Podcast Mash Up: Best of Teachers in America 2021

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For the Season 3 finale of Teachers in America, we’ve compiled our favorite highlights from the year on the theme of Teacher Love. We’d like to thank you for joining us for the podcast in 2021, and look forward to Season 4, coming early 2022.

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

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Noelle Morris: Welcome to Teachers in America, a production of HMH, hosted by me, Noelle Morris. For our season finale, we’ve compiled an end-of-year mash-up, where you’ll hear our favorite moments from the teachers we spoke to in 2021. These last two years have presented collective challenges for educators not just here in America but around the globe. The challenges have continued and evolved, and so have we. On the podcast, I met new teachers every month, each with their unique personality and expertise—but equally full of passion, determination, and drive.

I made so many inspiring teacher friends on Season 3 from different districts across the country. The most important commonality they had was the love for their students. Despite everything else, the people I met this year brought me hope and perspective. And in classic teacher-style, I’ve learned something new from each of them.

I wanted to take this time to revisit some of the guests we’ve had this season and remind us why this profession is so essential. Here are some of the highlights from this year, moments of teacher love that encapsulate everything I admire—and yes, love—about teaching.

Who better to start with than the 2021 teacher of the year Juliana Urtubey from Kermit R. Booker Elementary in Nevada. Juliana got her master’s degree in special bilingual education from the University of Arizona and is also a National Board Certified Teacher. She absolutely shone with kindness as we discussed special education, ELL, and educational policies in this episode.

Juliana Urtubey: I originally studied bilingual general education. I was a fifth-grade bilingual teacher, and I had a student who was so intelligent. But he would find himself often in the principal’s office. I would always quietly remark on his signs of intelligence and the things that he was doing. For example, he was running a convenience store out of his backpack. He had candies and toys and all sorts of goodies. He also had in a notebook, an itemized list of what he sold, his profits, all this. That same student had really limited English and writing skills. He could write his name, yes, no, and a little bit here and there. So I asked myself, how is this possible? How could such an intelligent student have made it to fifth grade but still have such struggles in reading and writing?

This was early in my career, when I realized students can be exceptional. A lot of people don’t fit into a box of learning and thinking differences. And they shouldn't be limited by those learning and thinking differences. We just have to change how we teach certain kids so they can build those bridges in their learning.

This all took place in Arizona where English-only laws make it illegal for schools to teach bilingual classes unless parents have all these waivers. And there were a lot of hoops to jump through to keep that bilingual education happening.

But where we were unequivocally allowed to use Spanish was in the special education area, because we knew that we had a bridge, our students’ language abilities. That’s what propelled me to study bilingual special education in a master’s program.

I see myself both as a general and as a special education practitioner. I try to embody inclusion so that my students don’t feel like they’re in the quote-unquote special education class. We’re here to support and help all students. This is an idea that’s coming to fruition in education more so nowadays where all teachers see all students as their own.

Juliana Urtubey Teacher Of The Year
Juliana Urtubey was named the 2021 National Teacher of the Year and builds student relationships through projects like her community garden.

Noelle: Qorsho Hassan is a second-grade teacher at the Echo Park Elementary School of Leadership, Engineering, and Technology. She is also the 2021 Minnesota Teacher of the Year. We spoke about our favorite books to read during independent reading time and how the right book can engross even the most reluctant reader.

Qorsho Hassan: Sometimes my students bring me titles, but oftentimes, it’s me exposing them to titles and different authors. I think for those reluctant readers, it’s all about just creating that magic, that ambiance of wanting to read. So I create this space where we have the virtual fireplace and tell them to bring some comfy, cozy clothes, find a corner that is appropriate for them to relax. And so we really get into this mindset ‘We have to get ready to read.’ Almost as if you need to get ready to do math. It’s just the same way, and they just get sunk into it. We create this reading community where we reflect on how we read. We ask each other questions about the books that we are reading. It's this rich dynamic and just more community building.

Noelle: Author, kindergarten teacher, and all-around teaching star LaNesha Tabb works at the Metropolitan School District in Indiana. She had tons of great advice for teachers who want to shake up their own curriculums, balance their time, and teach young kids to write.

LaNesha Tabb: I had a student who was my most reluctant writer, and he would not write anything for me for so long. And we got to an informational unit. And I had been harping and harping about, “Okay, boys and girls, we are going to be writing. You have to tell me something that you know all about. It can be cars; it can be motorcycles. I don't care if it's nail polish. I don't care what it is. Just something that you know all about. And you can give me some facts about that thing.”

And he just sat there forever. “I don’t know anything. I don’t know anything.” And then finally, one day he said, “The only thing I know all about is cuss words.” And I was like, “Great. Go get your idea sheet because we’re going to write this book about cuss words.” And I’ll tell you what, he wrote the best book of that entire unit. It had a table of contents. It had glossary. I mean, it had diagrams so you knew which finger was the middle finger.

Oh, I loved it. I loved it. I mean, so I called his mom and I told her the whole thing. And I said, “Listen, he’s saying that the only thing he knows all about is curse words.” And the funny thing was his curse words were like "stupid," and they weren’t even real curse words. And he was like, “That’s the only thing I know all about.” And I was like, “That’s fantastic. We’re going to do this.” And we sure did. He wrote the best book. I mean just labels and diagrams, and all of the things to teach other people all about cuss words. It was fantastic. He didn’t get to read it out loud, of course, but he let me keep a copy. It’s so good.

Lanesha Tabb Kindergarten Readi
LaNesha Tabb introduces her students to new cultures and ideas through her innovative social studies lessons.

Noelle: Owen Bondono is a high school ELA teacher at Oak Park High School and was named the Michigan Teacher of the Year for 2021. I loved that I could hear the smile in his voice during our conversation. His episode was informative and creative, with a focus on inclusion and writing.

Owen Bondono: What I tell my students: revision is not just going through and making sure that you spell-check. It's going back through all the other phases and taking feedback and making it better and improving it constantly.

And part of that is: I do that with my own writing in front of them. I write with them, and writing right beside them was hugely influential in how I teach writing. But I do all of the assignments with them and in a way that they can see my process and they can see the way that I am moving through all those different stages and then moving back to them.

I also try to do a feedback day. It's so easy for students to get back that writing piece and see your comments or whatever, and then just throw it out the trash and forget about it. So instead, I try to have a day where I give them back their writing and not only is there my traditional feedback on it, but I try to do things like, first of all, frame it as, "These are not things that you did wrong. They're just ways in which you can do better in the future." And then I try to give them a concrete, "Go back into your notes about this particular skill, about how we format dialogue. Reread those notes and then fix this section." Or, maybe it was that a certain section of their writing could be strengthened. I might give them some names of some of their peers who did really well at [the assignment]. And I'll say, "During our feedback session today, I want you to go and read that section from these students and then make your own better, improve your own."

And so the idea is that they have to act on that feedback in some way, right away, in order to make their own writing stronger, and then hopefully continue with that advice in the future. And I think that's key to doing everything is making sure that everything is always a cycle where there's not necessarily an ending point, but it's always, "How are we going to make it better next time?"

Owen Bondono Teacher Of The Year
Owen Bondono is the first known transgender person to be named Teacher of the Year for Michigan, and strives to create an empathetic environment in his classroom.

Noelle: Hannah French is a fourth-grade teacher at Rowe Elementary School in Western Massachusetts. During this episode, I learned about place-based learning and how Hannah uses the woods nearby her school as a second classroom for her students. It was amazing to learn about how the community came together to make this outdoor classroom happen and ensure that every student had access [and the materials they need for outdoor learning].

Hannah French: When kids come into a school, they're stepping into this world that has been created for them by adults, and there's furniture in certain places. And there are rules about how you walk in the hallway. And so, they're really stepping into our worlds. And I feel like in the forest, especially during forest choice time, during free playtime, or even just when our kids are going off to their hammocks to independent read, that's their world, and now we're stepping into their world and meeting them there and then learning and growing together from that spot.

Another thing that we really were careful about was just ensuring that all of our students were prepared to be outside because we're going outside in all kinds of weather through the whole year, Massachusetts winters. So, we have done some grant writing, and we have gotten some other funding and even just some of our supply funding, I think probably we've been able to use on things like mittens so that we can have mittens available for kids who maybe don't have some or maybe forgot theirs.

And we have extra rain pants and extra raincoats and extra snow pants and all those kinds of things. We still ask students to bring their own gear to be outdoors. And we have options available so that if that's a hardship for families, we're there to work with them and make sure that it's not a hardship so that their student can access these experiences just the same as any other student.

Noelle: We met another 2021 state teacher of the year, this time from Virginia. Anthony Swann is a fifth-grade teacher and one of the sweetest guests ever. We had a powerful conversation about his childhood in the foster care system and how those experiences helped him connect with students going through their own struggles.

Anthony Swann: So, one thing that I have put in place is words of affirmation. And before I begin my school day, I always greet my children and say, "Good morning." And I tell them, "Thank you for coming to school." And the reason why I say that is because we know that children can play hooky and stay home. So I tell them, "Thank you." I always tell them, "Thank you for coming to school." If they miss school, the next day, I make it a big deal that they're back. And I say, "We're just so glad to have such and such back. And we really missed you." I also extracted our words of affirmation from the movie, The Help, but I just changed a couple of words. And so, I have the students to repeat after me, "I am smart. I am kind. I am important." And after then they repeat, "I am smart."

I tell them that they may encounter things that are challenging throughout the day. But just to remember that they're smart enough to make it through those things. And then, after we say, "I am kind," I remind them how kindness goes a long way, and we should treat others the way that we want to be treated. And then when I tell them, after we say that I am important, I also tell them that I love them because there are some students who do not receive a consistent, positive role model to let them know, "I love you." And I remember having this one particular student a couple of years ago, after I would say, "I love you." He would say, "No, you don't. Nobody does." But then, after he said that, he would start smiling at me because he knew that I did care for him, even outside of the classroom.

Anthony Swann Teacher Of The Year
Anthony Swann’s life changed when his fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Gerretta Wilson, offered her support and guidance.

Noelle: Now, you know I had to invite my friend CJ Reynolds onto the podcast. He is a podcaster himself, but his main gig is as a high school English teacher at an all-boys school in inner-city Philadelphia. He is the creator of the YouTube channel Real Rap with Reynolds and is always so much fun to talk to. He’s also an extremely hardworking educator, even when he was virtually teaching from inside a laundry room.

CJ Reynolds: 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.

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.

Cj Reynolds Teacher
Two of CJ Reynolds’s former students appear on the cover of his book, Teach Your Class Off.

Noelle: Perry Hollins is a fourth-grade teacher at Oakton Elementary School in Illinois. I am so happy I got to meet this radio DJ, turned substitute teacher, turned full-time educator. He strives to create a project-based learning environment for his students that incorporates knowledge from their cultural backgrounds into their learning.

Perry Hollins: For me, it really boils down to engagement. When I first started, all students were remote.

Like I said, I would open it up with just sharing, and we would just talk. I would really get curious about their life. Tell me more. That built trust in them that like, "Oh, he actually is curious because he's using all of this time, in the beginning to just get curious about my life and the things that [are] going on." To the point now where they're sharing almost everything with me and what they're working on outside of the Zoom space. I have daily themes like Monday is Motivation Monday.

When I put up my Google Slides for Monday morning, it's always in the stream, something about what's keeping you motivated, what's going to keep you motivated throughout the week. I use that as content to teach, even though they're engaging with one another about topics. Sometimes the topics can get a little off where I'm like, "Okay, let's clean it up. What's going on here?" They're fourth graders, so sometimes they want to go on tangents, but I'm using that as content for instruction. I'm like, okay, I can bring these things back up at some point.

We have Talent Tuesday. What is your talent? Wednesday is Wisdom Wednesday, so we'll look at African Proverbs. Thursday is Black Excellence Thursday, and then Friday is Flex on Them. Just basically, what can you do that nobody else can do? Flex on them. What have you been learning this week?

What are you doing that keeps them engaged for the most part throughout the day? I can always go back. When I'm thinking about how I'm going to introduce a lesson, "What did Deandre say today? Oh, he said that he was going to his friend's house who has a very hyper dog and he's scared of dogs. All right. I'm going to try to figure out a way to incorporate that into compare and contrast. Compare two different types of dogs. Which one would you..." We're studying text structure or something like that.

And that way, there's an emotional connection to the content so that I can drive home those standards that I need to be addressing.

Noelle: Kitty Donohoe is the embodiment of the phrase “believe in your dreams.” An elementary teacher based in California, Kitty has been an educator for over 30 years and is looking forward to releasing her debut children’s novel, How to Ride a Dragonfly. Who better to discuss the power of reading and teaching with than her?

Kitty Donohoe: It's true, teachers do have a lot foisted upon them. I think what helps me is to always keep my eye on the students. I have to say, even in the height of the pandemic before I was vaccinated and when we were all on Zoom school, that time every day when I was with my second graders, now third graders, I forgot there was a pandemic because their little faces were right in front of me.

One thing that has never changed with all the ups and downs in education is that I love the children so much. If I put my focus on them and as I said, they are the curriculum, and what are their needs, then it all falls into place. Because you're right with my garden, I just love going out there with the students or even by myself to think a little bit when it's lunchtime or something. You could say it is a little reflective of our times. We're just trying so hard to get a balance after everything all of us have been through and I'm so grateful to be in person with the students again. That is just so edifying. I can't even begin to say it. I really think if we always, as teachers, I know for myself, think about the kids, they bring so much joy to my life and that has never, ever stopped. Any stressors in education, it's not the children, and I can honestly say that.

Noelle: The best person who I can think of to end this episode on teacher love is Angelica Moreno, a kindergarten teacher at the Dual Language Academy in El Paso, Texas. Angelica is such a positive force and strives to create a safe place for her students to feel seen and heard.

Angelica Moreno: I would say that this pandemic has proved to me that I'm not ready to retire. Because I've learned and I realized how much I miss the kids, how much I miss being with the kids, having the kids in front of me, listening to them, teaching them.

Noelle: A huge thank you to all of our guests from this season and all those before it. Every day the podcast production team is inspired by your love for this profession and for your students. To all of the teachers out there that have worked so tirelessly throughout the year, thank you, and I’ll see you next season.

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 for listening! Your friend, Noelle.

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