer allows me to summarize this moment as becoming the first READ 180 teacher. My millennial friends like to refer to me as the OG of READ 180. I accept it. I may have been a first, but the imprint made and lives connected from this journey make me thrilled to know there are thousands of other READ 180 teachers today. Being a part of a team that has contributed to turning over 10 million lives around is a result of accepting the opportunities presented without fear but with an intuition that great things were going to happen.
OS: How did you end up working at HMH?
NM: In 2000, I transitioned to educational publishing and moved to New York City. You should have heard the laughs the first time I used “y’all” in a sentence. I was glad that I had learned some of the New York dialect sitting next to my friend back in fifth grade. I loved being an editor, empowering my teacher voice and mind, and contributing to others’ classroom success.
But to this day, I think like a teacher because I am still a teacher. I made sure to not lose the insight, charisma, and instructional practices. I am the blend of all of my educational roles over the years. I like to think of my role as a Mash-Up and each day, just like a DJ, I get to create, curate, and connect.
OS: One of the things I love about you is how engaged you are with the entire educational community, and I think a big part of that comes from you being an avid Twitter user. How do you use social media professionally?
NM: I like to use social media to connect with people I’ve met in person and to expand my teaching network to both support and be supported. When prepping for this interview, I reached out to my Twitter (@firstnoellem) Professional Learning Network [PLN], I asked, “How would you describe me?” When I read vulnerable, passionate, focused, determined, open, caring, authentic, and brilliant, my heart was happy to know that people see me that way. Then, one friend wrote “HILARIOUS!” And I thought, “Wow, that’s ‘funny’ in a more sophisticated word—and in enthusiastic all CAPS.” And now, I love that description of myself! I am me and I accept her. #BeYou and always have a #WalkUpSong.
OS: Anything else you want our community to know about you?
NM: Hosting the Learning Moments: Teachers in America podcast is a highlight of my career. To amplify teacher voices, connect teachers to teachers, and continue my own learning is a gift. As you listen to the podcasts, I hope that you will find inspiration, connect and build a new friend to your network, and realize that we are all in this together whether we are in Anchorage or Miami or anywhere in between. I look forward to meeting you, whether it be in person or through the airwaves, and becoming a future friend. Can’t wait to meet all y’all!
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