Podcast: Embrace Being Wrong, Applaud Being Right Feat. Sharon Biava on Teachers in America

Photo: Noelle Morris and Sharon Biava met up before school closures.

Join us on the HMH Learning Moments podcast for a new episode of our Teachers in America series. Our guest today is Sharon Biava, a 4th grade math teacher at Silver Lakes Elementary in Miramar, Florida.

This episode was recorded prior to school closures and the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S.

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

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Lish Mitchell: Welcome to HMH Learning Moments, a production of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I'm Lish Mitchell, and I work at HMH. Today's installment is the first of a two-part Teachers in America episode hosted by HMH’s Director of Content and Programming, Noelle Morris.

Sharon Biava is a 4th grade math teacher at Silver Lakes Elementary in Miramar, Florida, part of Broward County Public Schools. A proud single mother of twins, Sharon has been an educator for 18 years after two successful careers in finance and healthcare marketing. She is a coach for both the speech and debate team and the chess team, and is passionate about literacy, civics, and equity for all students.

Before school closures took place, we observed Sharon in her classroom teaching a lesson using HMH’s GO MATH. This episode is our pre-COVID-19 interview. Tune in to the next episode to hear how Sharon had to quickly adapt to teaching remotely during the quarantine.

Now, here's Sharon and Noelle.

Noelle Morris: So Sharon, I'm so happy to be here with you today, to have gotten a chance to watch you in complete boss mode of teaching fourth grade, especially math. It's always nice to get to see math in action and so we'll talk a little bit about that. But before we really start getting into just having a teacher-to-teacher conversation, give me some background on you of how you even came into the world of teaching. Was this your first career?

Sharon Biava: No, it was not my first career. Actually, when I went to college, I wanted to be a teacher, but at that time I was young. I didn't really think that teaching, when I looked at the salaries and things like that, I wasn't sure that it was something that I wanted to continue to pursue in college.

So I changed my major. I ended up working a summer job at a brokerage firm. And then I ended up getting into that business and then moving to the city and working for several years. After a couple of years working in the brokerage business and in New York, I got tired of the fast-paced city life and decided that I needed to do something else.

My parents lived in Florida, so I moved back to Florida and I started working in healthcare. At that time, healthcare was really booming for career opportunities, so I worked in healthcare for several years on the west coast of Florida. And then I met my husband and we moved over here after Hurricane Andrew.

I stayed home, had beautiful twin boys, was a stay-at-home mom, and then, unfortunately, my marriage did not work out and I needed to go back to work. So I thought, "What can I do and still raise my children and be with them?", because I thought it was very important that I be a hands-on mom. That was something that I really wanted to do.

So teaching sort of reared its head when I took my kids to preschool. They offered me a job after about a month that my kids were in preschool to be a Pre-K-4 teacher. I had a lot of free time on my hands since my kids were in preschool, so I said, "Sure." And then when I started working, I really realized that this was something that I love doing and it just sort of fell into my lap at the right time. And that's when I decided, well, you know what, I'm going to pursue teaching.

So I ended up taking a year off from work and actually going into taking education courses, even though I already had my Bachelor's degree. Found out later, I didn't need to do that, but that's okay. I think those experiences in college really kind of assisted me in becoming the teacher that I am today.

From there, I started at Silver Lakes. It was my children’s home school. They were in kindergarten. It was towards the end of the year and I remember coming into the principal at the time and saying, “Listen, I'm studying to be a teacher and I'm going to take my teacher's exam. And I really would like you to give me an opportunity.”

And she was kind enough to give me an opportunity. I have been here at Silver Lakes ever since, and I just absolutely love this school and love what I do. At this point in my life, I'm at a place that I'm super happy to come to work every day. I love what I do, and this school is like my heart.

Sharon started teaching at Silver Lakes Elementary School when her sons were students there.

Noelle: Your heart and your home. I mean, I think that that's something so important for us to talk about as teachers. We come into this profession in many different ways. And I really appreciate when we are aware that the profession either calls us, or life happens and then everything just falls into place.

When you made that decision to move to Florida, where did you move from?

Sharon: I moved from New York.

Noelle: New York. So when you're talking about the city, the hustle and bustle of the city, you're talking about moving from New York City. Tell me a little bit about being in the same school for 20 years, because many teachers are not staying in the same school. What have you noticed has changed since the school opened to where you are now?

And then we'll get into a little bit more about what you're teaching, how you're teaching, and what has changed. But I want to just know about the culture, the school. What has been solid, what have been noticeable changes?

Sharon: I think over the years, the one thing that has remained the same in this school is the staff became like family and that's really important. I think everyone has a vested stake, not just in the students and their achievement, but in one another. When you come to work, you really feel like you're coming to a safe place with people who care about you and want to see you succeed, which is very nice and very different from other employment cultures that I have experienced.

So that was very refreshing and it's really stayed the same here even with different administration changes. Fortunately, with every administration change, the person that came in was just as [good as], if not better than, the person before them.

So there was never a situation here where you ended up getting a boss that was like, “Oh gosh, I can't wait to get out of there. I'm going to have to transfer to another school.” I have never felt that way here. The area has changed quite a bit since I have been here, and I actually live very close to the school. So I've been able to see it, not just from an employment standpoint, but actually as a resident of the area.

I've noticed that when I first started working here, a lot of the parents, there were a lot more stay-at-home moms. There were a lot more hands-on moms. We had a lot of volunteers in the school because people didn't have to necessarily go to work. They were able to survive off of one income. That's changed a lot.

So now you have often students that don't really have the support at home and probably not because the parents don't want to, but it's very difficult, I'm sure, to come home from work at six or seven o'clock and devote time to your child's homework and all these little nuances—go to soccer practice, baseball—all these things.

A lot of times it's just different. You see a difference in student achievement as a result of that. So as teachers, we've had to really kind of buckle up and work a little bit more diligently so that the students are able to reach the gains that they need to where before you could always maybe say, “Listen, I need him to do this. You need to work on this over the weekend.” And now that's really not the case.

In Sharon's classroom, she makes it a point to "create an environment where everyone feels safe, not just physically, but to be wrong...that's how we learn."

Noelle: Regardless of what the family structure is we need to respect that and understand and not over-expect. And you can tell that in the way you approach your students, that you are not just a teacher in this school, you're a member of the community.

You mentioned you have twins, [and are a] single mom. What was that like being a mom in the school where your kindergarteners work? What did that feel like coming to work with your children?

Sharon: That was actually really great. As I said before, I had wanted to be a stay at home mom; I wanted to raise my kids. And when it worked out that I had to go back to work, I still felt as though I was a daily part of their life here at school, it was nice to have them here, I was able to attend all their awards ceremonies. If one was not feeling well, I didn't have a job where I had to go into my boss and say, “Listen, my son's at school, he’s sick, I need to leave.”

I was able to have the luxury of him maybe coming up to my classroom and laying down or going to the clinic and letting me come in and let him know—especially when they were younger—"Mommy's here, it's okay. We'll go home at two o'clock."

I think my children liked it. It was at a time where their lives were changing. They were able to know that every day someone was here for them.

Noelle: When I think about Florida culture, and I think about teaching in Florida—because this is where I started my career and my teaching—I always want to put it out there to our listeners [that] there is a deep rivalry in the state of Florida.

So of course, being your rival, the first thing I see is there is this orange and blue. Tell us a little bit about your pride of being a University of Florida fan. How did you come into University of Florida as a fan? And then how does that support you with making connections to your students?

Sharon: I have been a Gator fan since I was a young girl. I did not go to the University of Florida, I actually went to USF—go Bulls!—but I was always a Gator fan. I really love football. Because of that, and back at the time when I was growing up, the Gators were the team.

Noelle: Well, to some people.

Sharon: To some people that is true. To some people.

My mom was a Gator fan and it was just something that I picked up [and] stayed with—the excitement, the orange and the blue, going to the stadium. And maybe, I will say this to you because I know you are a Seminole fan, that really my only experiences with going to college football games were at UF.

It was the one thing I knew and I just kind of stuck with it and I represent that to my students. I have that in my classroom. My son Sean goes to UF. My son Ryan goes to UCF —go Knights! But I also feel like the university is a really great university educationally. They have a lot of pride. So I like to share that in my classroom with my students.

Noelle: One of your ways of bringing them back to attention is “I say orange, you say blue”. You didn't get to hear, but at the end, one of the students came by and I could tell he had been waiting for this moment. And he came by and just looked at me and whispered, “Crimson Tide.”

And I was like, “Okay. You're bold. That is awesome. I love that you've been waiting for this moment.” And he gave me the best smile.

But what that showed me is your students are not afraid to express themselves. They are bold. They are putting themselves out there. How did you establish that? Because there's some things that you're doing to allow them to know, especially with math, this is a risk-free environment, and we all are going to be a part of it and we're all going to celebrate it.

Sharon: Well, first of all, my students are an incredible group. But I would say that about almost all of the students that I've taught. In my classroom, I try to create an environment where everyone feels safe, not just physically, but to be wrong.

Because it's okay to be wrong. That's how we learn. I think often students are afraid to take risks to answer because they might be ridiculed by their peers. This is an age—especially in fourth grade, where students are starting to change—I always say, "You're at a crossroads and you can go down this path or you can go down that path, but you should go down this path because that's the good path," to let them know we are a classroom family.

I talk about that a lot with them. At the beginning of the year, we talk about family, how it's okay in our own families with our parents to make mistakes, [how it’s okay] to be wrong. We might get in trouble, but that's all right. We have consequences, but you know that your parents love you and you are safe.

We need to know that here because we spend 180 days together and that's a long time. If they don't feel comfortable taking risks and answering questions wrong and [they] fear being ridiculed or laughed at, they're not going to learn and grow. Even the quietest of students—those are the ones, you always have the ones that are eager to raise their hand and want to be heard, but it's those quiet ones that you have to really let them understand that it's all right.

We treat everyone the way we want to be treated. And early on, when something happens, maybe there is an occasion where someone answers and someone chuckles or whatever, I stop, and we reflect as a group: "How would you feel if you answered, and we all laughed at you? Think about that, stop for a minute and reflect in yourself if that's something you would feel good about."

And of course the student thinks and answers no. I think at first they probably can't even believe I'm stopping instruction for that, but I'm going to. Because in the long run, the time that I spend early on doing that, it saves me problems down the road because they already know what to expect.

We talk a lot too about, we are a classroom family and we all need to get along. And we might like Joe better than John, but at the end of the day, Joe and John are both your classmates and we're in this room together. We're spending 180 days together, so we need to be tolerant.

And I talk to them about life. In life, you're going to meet people that you may not care for, but that does not mean you get to slug them. You have to learn how to just accept people and move on. So it's helped. I'm happy with the type of culture that is in my classroom.

When someone gives a good answer in Sharon's class, the other students applaud.

Noelle: You're not letting that hurt or concern or fear linger too long. Students are clapping for each other.

What is your process for that? Someone gives an explanation and there's immediate applause, or I saw jazz hands. So how did you establish and get that going? Now it's completely run by students.

Sharon: In the beginning, I tried to celebrate their successes. So I initiate that and I talk about how if I call on someone who maybe doesn't usually answer or is struggling with a concept… and at this age, students are aware of whether their classmates are struggling with something, they are very astute… and I will then be the one that says, “Hey, all right, we need to have a shout out for John.” And I will initiate it.

And then it's just been something that I think, when it happens to them and they're on the receiving end of that positive affirmation, they in turn want to start giving it back to others, and they've just sort of taken over. And it's not just this class. It just catches on and it's amazing. And they really do celebrate each other's successes and they want one another to do well.

It's so interesting to listen to them after we take an exam and especially on the HMH math, because you immediately get your score. So they don't have to wait for me to grade their papers. They immediately know how they did, but you'll see them saying, “Oh, how did you do?” “I got 100.” “What did you do?” “Oh, I got a 97. I missed that partial on number 12.”

But they're so excited. And then when they see a student that maybe they've seen with me while I'm remediating them, because they didn't understand a lesson or a concept, when that student says, “Oh, I got an 89,” they just started applauding because they genuinely are happy for that person. I think they also relate to, what if it were them? And we talk a lot about that in class, really like a lot of reflection of, that could be you. This could be you.

Noelle: So as a teacher, I would say, and I shared with your assistant principal, I think you teach math like a boss. I'm like, "Sharon has it!" I am learning more vocabulary today. I am comfortable with looking at something and going, is that a line segment? I was like, “I know the answer!” You make everybody feel good.

Is math your favorite subject?

Sharon: Actually, no, math is not my favorite subject. Reading language arts is my favorite subject. But math has become much more comfortable for me as an intermediate teacher, as I taught primary for many years. And that's basically basic math, so I don't have to divulge my age, but it's been a long time since I've been in school.

I was a little concerned that maybe I didn't remember how to do a lot of this math that I hadn't done for many, many, many years. I was uncomfortable when I first started teaching the intermediate grades, but as I've planned and really tried to better myself as an educator, I have become much more comfortable.

And [I'm really honored to have you] tell me that I teach math like a boss, because I wouldn't have thought that. I would have thought maybe [I teach] okay. I mean, I do my best because I really want my students to learn, but I take every opportunity anytime I'm interacting with them to really push them.

It's important to me that they examine their reasoning for why they're right or wrong about something because that's how they grow, even if they have the right answer. It would be very easy for me to say, "Yes, you're right and move on. But that's not going to help anybody who put the wrong answer down understand why they put the wrong answer.

We talk about being responsible for yourself. I've already done fourth grade, so it's not on me, it's on you. You're the student, so you need to show your work, write down what you're doing, and then when you're done, you go back. The great part about the math program is you can go back in and you can see what you put, and what the right answer is, and you need to make a notation for that. So students do that. And from that, they also learn to be become responsible for themselves, as well.

Sharon is currently "looping" with her class; she had them in third grade and followed them up to fourth grade to continue working with the same group two years in a row.

Noelle: And it goes into life. So what are some ways that you see this generation expressing themselves and connecting with each other in your classroom and in the hallways?

Sharon: I do know that some of them have phones and apps on their phone, that they chat with each other.

Many of them will communicate via, believe it or not, PowerPoint off their student portal. Last year I taught them how to use PowerPoint. They're ten times better than I am at PowerPoint now. They actually created a PowerPoint for me as an end-of-the-year gift that was amazing with animations and things that I have no clue how to do but they figured out on their own.

Noelle: They're not afraid to click. You and I are still like, "What will happen if I click on that?"

Sharon: Exactly. They go beyond, and then I see them sitting out in the hallway and they still make old-school friendship bracelets for each other and do those types of things. But that, those are the types of things I'm thinking of.

Noelle: Don't you just love seeing the friendship bracelets? Because I know that's part of our generation. And Sharon, one of my rules is—and everyone that listens to the podcasts learns a few of them—one is, once you become a teacher, we're all in the same age bracket. So whether we have been teaching for 20 years or one year, we are all the same. Because it does take off all of us and it takes the different creativity and content knowledge and age experience, but there's a commonality and a common function of being a teacher and one that's just being present, ready, and willing.

You said you started kindergarten. You taught some other grades. What was your—and this is a safe space—what was your initial reaction when your principal asked you to move to third grade?

Sharon: I was a little nervous. Not really wanting to. The carrot that was dangled over my head at the time would be that if I went to third grade, I could go with the students that I was currently teaching.

Those particular students happened to be the last group of kindergarteners that I had taught before I was moved to second grade. So I knew them, I’d now spent two years with them, while be it a gap year in between. So I was like, “Well, if I have to do this…” because, really, I had to do it.

Noelle: Carrot or not.

Sharon: Right! So I thought, “Okay, well at least I'm going to do it with this great group of students.” I was a little nervous because, you know, when you've taught primary for so many years and all of a sudden you're flung into the intermediate and the testing grades and especially third, it's high stakes, it's mandatory retention, lot of extra work portfolios, all these things.

And I thought, “Oh, no, I don't know if I'm really up for the challenge. What if my students don't perform well?” All these self-doubt thoughts. But if I have this group, I might be okay. So I was like, all right, I'll do it. And I did fine, thank goodness.

Noelle: You're looping, right? So you had your third graders last year and then this year, is this your first year in fourth.

Sharon: This is my first year in fourth. I spent three years in third grade, and then this year I went from third to fourth. Again, I looped with the current, with the class that I had last year in third grade.

Noelle: You ended third grade last year and you're preparing to loop. As a teacher, how would you advise me, if I am looping, to what I have to let go of between third and fourth? And how do I know my students, but allow myself to meet them fresh and new after the summer? Because you know them really well after 180 days. They know you really well.

So tell me how you prepared in the summer to greet them again and start new, but also get to see how they are evolving.

Sharon: Well, over the summer, I thought a lot about the fact that this is new curriculum, new things, and this group, they're very special. But again, I said before, all those students I've taught are special.

I thought a lot about how I can go a little bit farther to get them to achieve more, to be better people, to become better students than they were the year before. I thought a lot about things that worked and didn't work with them, not just in the classroom, but personally. One of the advantages of looping with your students is that you really get to know them very well.

And I know my students so well that I know who I can say something to in front of the others and who I might need to pull by themselves because if I say something to them, then I'm going to lose them for 15 minutes or the rest of the day, because their personality is as such. So I think about those things.

I thought about what activities and things could I do for them that would make learning fun that would make it not be, “Oh, well I already had her same old, same old.” I made sure I changed decorations in the classroom. I didn't want them to walk in and be like, you know, "Everything looks the same."

So they would have a new refreshing classroom where they would be excited because they still had me, whether that was good or bad to them, but at least they had a fresh looking classroom environment.

In order to freshen things up each year for her students, Sharon switches up her classroom decor.

Noelle: When we asked them today, when you heard one of your students say [you are] creative, how does that make you feel?

Would you describe yourself as creative?

Sharon: I would not describe myself as creative at all. I can't even draw a straight line with a ruler. So when I think of creativity, I think of art, like actual art painting, those types of things. But for my student to say that about me, really, it almost made me cry because it's so wonderful to hear that you're appreciated by your students and that they think that of me.

I really try to take the things that I'm teaching them and make it fun. I've sat in classrooms—I was a student one time in my life and still am, and there's nothing worse than sitting in an environment where you're supposed to learn and there's someone up there like the Charlie Brown teacher—"Waah waah waah waah waaaah"—and you're just like, “Ah, when is this going to be over?”

So I really try to make things exciting and fun for them. I try to have an upbeat attitude all the time. Sometimes I'll even—I have a deep voice and I walk around the room a lot and I change the tone of my voice, and a couple of times some of them even jumped because I scared them because I get so excited about something.

To hear that from my student was just amazing to me.

Noelle: And I think for her, she's noticing that and creativity for her is not artistic, it's your ability to see each of them, let them see you and be okay with that. Because teaching is vulnerable. If it's not vulnerable, then we have too many preplanned notions and we're not meeting the needs of students.

So single mom to single mom, did you cook? Because I'm still like, I'm not the cook. I just want to know as a single mom, and especially of twin boys, how did you manage coming home at the end of the day after teaching and be able to give them that energy, then, to kick into mom gear.

Sharon: Well, fortunately, I don't live far, so I didn't have to commute very far to get home.

I love being a mom, so it was exciting when I took off my teacher hat and could go home and be a mom. I would take my kids to the park. I cooked, but my children, when they were younger, I'm thinking elementary age, one of them was a little bit picky. So pasta, chicken nuggets—it's really no gourmet meal. It wasn't like I was spending a long period of time in the kitchen cooking meals for them.

When they got a little bit older, they wanted a variety and started eating more. So yes, I did have to cook, but by then, as they got older, they were very involved in activities in school. So it was a lot of come this way, go that way. The cooking really didn't happen. We were picking things up or I would make something and just store it in the fridge, and they would heat it up.

Noelle: Well, it's no guilt, right? I'm hearing you say, "We lived, we processed, my children were happy; I was happy." And I think again, sometimes as a personality of teachers, we want to be the best at everything.

And we still have to remember, we have our lives, we have our families. And for me too, one of the things Hettie established with me at kindergarten was, she did not want me to be her teacher-mom. With twin boys, were you just mom, or sometimes you did wear the teacher hat at home?

Sharon: Both mom and teacher. But oftentimes difficult to be teacher because children tend to be a little bit different with their mom than they are with their teacher.

When they would treat me like mom when I wanted to be teacher and they didn't want to do what teacher wanted them to do because I was mom—and I think children intuitively know that their mothers are going to love them no matter what, whereas children want their teachers' love and respect so they feel like they have to behave or act a certain way—children, your own, don't always do that.

So, many times it would be frustrating where I would have to take off the teacher hat and just be mom. And leave the teaching to the teacher.

Noelle: If your colleague, their teacher, needed to share something with you, how did you establish that communication with them? Like, "I'm their mom, we're colleagues, but I need to know about their educational progress."

Sharon: As I said early on when I was describing Silver Lakes, the staff is very much a family atmosphere. I think the teachers that taught my children knew that we were family and anything that they needed to say to me, they could say to me as a mom and I wasn't going to look at them like their colleague.

I also am old school in that if the teacher says it, that's how it is. I believe the teacher and my children knew that. I never played the teacher card with them, which [would be],"I'm a teacher here," or, "You're not doing this," or, "I happen to know this educationally." My children knew you do what your teacher says. And I respected their teachers, as well.

Again, I worked in a great place with great educators, so I really didn't even have to worry whether my children were getting the education that they needed. They were definitely getting it.

Noelle: Yes. Mutual trust.

So Sharon, one of the things I always ask all of my teacher friends that I'm meeting on this podcast is, what is your walkup song? What I mean by that is, you know, every athlete has a walkup song. Hollywood actors come up for their award, there's a walkup song. So what would be your walkup song?

Sharon: I don't necessarily know that it's a walkup song, but when I think of a song, the song that comes to my head is definitely not a walkup song. It's a song that I'm thinking more classroom theme related, things that I think about on a daily life is “You Had a Bad Day,” and how the next day is going to be better. You know, things don't always work out the way we want them to. Sometimes teaching things [does] not always—my lessons don't always work out, but guess what? I can fix it. I can try over. Sometimes when the students aren't doing too well, I tell them, "It's all right, you had a bad day, but you know, it'll be better, you know?" And that's it. It's definitely not a walkup song.

I don't think I've ever really given thought of a walkup song because I can't imagine myself walking up for anything special.

Creativity comes in many forms.

Noelle: I want you to walk with a new swag tomorrow as you come in. Your students are already asking, "Where's the podcast going to be? When is it?" You deserve that. You need to know and recognize that you do teach like a boss. You are amazing. So teacher to teacher, what’s the number one advice would you go back and tell yourself as a first year teacher that you know now?

Sharon: Probably not to try to take on too much and get overwhelmed by all of the things. Because there's a lot of things in teaching that get thrown at you or you sit and listen and you're like, "I don't know—how can I do that? How can I do that? And I have to teach, and then you want me to do this and I'm supposed to do this."

And if you sit and think about it, you can easily become overwhelmed. If you just let those things be things, and worry about teaching and being yourself and taking care of your students, all those things find a way of getting done in whatever order you get them done.

But taking care of those fabulous children is the most important thing.

Noelle: I'm going to leave you with a song that I suggest that you listen to, one of my favorites and he's in all my playlists: Billy Porter has a song, “Love Yourself.” I want you to find that, add it to your playlist, crank it up tonight on your way home, and just know that you are seen, you are fabulous, and your students recognize it. And I saw so much great instruction and I'm so grateful that you let me in your classroom.

Sharon: Okay, I will definitely listen to it tonight. Thank you so much for having me.

Lish: If you’d like to be a guest on the Learning Moments: Teachers in America podcast, please email us at shaped@hmhco.com. Be the first to hear new episodes of Learning Moments by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

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