Podcast: Becoming a History Teacher with Debra Reynolds on Teachers in America

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Picture: Ms. Debra Reynolds in her classroom at Wicomico Middle School.

On the HMH Learning Moments podcast today, we have a new episode of our Teachers in America series, featuring 7th grade World History teacher Ms. Debra Reynolds! Debra teaches at Wicomico Middle School, part of Wicomico County Public Schools. A passionate history buff, she's known for a long time that she wanted to become a history teacher in her hometown of Salisbury, MD, and is now finishing her third year teaching. As a second-year teacher, she was recognized by her county with the first-ever Rising Star Award. And she's also an avid skydiver, antique collector, and self-described "crazy cat lady." Debra uses social media and rapping to connect with her students and teach them elements of world history—you can follow her on TikTok or YouTube @rappingreynoldswm. In her conversation with host Noelle Morris, hear about how Debra shares these unique aspects of herself with her students at the beginning of each school year in order to form strong relationships right out of the gate.

A full transcript of the episode is below.

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Onalee Smith: Welcome to HMH Learning Moments, a production of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I'm Onalee Smith and I work at HMH. Today's episode is a new installment of our Teachers in America series hosted by HMH’s director of content and programming, Noelle Morris. Today, Noelle talks with Debra Reynolds, a middle school history teacher on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Now, here's Noelle.

Noelle Morris: Hey friends, this is Noelle Morris, your host for Teachers in America, where we talk with teachers like you about the profession, what brought you here, and what fills your bucket, and your lives outside the classroom. In our last episode, y'all got to meet Ms. Julia Allan, who was raised in Howard County, Maryland, and she loved growing up there so much that she knew she was already in her forever hometown. Today, we've driven a couple hours out to the Eastern Shore of Maryland to Wicomico County to meet with Ms. Debra Reynolds. Ms. Reynolds is in her third year teaching social studies, and just like Julia, she never doubted that her home and heart belonged there. But though she loves her community, she is a traveler. Oh, and a skydiver. So whether she's traveling and jumping out of planes or talking about ghost stories with her students, she's always helping others to feel at home while broadening their worldview.

Noelle: Thank you so much Ms. Reynolds for letting me come into your classroom. And I was able to see three lively seventh-grade world history classes. But before we talk about what was happening in the classroom and the connection with the students, what brought you into the profession of teaching?

Debra Reynolds: I can remember being interested in teaching and in history from a very young age. When I was probably about 10 years old, when I had summers off, I would go upstairs and watch documentaries on The History Channel. And it fascinated me because the lives of the people on the TV were so different from mine. And I took an interest in history, but then I decided that education would be a way I could make an impact on people and making them a better person and helping them learn. So I would say the combination of those two things help me cement my idea of becoming a teacher and then I knew it had to be history.

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Noelle: Where did you grow up?

Debra: I grew up right here in Salisbury, Maryland.

Noelle: Really? And was that always part of the plan as well, like you were going to come back to your community?

Debra: I, once again from a very early age, knew I wanted to live here forever and I thought that I could give back to my community by teaching in the same county that shaped me. And here on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, we have a lot of history. About 45 minutes west of where I live, Harriet Tubman grew up. Frederick Douglass is about an hour west of where I live. So there's a lot of history right here on the Eastern Shore, and I knew that depending on which content I taught, I could delve into that and use that as a benefit to my students, maybe even go on a field trip.

Noelle: I'm also fascinated because the students were asking about some of our equipment. And one of them was like, Oh, I thought it was like a Ghostbuster binder. And then they all started talking like ghost stories in the building and in the town. Is that something in the community or is that something just being a middle schooler they have made these stories?

Debra: No, I think there is a recognition of possible ghost sightings around here in something called the Pocomoke Forest. There's a story that it's haunted.

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Noelle: What do you find your seventh-grade students are curious about when it comes to history and other cultures?

Debra: I think they're interested in just how that group of people live, what their culture was like. Students are so surprised when they find out that, Oh, they spoke this certain language, or they dress like this, or, well, why did they sacrifice people. I think students today are so focused on our culture, they don't realize that there is an entire world out there, and especially the ancient world. It’s just so different from what we experience today.

Noelle: When you think back to being that 10 year old and knowing that you were going to go into teaching, did any other teachers inspire you? Did you have a teacher that you looked up to that also lived in this area?

Debra: Yes. When I was in ninth grade, so by this time I was pretty sure I was going to be a teacher in history, my ninth-grade history teacher, Renee Cox, she from day one made a difference in my life. She was enthusiastic. She always gave me pep talks and she knew that I wanted to become an educator. And she helped me in my dream and to this day we still stay in contact and she came to my graduation and she's just been a driving force for me. When I was creating my resume for this position, she was giving me suggestions on how to word things, and I don't like to be boastful so I didn't want to put too much fluff in there. But she said, well, no, you've done all these things. You need to put it in there. So she's been very helpful in the entire process of graduate school, applying for jobs, and now that I do have this position, I have contacted her when I needed advice for something.

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Noelle: Wow. Is that your passion around that curriculum or do you see yourself teaching a different grade level or a different part of history?

Debra: My passion is American history, U.S. history. But I have come to love world history. The 10-year-old version of me would always watch things about the Roman empire and ancient Egypt.

Noelle: There's some areas of the room that would make me think what part of American history you are fascinated by, or you have this, you know, teacher romance with this. 

Debra: [Laughs] You can call it that.

Noelle: And I'm curious if you just bring that out to highlight who you are, and I also am curious if your students have picked that up.

Debra: So I'm guessing you're talking about the Kennedys that you see in the room.

Noelle: I am!

Debra: I do actually talk about them on the first day of school when I give them an “About Me” PowerPoint, and I want them to know that I'm a person just like them. So I tell them that I am very fascinated with the whole Kennedy clan, and then they start to ask questions about that. That opens up a whole other good can of worms, and then they sometimes do some research on their own in the next couple of days, come back and, well, Ms. Reynolds, did you know this?

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Noelle: You can definitely tell that they want you to see them. Even when they're quiet and they're not necessarily raising their hand. When you ask a question, they are all looking at you. I was totally amazed, by the energy in the classroom just naturally as they walked in here and as they walked out. I was also fascinated by your timing. I don't know if you realize how spot on you are with your timing and consistent

Debra: I did not.

Noelle: from one class to another, but I was like, man, she is right on point, whether it was the first class I saw or the third. And I also want to give you a shout out because I noticed how you were differentiating for the different classes.

Debra: Yes.

Noelle: When you think about your students and the different levels of students that you're teaching, I noticed that you also have a lot of English language learners in here.

Debra: I do.

Noelle: Can you tell me a little bit about their backgrounds?

Debra: Well, they come from numerous countries—Honduras, El Salvador, Sudan even. But regardless of where they come from, they are all so happy to be here and they are so thrilled to come and get an education. And that's evident to me as their teacher because they are some of the hardest-working students that I have ever taught.

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Debra: The first class that you saw, I would say that they're very vivacious and energetic. I get them right after lunch, so I think that that has something to do with it. For them, I try to really use my proximity as a way to keep the class in check and to keep them on task. I think since they are seventh graders, sometimes if you're not right next to them, they will wander off and zone off. So I try to stay walking around the room for that class. My ELL class, I once again have to use proximity, but it's because they may have more questions and I want to be there to help them if they need help. They are very eager to learn and they are very energetic as well. And my last class of the day that you saw, I think that they are more self-sufficient. I don't have to necessarily pace around the room as much and they, I think, are very eager to learn and are excited to come in here and learn about ancient history.

Noelle: For that last class, were they naturally a little more mature with their questioning or the way they share their responses? Because you can really tell that they are trying to level themselves up, that they are striving for very academic discourse.

Debra: Yes, that's the extended class and they are trying to sound mature. They want to provide as much of an academic answer as possible. So I think they do put a lot of thought into what they say before they say it.

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Noelle: Do they come together across the day or are they in this history class, but they might not be together in math or ELA?

Debra: I think they're with each other all day long.

Noelle: I was curious about that because that was one of the things I was noticing they're very connected to each other. 

Noelle: The second class I saw, which is your English language learners, they're still quietly responding. They, they raise their hand. They want to contribute. I noticed that you're having to work really hard to hear their response and listen. How do you prepare yourself for that and to clarify what you're hearing from them?

Debra: Well, I try to stand close to them just so I can hear what they're saying, but I try to encourage them to speak loudly and sometimes I'll even say, okay, that was great, but can you say it again a little bit louder so everybody can hear you? And I'm using positive reinforcement, but I'm making them practice again, and I think that's a win-win situation.

Noelle: Ms. Reynolds, tell me something about you that is completely unassuming, because you are very even-keeled. Do you do anything spontaneous? Do you do anything that I would definitely not think that you would do?

Debra: Well, people are surprised when they find out I'm a skydiver.

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Noelle: What?

Debra: Yeah.

Noelle: You just go by yourself.

Debra: I go tandem with the owner of a company in San Diego when I visit my dad, but yes, that's my passion outside of school is skydiving.

Noelle: How many times have you gone?

Debra: Eight.

Noelle: Is it scary every time?

Debra: No, it's not scary. When I decided to go skydiving, it was right around my 21st birthday. It was on my bucket list. My dad said that he would actually pay for it. So I called the skydiving place in San Diego and set it up. The morning of, I was a little bit nervous because I was about to jump out of an airplane. But once the whole experience started, it felt so natural to me. And so calming. It's very hard to explain when you're free falling. It's like something you've never seen. It's out of a different world. It feels like you're in a movie. Very peaceful and calming.

Noelle: Is there another area in the United States that you would like to sky dive? I mean, are you seeing the landscape and the terrain?

Debra: Yes. In fact, when I show the movie, you can see a very clear border between the United States and Mexico, and I pause the video and show them. This is San Diego. This is Tijuana. Look, two countries meet here. So even in the first day in my little video, I try to incorporate content.

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Noelle: Well, I'm going to be honest, I'm not going skydiving. I know my heart couldn't take it, but I'm fascinated by other teachers in our profession who are extreme sports fanatics because as I grew up in teaching, and I've really thought through these 25 years, I'm so amazed at the different things and openness of teachers versus early in my teaching career. You just weren't supposed to tell everything about yourself, right? You're supposed to make a connection, but students weren't supposed to really know you would love to have purple hair, nor would I have been able to have purple hair.

Debra: And it's funny how that changes because even in the 10 years I've been out of high school, I don't remember teachers being the way that I am or teaching the way that I teach. So I think it may even be the way we're taught in college now, or a generational thing. I don't know what the answer is.

Noelle: You said earlier, this is your forever home. I really would like to know what at age 10 made you realize that you wanted to be in this community?

Debra: Well, every summer I would travel with my family. On summer vacation, I would see different parts of the country and it was nice, but I would always come home and have that feeling, Oh, there's no place like home. Here in Salisbury, we're 30 minutes from the Atlantic Ocean. We have pretty good weather throughout the year. We have a lot of historical sites, and that is a connection that I can make with my students. And I just think that we have a lot of culture and benefits in this area and I knew that I didn't have to move somewhere else to find something better.

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Noelle: So how far do you live from your childhood home.

Debra: Five minutes.

Noelle: How many of your fellow teachers grew up in this area compared to those that have moved into the community?

Debra: Believe it or not, I would say probably at least 30 or 40% of the people at my school are from here.

Noelle: What are some of the occupations that families have?

Debra: Well, we have a big hospital here that employs thousands of people. We also have, I think, 3000 teachers* that work here in the school system. We have Purdue chicken farms that employs thousands of people. And I think just being close to the beach and close to DC and Baltimore and some big cities that maybe it’s a stopping point for people and they've realized that the community is worth getting to know.

* [Editor’s note: 3,000 is the approximate total staff in the school system. The number of teachers is 1,275.]

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Noelle: Do you have a day of teaching that you wish you could have back and have a do over?

Debra: I would say a day I want to do over would probably be from my first year when I was still learning how to be a good teacher and keep students on track. I think one lesson that comes to mind is we were doing a lesson on European feudalism, and I tried to bring it into the current world by paralleling it to a zombie apocalypse. Well, who would be in control, who would have to do a certain job and so on and so forth. And I had to spend so much time trying to explain the scenario that I think it lost its power. The students still, you know, passed the test and everything. But I think if I do it again this year, I will try to make some adjustments.

Noelle: I know sometimes our creativity gets in the way. So we see it, but getting to that execution.

Debra: And it goes so well in my head and I'm like, Oh, they're going to get it. It'll be so easy. They'll love it and then I pass it out and they don't love it, or they're confused at parts I didn't think they'd be confused in.

Noelle: And we've all had that moment where I'm like, I was not expecting to be sweating. I am, well, I am sweating. I am a nervous wreck. Like, why aren't y'all getting it? 

Debra: Yes. This is not going well. 

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Noelle: What's the day that you would love to experience again? Because it was amazing.

Debra: Well, this year, early on in the year, a student that I had last year came up to me and he pulled me aside actually. He said, Ms. Reynolds, I want to apologize for something. And I was like, well, for what? He said, I'm sorry I did not try my best in your class. He said, every day you treated me with respect and you tried to get me to work and I just didn't care. But now I can see that you never gave up on me. And I want to thank you for that. And he said that to me at the beginning of the school day, and that just made me feel like, well, you know what? I must be doing something right. I think I am in the right profession. Maybe I really am making a difference. And that that really stuck with me.

Noelle: And I'm glad because earlier in our conversation, I know you shared like, I don't want to boast. That's the other teacher-to-teacher heart that I want to contribute and give back to our profession is that we need to hold onto those moments. Because we're going to ask ourselves a lot more, am I doing the right thing or am I making a difference? Or there's so many things that I could have done, and sometimes we don't give ourselves enough credit. Or we hear that someone wants to give us a compliment and I'll hear teachers say, well, thank you, but you're amazing too. And sometimes we just need to say thank you.

Debra: We're not good compliment takers.

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Noelle: Exactly. And we need to celebrate and challenge and hold each other accountable to allowing ourselves to have those moments. Or we're in our classrooms in Salisbury, Maryland, with seventh-grade kids making amazing lessons come to life and not realizing that 10 years from now, 15 years from now, 25 years from now, one of these kids could be anywhere in the country, remembering a lesson that you did and connecting it back and contributing to a new community.

Noelle: Ms. Reynolds, you shared earlier that one of the ways you're making connections and helping start building relationships in day one, first week of school, is you do an “About Me” PowerPoint. Can you tell me a little bit more of the specifics behind that and how you plan it and also how you share it?

Debra: Yes. Well, each year I use roughly the exact same PowerPoint. I might change a couple slides up, but I start off with a big flashy Welcome to World History sign. So when students come in, they are hopefully excited by what they see on the board. And then as the lesson and the class progresses, I start talking about how I love skydiving. I actually show them one of my skydiving videos and offer them the opportunity to ask questions. The next slide I normally have is about how I love cars. Especially old classic cars that go very fast. Probably on the next slide, I show pictures of my four cats and I cram tons of pictures onto this slide, especially funny poses where their tongues are out or they're on their back or whatever. And it's at that point, the students ask me if I'm a crazy cat lady and I say, well, maybe. And then I ask them, okay, raise your hand if you have a cat or if you like cats. And then the last slide I show is about how I am an antique collector and I like to collect really old things. I show them some artifacts that I've found and piece back together and they're really interested that, Oh wow, you have something that is 300 years old. Well, why can't you touch it with your bare fingers? Why do you have to wear special gloves? And things along those lines. And I think it excites them to know that beneath the teacher in front of them is a person that has interests just like them.

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Noelle: When you give advice to other teachers, is that just through the professional learning that you're delivering and how did you get started with that in your district?

Debra: While my supervisor asked me to present it at a professional development, because I went to the National Conference for the Social Studies in Chicago, so when I came back, I did share what I learned and found valuable. But I also try to help new teachers at my school, give them suggestions. And I think, like you said earlier, kind of being a community within your school is important. So even if I'm giving advice to a teacher that's been here a year longer than me, it's still valuable advice and they might find it useful.

Noelle: What's the one thing that you wish every teacher knew?

Debra: Just because you have a tough day today doesn't mean that the rest of your career is going to be tough. Everybody has challenging days, students included. You need to remember why you came into this profession and that you can make a difference. You just have to try again the next day. Don't give up.

Noelle: Thank you so much for inviting us into your classroom. Letting me take peeks on the walls and ask you some very specific personal questions about you and what we see. I think that's so important as we continue to talk to teachers in America. Ms. Reynolds, I'm so glad I met you today and I hope that we stay connected. I definitely know that you'll contribute to other teachers remembering highest recommendations for them.

Debra: Thank you so much.

Noelle: Having the opportunity to join Ms. Reynolds’s classroom reminded me of my first few years teaching and how phenomenal of an experience it is to meet students, get to know who they are, decorate your room. I loved her quotes. I loved her music and everything that she's doing to show who she is and learn and connect with who her students are so that she brings to life the world in her content. I will always be enjoying the opportunity to continue to give teachers voices, see who they are, and continue our journey together as teachers and friends. 

Noelle: Thanks for listening. I always enjoy connecting with teachers across America. So tweet at me @FirstNoelleM. I'm the one with the sunglasses in my profile. Teachers are cool. Join me. Keep listening. I'll see you next time. Thanks.

Onalee: Thanks for listening and learning with us. Next time, I’m sitting down with Noelle to ask her a few questions to help you, our listeners, get to know her better. Be the first to hear by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you’re listening now. We hope you enjoyed today's show and will please rate and review and share with your network. You can join our community and read more on our Shaped blog by visiting There you'll find a transcript of this episode and more. The link will be in the show notes. HMH Learning Moments is produced by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, The Learning Company. Thanks again for listening.

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