Podcast: Creating Classroom Content Worth Watching with CJ Reynolds

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Photo: CJ Reynolds, creator of Real Rap with Reynolds.

Welcome to Teachers in America. For our second episode of Season 3, we are joined by CJ Reynolds, a high school teacher in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania who is also an author and influencer. Check out his YouTube channel, website, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.

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The views expressed in this podcast are those of the guest and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

The following was recorded in January 2021.

Lish Mitchell: Welcome to Teachers in America, a production of HMH. I'm Lish Mitchell. Join our director of community engagement, Noelle Morris, as she speaks with educators from across the country. CJ Reynolds teaches high school literature and the history of hip-hop in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Teach Your Class Off: The Real Rap Guide to Teaching and the creator of the YouTube channel Real Rap with Reynolds. Both his book and YouTube channel aim at giving educators an authentic glimpse into teaching high school in the inner city. His goal in the classroom is to create relevant and meaningful learning experiences. You can hear more educator discussions on CJ's YouTube show, Sunday Night Teacher Talk. Now, here are CJ and Noelle.

Noelle Morris: All right, so CJ, welcome to season three. You know me, I'm Noelle, I'm the host and we go way back to that great year of 2020 when we first met.

CJ Reynolds: We do, if anyone saw us...We talk pretty easily.

Noelle: So, I see your new background. I love it. So tell us a little bit about what's it been like for you being remote for so long?

CJ: It keeps changing. It hasn't stayed the same. So last year, it was kind of fun. In the beginning, we went home on a Friday and thought we'd be back on Monday. And then we just never went back to school. And so that was weird, but it kind of felt like a snow day in the beginning where it was like this kind of enjoyable time off and like trying new stuff. And I don't think I realized before how much kids need school for more things than just learning, right? It's beyond social, emotional. It is friends. It feeds your spirit. It gives you a place to belong, gives you a place to be yourself. It gives you a place to be safe, to get fed, to eat all my snacks. There's a lot going on in the building, and now with students at home, that apathy sort of sets in, and that has been really tricky because you can't have the conversations you would have had at school because you removed the environment.

So, when you live with a lot of people, when there's a lot going on around you, when I ask you, "Hey, are you all right?" And it could be something as simple as you had an argument with your mom, right? So, you're a teenager, and you have argument with your mom, and then I can't talk to you about that right now or even just listen to you because your mom's standing right there. And that's understandable. And not being able to see everyone's face. I teach a lot of foreheads and ceiling fans these days. But for me, it has been interesting because I teach in an inner-city school, Title 1 district, where we dream on a budget, and that budget's like $10. And so, it is the art of making something from nothing all the time.

We're not one-to-one for our freshmen that I teach. So I never used technology in my classroom. We joke in our classroom that the light switch is technology. So, we don't have computers, and if we do, they're missing keys or half of them are missing or whatever. So, it was really trying to figure out all this stuff and then figure out what was good, what was terrible, what looks like a good idea in the YouTube video, but then you're like, "Bro, there's, no one's using this thing."

So, I feel a bit like a DJ where you try something out, and if it's not working, you've got to switch to something else right away and be ready for that, because I feel like any good DJ is not just going to let that jam play all the way through if the dance floor clears. So you're constantly mixing it up, and that's been stressful. But really, I've learned a ton this year—what I'm good at, what I can actually do, and I had to try a whole bunch of stuff that I've never tried before in my life. So it's been that kind of turmoil.

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Since schools went virtual in 2020, CJ Reynolds has been teaching from inside of his laundry room.

Noelle: I love your analogy of the DJ. With everything that you do, so you are a YouTuber, you teach freshman English, you're a father, and you just wrote a book, right? And I don't think it's been out there yet a year, or correct me if I'm wrong—

CJ: April will be a year. Yes.

Noelle: Okay. How do you keep it balanced? And how do you reflect and think about, "Ooh, I need to reprioritize some things?"

CJ: Yeah. Especially now, right? Where there doesn't seem to be any clear-cut end on the school day. So, I used to leave the building, and that was the end of my school day unless I wanted to do work at home. But now, you're always in the building. Kids will text you in the middle of the night. They'll email you at one o'clock in the morning about an assignment. And so it's really about having those boundaries and letting students know very clearly what time I am willing to engage and what time I'm not willing to engage. And then, when I'm doing anything, I'm only where my feet are. So I'm only doing the thing that I'm doing. So when I'm doing schoolwork, I'm not having a conversation with my wife. I'm not talking to my kids. I'm not doing Real Rap Reynolds stuff. I'm only doing school.

And then, when I'm with my kids, I'm not checking my phone. I'm not texting someone else or looking up something else. I'm just with my kids playing video games or watching a movie or whatever. And I think that has been the biggest saving grace because I can get a lot more done. And the time with my kids is a lot more precious when it's an hour or two in the night where we're not just around one another and counting that as time. We're counting the time as, "No. I'm here right now with you." And that's been really important too.

And really when we started COVID, when that first quarantine hit, I just went off the rails. I was like, "This might be the end of the world. Let's just eat cookie dough and drink beer all the time. Every night, this is dinner." And that had to shift because I had to make sure that I was making good decisions. Like I was still getting up early, still praying and meditating in the morning, still exercising, still finding things to learn and to do in the middle of our house. And that has been huge as well. So overall, I know the state of the world 2020 was really difficult, and I don't want to minimize that for anyone, but it has been a really great growing experience for our household in this time.

Noelle: Yep. I can concur with that. At first, I was apologizing for it, and then I was like, "Wait. I, too, was set back. I, too, was just like, 'What am I going to do? How am I going to be?'" I thrive being with people, in front of people, watching and learning. And then, all of a sudden, it just clicked. And I started finding my paths and different ways. I think I had probably the saddest, hardest year, but also the most productive. Every time I think about we're living history and it doesn't seem like it's going to necessarily change overnight, we're still going to be working on it. But we've got to keep making the best of it.

I want to ask you one thing, because you and I have these real conversations. I want to know what has been the funniest thing that one of your students has said about seeing a poster of you behind you? So, for our listeners who aren't seeing this, CJ has a poster of his book that probably marked the book as being released behind him. And when he teaches, and he's in his Zoom calls, I know students aren't keeping quiet about seeing Mr. Reynolds.

CJ: No, I mean, they notice everything, right? We've talked about this before. You can't get a haircut in the middle of the week because it's just going to…Like you get a haircut on a Wednesday, your lesson's gone on Thursday. Everyone just wants to talk about the haircut. And, "Do you dye your hair gray, Mr. Reynolds?" "No, bro. This is my wisdom. I don't dye this gray." So, one of the things I love doing is one, sharing some of my life with my students. I like them to know. So, the other day, we were doing a Kahoot review in class, and my kids came in, my own, like the ones I made, came in and were part of the Kahoot with us. They'll come on and talk to my students about whatever video game, whatever app they're into. That is such an amazing place to connect with students. And then, they give them a glimpse of what your life is.

So, look, it's flexing a little bit to have a poster of yourself in the background. But you know what? I'm sure George Lucas has Star Wars posters in his house, right? Wrote a whole book and you have a picture of it behind, that's what I'm doing. But the other part of that has been really everything I've done from YouTube to the book and beyond has been the greatest lesson I've ever taught my students because they remember when I had a YouTube channel, and I had three subscribers and probably two of my grandmothers on different accounts because she just loved me that much.

But over the years, to be able to see what has grown and to bring them with me. Like the two kids that are on the front of the book are students of mine. They are two of my favorite guys of all time. And the book cover was meant to be a salute to my students in the city that they come from. And one of my favorite graffiti artists did the cover for the book. So, it is like a celebration of all the things. We've been through so much together, and we've grown, and I've showed you, literally, how to make something from nothing and made this business. So that's part of it. It's like a reminder too. But for the new kids, it's just the flex that I have a picture of myself in the background. Because kind of a big deal, guys. That's what I tell them.

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The items that CJ keeps in the background of his virtual calls have been carefully selected, including the poster of his book.

Noelle: I know. I tell teachers this all the time. It's okay to know you're awesome. And I think one of the things I know that I connected with you before we actually connected was, I was like, "Anybody who titles their book, Teach Your Class Off, that spunk and that tone and voice…" And the more you talk about the book and its meaning, teaching us every day, if we're wise enough to observe and pay attention and listen, it's just a lifetime of wealth that we get with each class that we teach and the students that we remember. But hey, I have some of the things that's like, "Yeah, there's my teacher of the year plaque. There's my diploma." We all do that, but—

CJ: Yeah. What books do you have on your bookshelf? All that stuff, man. You want to have that glimpse into people's lives. So why not do that strategically instead of accidentally having something behind you that might embarrass you? But it's like no, that's classrooms too, right? Like making classrooms a space that kids want to be in. And so my classroom is somewhere that I'm for hours. I'm at my classroom more than my living room, so why wouldn't I make it somewhere that I enjoy being? Somewhere that smells good, and the lighting is good, and there's comfortable places to sit and read, and there's books you want to read. That's so important for young people to have that space to belong, to be themselves in.

Noelle: Definitely. So let's talk about that. Three followers on your YouTube channel. The year 2021, you're up to 52k. Where were you? What made you decide I'm going to become a YouTuber?

CJ: It never ceases to amaze me how ridiculous it is, right? Like that, I'm a 44-year-old man with a YouTube channel is amazing to me. I think, first of all, it was my son who, like every little kid, wants a YouTube channel. And he gets really hyper-focused on things. And so, I thought, you have two choices when you're a dad, you can either be the dad that you had, maybe that was good or bad, or you can be the dad that you wanted. So, I've always wanted to be the dad that I wanted, which is why there are secret passageways in my house. And I've built tons of fairy gardens in my life and all kinds of other madness.

My son wanted to do YouTube channel. I figured out on my iPhone for how to record, how to edit, how to add music. And we started making videos, and then I didn't even publish them at first until he started going to school and telling all his friends, "Yep. My dad and I, we got a YouTube channel." And they tried to look them up, and they couldn't find them. And I was like, "Oh, I got caught, man." So, no sooner do I publish them, then he says, "I'm not really interested in this anymore." And I'm like, "Bro? What am I supposed to do with this knowledge I've accrued?"

So I started thinking like, "What do I know? So, what is my thing that I am actually good at it?" Because I'm not good at the hundred different things in my life, but what am I actually good at? And I started thinking there was aspects of teaching, not all of teaching, but aspects of teaching that I'm particularly good at, right? Classroom management has never been an issue for me. Building relationships with students is something that seemingly comes natural to me and a number of other things that I just thought, "What if I just made videos that I wish existed when I started teaching?"

Because I couldn't find any. The only thing back then was Harry Wong and maybe a handful of blogs that existed on the internet that like people weren't really looking up blogs. So I started creating stuff. And the funniest thing was that I posted one time that we have cereal parties in our classrooms. I think pizza parties are just…That's what everybody else does. So we eat cereal with the least nutritional value together, call it Cereal Day. And it is one of the greatest community builders in the school. You find out what cereal everybody likes, you get it. And you've also never had, I teach all boys, never had a group of boys that quiet in class ever. Like silent because they're all eating fruity pebbles.

So, I posted this, I made a video about it, and maybe a week later, a woman from Mexico sent me a picture of her class doing the same thing. And she said it was extraordinary. And then in that next week, I got a picture from someone in Germany and someone in South Africa. And I just thought, "That is so crazy that this thing that I've been doing forever, that's totally normal…" It's not, like, a big deal. The kids know it. They get excited, but it's not like it was the first time we did it. I realized that really your ordinary can be somebody else's extraordinary. Some kids don't want to be loved out loud. They don't want to high-five in the hallway. They don't want to the big handshake to shout out or anything like that. But I could stick an eyeball sticker on you and go, "Got my eye on you bro." Which is so dumb, but it's really enough to just make them laugh.

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CJ Reynolds is the author of Teach Your Class Off: The Real Rap Guide to Teaching.

Noelle: I love everything about that energy. Your ordinary may be somebody's extraordinary.

CJ: Extraordinary. Yes. It is the regular stuff you do every day that would help so many other people. And there's countless examples of that from like, I have this golden microphone I just spray-painted gold because I figured, Prince has a gold microphone, so that's what I wanted. And then, I interview kids going down the hallway and say things, instead of the old, "Guys, why are we late? Come on, let's hurry up. Let's get to class. Why are we doing this every day?" Instead of that, I found it was way more effective to go, "Here he is right now. Guys, look Jimmy, can you tell me real quick? Why are you late to class every day?" And then they don't want to talk. "Reynolds, please. I swear." Like they just want to get by you and go to class.

Then it opens up and becomes a bubble blower. So, if you really want to aggravate kids in a lovely way, it's blowing bubbles in the hallway because no one doesn't like bubbles. They think they don't like bubbles at first because they are like, "We're grown men, and we do not pop bubbles." But then they act that way going one way, when they come back down the hallway, you can't pop one bubble. It's like Pringles, man. You just got to keep doing it. And so, those sorts of things are what really got people's attention on YouTube because I think what it allowed folks to do was 1. take ideas and 2. find somebody else or find now, a community of people, that are weird like them, that are really trying to be the teacher that they were called to be.

So, that's what everything has been about. Since then, it's like everything we do is creating pathways and pipelines for teachers to be the teachers that they are called to be. And who knew so many people in the world were interested, that felt alone, just like kid that I put the eyeball sticker on, people that felt like they were invisible, now know they're visible. And that they can teach out of that personality that they have and find success with it. So, that's what we've been doing.

Noelle: Hey listeners, if you need another podcast to keep you up to date on the world of education, check out, Shaping the FutureTM. My friend and colleague Matthew Mugo Fields sits down with industry experts to discuss how education and innovation can change the world. Subscribe to Shaping the Future on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Now, let's get back to the episode.

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"I realized that really your ordinary can be somebody else's extraordinary."

Noelle: So, let's move on to our next question, which is what's up for the future? And then, after we talk about this, I want to come back and also talk about how you have managed what actually has been happening in your community and in Philadelphia. So, what do you think's going to be the next thing, and how do you think you're going to continue to manage and keep your spirits up in 2021?

CJ: Yep. So one, for 2021, one of the things I've really been thinking about is in the midst of all this, it's very easy to get down or feel beat up or feel like, "Gosh, I've just tried everything and the kids aren't paying attention." And I think when you start from that mindset, it's really hard to come up with interesting ideas, to have fun, to be playful in class, to not get so beat up by every comment or every angry email or the feeling that you're never enough. So, what I've been trying to sit with is a couple of things. What if this was easy, right? What if this was actually easy? What if I went in the class tomorrow and it was cake, what would that look like? What if I took that crazy idea and I did it and the kids liked it?

So, sitting with that because we always sit with the idea that it's not going to work. And you think of that one kid that sits in the back, it's going to mean mug the whole time and hates everything that you do, even though you let your hair on fire last week on purpose. And everyone was like, "Yeah? What, man? What now?" Sitting with the what if. I think teacher bucket lists are a really fun idea. So as a teacher, I've gotten to do tons of really amazing stuff with my students. And some of that is stuff I came up with, some of it was by the grace of other people, but I really think that teaching is a communal activity. And in that, not just with the teachers, that you're a part of your school with not just the students and the parents, but who else is out in the world.

Because honestly, as a white man that teaches at an all-Black and Brown school, I know that there's only so far I can go with certain topics. So, for my elective, I teach a class called the History of Hip-Hop. And I cannot rap. I appreciate it. But like many things in my life, I like baseball too, but there's a reason I played right field my whole life. If I can bring in a DJ, then I don't have to DJ. But I can have someone come in and teach a lesson on DJing. I can bring in poets, I can bring in entrepreneurs, I can bring in beatmakers, and I can bring in producers, and dancers, and African drummers. And that was part of what our classroom culture was like; you just never knew who was going to show up, who's going to come visit the community that day.

Tons of class trips from having the amazing ability to go meet with people like Gary Vaynerchuk in New York City or different store owners or producers or directors from television. So that was great. But now it's trying to figure out...So that bucket list can live when I'm in school, but now what happens when I'm sitting in my laundry room and I'm looking at foreheads and ceiling fans all day? So, one of the things I'm trying to do is figure out how to make content that students think is worth showing up for. That even if you don't want to go to school, even if you just want to chalk the day, you might think, "Let me at least go see what in the world Reynolds is doing today." Because there might be a great guest on, and that's been harder than I thought to have people come in because it's the middle of the day and it's Zoom, and it's difficult. But that is one of the things I am determined to make happen this year: how can I bring that communal feel back to actual classes?

And I think that's going to happen with a little bit more asynchronous stuff, so I can meet guests and folks where they are and then invite students into that if they want to, but then having the class engage with that content afterwards. That's what I'm hoping for 2021 because I don't even know if we're going back to school anyway. Like we might be virtual for the rest of the year—[that's] what Philly's talking about.

With regards to Philly, in the summer, early fall, there was a young man that was shot by police, a black man shot by police in Philadelphia. And there were already a lot of protests going on in Philly, but that was messy cause it was during COVID, and you didn't want to really rally around with your students and go out there. Because a lot of my students live with their grandparents and so, I don't know whose immune system is where, what their medical condition is. That was tough. It was tough not to be with the students during that.

And then when the shooting happened, there were a ton of riots, and there was a lot more protests and a lot of madness, and students are showing up to class, and they're having a hard time because they didn't sleep last night. There's too much madness going on outside, or they could smell smoke, and it was coming in the window or whatever is going on. I think when those things happen, it is a tragedy, no doubt. But I think as teachers, we have to look at it as opportunity. I think the move is to build those relationships on the front end, so when those instances happen, you already have the relationship, where we can talk about anything.

When Black Lives Matter was really in full effect this summer, and there were protests all over the world, there was so many teachers that were scared to talk to their students about it. And I thought, "How?" This is the moment, this is the opportunity to have this really big conversation and get engaged with what everyone is talking about. It's such a missed opportunity if you just show up to school and teach algebra. Like, "All right. Yeah, I know that happened. I'm not doing that right now. Doing algebra." And it's like, "Nah, bro. You have to pause that lesson and engage with what's actually happening in the world because you don't know if anyone else is going to do that with your students."

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CJ believes in addressing news and current events that might affect his students. After all, there is no guarantee that anyone else will.

Noelle: I appreciate what you're saying and how you're putting that into perspective. Some may be feeling, "How do I do this virtually?" I think about teachers in the space now of how lonely that must sometimes feel that you don't have your immediate mirror or reflection or you're not in that close proximity. That loneliness is not helping them feel how empowered they are. So, what's your advice to teachers who are feeling lonely, or they miss being in the classroom, they miss being around a lot of faculty? How do you keep those connections?

CJ: There's a couple of things. We can long for what was, like a lot of teachers I'm in contact with just say, "I just wish we were back in school. I just wish this wasn't happening." And there was something to that Mr. Rogers used to say that what is mentionable is manageable. And so once you say it, then we can talk about it. But if you're going to keep it in, we can't do anything with that. For me, it is, "All right. So what are we going to do about it?" I can sit here and lament that I can't have my friends over. That it's 30 degrees in Philly today, and even if I wanted to have someone over outside, it would be like, "Bro, we better have a giant fire." And I live in a row home. There's no giant fires happening. It would be like, it just can't happen.

So it's trying to reinvent ways that you can engage with folks. I know no one feels like sitting on Zoom anymore, but we've been doing Zoom meetings, or I meet up with my students playing Among Us with students, playing Fortnite with students, connecting in that way. But for older folks, I just think that it's really finding your people online in some way, shape, or form, right? Maybe that's a Facebook group that you're a part of, and you're venting because you can vent to those folks sometimes better than you can vent to the people that you're in school with because you never know who's going to say something or what's going to happen there. But it is trying to purposely stay connected.

I've gotten more things sent to me in the mail since March, just because people want to connect. They want to write you a letter. They want to call you. So there was this thing we used to do before texting, where we'd actually call people. And I used to hate getting phone calls as I'm like, "Bro, this takes too long. It's all this preemptive small talk on the front end, and I'm too busy, and I'm trying to do stuff." But now, to hear someone's voice to FaceTime with someone, I think that it is meaningfully and purposefully stepping into that space with people. It just helps. In whatever way. Because that's what's going to get you through.

And then, just remembering that this isn't forever. This isn't a forever moment that we're living in. We're living through something, and how great will it be when you can do this again? But in the meantime, how can we have fun with it? What weird thing can I send somebody? What strange, bizarre object can I mail to somebody? And it's just, that's how I choose to think of it.

Noelle: You always inspire me. So now I'm just like, "Hmm, I think I need to call CJ because now I would like to do a blog with him about teacher bucket lists, a teacher playlist of quotes to get you through the day." I always ask teachers their walkup song. So, I want to know, like you're planning, you're walking down the hallway to get ready for a Zoom. What song is your walkup song to come to sit in your chair and start your day?

CJ: So there's a lot. And I think about this a lot. So, my mornings consist of getting myself ready for school, and that is the primary focus. So that means going to bed early and doing my morning routine and listening to the right music on the way to school in my earbuds when I'm walking into the school. Because you have to have that Reservoir Dogs moment of walking down the alley, the slow-mo shot because it's priming you for class. Because I'd rather go to school on 11 with a lesson plan that's a six than go to school with a lesson plan that's an 11 and go to school feeling on a six.

There's a lot. There's a really great Radiohead song called "Talk Show Host" that has this great groove to it. That is perfect for the slow-mo walking shot down the hallway or "Scenario" by Tribe Called Quest. That's one of my favorites of all time. That groove in the beginning of that song, too, is just so...it just makes you feel like you're just going to handle business.

Noelle: I know. It's like when I choose songs, and I ask every guest this because I'm a firm believer that if you hear it, it becomes you, and you walk in. You're like, "I'm ready." So do you ever walk down the hallway and you feel like you're in a movie or you are like a commercial. So when you are imagining your best day or your commercial, starring you, what's in the scenery?

CJ: So the scenery, I got to say, it would have to be in my classroom with my students because I spend so much time and energy trying to create this sort of remarkable space. It looks more like Willy Wonka's chocolate factory than a classroom. And they're the people I'm with all the time. When I'm in school, it's that same crew that comes in; it's like Cheers without alcohol. So that would have to be it because it's my favorite place to be in in the world, is my classroom.

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CJ in his classroom in Philadelphia before school closures due to COVID-19.

Noelle: So when you're back of your classroom, that has to be your first video with your students. You recreate—

CJ: Slow-mo.

Noelle: Slow-mo Willy Wonka-ish.

CJ: Reservoir Dogs and Willy Wonka.

Noelle: Yes. Figure it out.

CJ: Yes.

Noelle: Have your students design and book map it. And I want to be tagged on that first video.

CJ: Got it. Whenever we end up going back, which I'm sure, no one can wait for that to happen, until all the repercussions of this come back up, and then we're like, "Oh wait, maybe teaching in my pajama pants all day, it was all right because I haven't worn real pants since March."

Noelle: We'll definitely let our guests know where they can find you on YouTube and Instagram and Twitter and Facebook and know that you're out there. And I do want to make sure everybody knows that you're not just an awesome guest in season three of Teachers in America, you are one of our HMH teacher ambassadors doing some work with us, sharing some new videos, never seen videos before in our Teacher's Corner. So, I want to personally thank you for that. Till next time, stay awesome. I don't think that's going to be a problem. Thank you so much, CJ.

CJ: You got it.

Noelle: And I look forward to our next conversation.

Hey listeners, I'm so glad that you were with us today on this episode. I hope that you heard the energy and the friendship that CJ and I have. We met over a year ago, and every time we get together, there's great conversation, and I wanted to share that with y'all. So, you heard us talk about making this change from leaving your beautiful classroom to teaching for a year in a laundry room, but CJ made that flip, and he made it work not only for himself but also to stay connected with his students.

I appreciated CJ being willing to talk to me about loneliness, missing our faculty, missing our friends, missing our students, that is something that has been somewhat of a loss this year. But CJ gives some great tips and advice: reach out to a friend today, have a conversation, make sure to check on them, let them know how you're doing. And hey, if you want to be a guest or have a conversation with us on Teachers in America, reach out. We're here. We want to hear your story. Until next time, your friend, Noelle.

Lish: If you or someone you know would like to be a guest on the Teachers in America podcast, please email us at shaped@hmhco.com. Be the first to hear new episodes of Teachers in America, by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you enjoy today's show, please rate, review, and share it with your network. You can find the transcript of this episode on our Shaped blog by visiting hmhco.com/shaped. The link is in the show notes. Teachers in America is produced by HMH. Thanks again for listening.

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