How I Teach

From the Caribbean to Colorado: One teacher’s journey into the family business

PHOTO: Marta Aldrich

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

After college in Michigan, Amy Rehberg headed to a Caribbean island to work in the hospitality industry. It was there, while serving frozen yogurt to tourists, that she decided to become a teacher.

When she learned that a local friend — a skilled mechanic — couldn’t read, she became his tutor. She soon found she loved it.

Rehberg, who now teaches English language learners at Horizon High School in Thornton, talked with Chalkbeat about her Caribbean revelation, why teachers need a thick skin, and how she and a colleague created a program for first-generation college-bound students.

Rehberg was one of seven finalists for the 2018 Colorado Teacher of the Year award.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Amy Rehberg is a teacher at Horizon High School in the Adams 12 district.

Why did you become a teacher?
My parents, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, and sister-in-law all are or were teachers. So, when I went to Michigan State University as an undergraduate, teaching was not my major. I wanted to do something different than the “family business” but had no idea what that might be. I majored in English and after I graduated, I moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands with two friends. The plan was to wait tables and bartend in order to earn enough money to travel around the world. It was during this time that I decided to become a teacher.

One of my jobs on the island was working at a roadside stand that sold frozen yogurt and cold drinks to tourists. In between customers, I would sit on the deck and read. I had a friend — a local on the island — who would stop by and chat with me and ask about what I was reading. Over time, he confessed that he couldn’t read. This man was very intelligent and could fix any mechanical device on the island, but he was embarrassed about his reading skills and wondered if I could help him.

“Sure,” I said. He knew his letter sounds and could recognize most elementary level words and had a rather sophisticated oral language lexicon. We would work together every time he would stop by the yogurt stand. It was my light bulb moment — it was really satisfying work that didn’t feel like work. I decided to leave the island and move to Colorado. Once I was here, I enrolled at the University of Colorado Boulder to earn my Secondary Teaching Certificate. This was 27 years ago.

What does your classroom look like?
A little like a circus. It’s colorful and full of people taking risks, making connections, and using language.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _______. Why?
My sense of humor. If I couldn’t laugh, I would cry. First, because so many students have really hard lives, and educators do so much more than just teach a subject. Second, the public is so critical of teachers and public schools in general that it takes a thick skin to keep coming back.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
My students are always changing, and their language gaps are different, so recycling lessons isn’t the best approach. However, in my upper levels I teach about how we use language to show and not just tell. Students learn about figurative language and sensory description.

After opportunities to practice recognizing and writing similes, metaphors, personification, onomatopoeia, alliteration, etc., I bring out my collection of interesting photos, National Geographic magazine pictures, and other interesting pictures. The gist of the lesson is that the students pick a picture and write an example of each kind of figurative language in order to describe the picture in a colorful way. After they have written their sentences, they write a poem by stringing some of these examples together and adding some sensory details and camouflaging the direct description with more symbolic images. The students then read their poems to the class while we try to guess which picture is being described.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I find another way to get there. Slower and louder is not a solution.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I stand there and wait. I never have to wait very long. The kids police each other.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
First, I’m a pretty straightforward person, and I really like my job. So, I stand at my door, and I say hi to kids. I notice if they get a new haircut or shoes or a phone, and I comment on it. Then, as time goes on, they see a pattern in the way I ask them specific questions about their other classes. I offer time to work on assignments or projects – I help them and I have supplies. They see former students coming in to use the computers or the table to eat lunch. They see students asking me questions about everything under the sun, and they see me finding the answers. So then, within this community, when it’s time to talk about language function and practice grammar in context, they are willing to listen.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
Several years ago, I was invited to a student’s home to meet with a college recruiter and help his family navigate the information. The family’s first language was Spanish, and their son was bilingual. I spoke a little Spanish, and the recruiter spoke none. I sat with the family, listened, and asked questions I knew they wanted answers to, and paraphrased other questions.

That experience enlightened me to the idea that we had a population of students that was not getting access to college information. My colleague, Brad Turano, and I brainstormed an idea for a program at our school that would give first-generation college applicants and students of color the information and exposure needed to apply to, pay for, and graduate from college. Our administration liked the idea and funded it. The Adelante Leadership Program has been going strong at Horizon High School for seven years.

We take field trips to college campuses, invite recruiters and other guest speakers to talk about careers, and educational paths to those careers. We practice leadership skills, team-building, problem-solving, and critical thinking. We also teach financial literacy and independent living skills. Students are enrolled for the second semester of their junior year and the first semester of their senior year. When they leave us, students have applied to at least four colleges and for numerous scholarships, they have completed the federal financial aid form, and are prepared to take the next steps toward their life goals.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I am reading “What Alice Forgot” by Liane Moriarty. I watched “Big Little Lies” on HBO last summer and have since been reading all her novels.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
My mentor and friend, Wendy Engelmann, told me early on: “We teach kids, not subjects.” Of course we use content subjects and standards to guide how we teach kids, but the root of teaching is in relationships.

How I Teach

Why students’ birthdays are the perfect icebreaker for this award-winning Tennessee teacher

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Paula Franklin gets a hug from one of her students after the announcement that she was one of two Tennessee teachers to win a Milken Educator Award.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Paula Franklin’s students describe her teaching style as “relaxingly engaging.”

Maybe that’s because she starts out by building relationships with her students, then begins to introduce the content in her Advanced Placement government class at West High School in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Since she took on the course, enrollment has doubled. And more than 80 percent of her students exceed the national average on their final AP test scores.

Her efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. Last year, Franklin was one of two Tennessee teachers chosen by the Milken Family Foundation for their prestigious national teaching award. The honor includes a no-strings-attached check for $25,000.

We spoke with Franklin about why she became a teacher, how she uses birthdays to build relationships with her students, and why campaign finance reform is her favorite lesson to teach. (Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity.).

Why did you become a teacher?

My high school AP Biology teacher, Mr. Wheatley, was my inspiration. He cared about his students as people first and whatever we learned about biology was secondary. As a result, I learned a lot of biology, and a tremendous amount about myself, for which I am forever grateful. I work every day to provide the same type of environment to my students. I try to teach them about themselves through the lens of civic education. I want my students to leave my class not only more confident in their knowledge of our government, but also as inquirers and risk-takers who are equipped to ask questions and find the answers.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them?

I spend the first two to three days of class using Kagan class-building strategies to get to know my students and to get them to know each other. I can always make up time for content later, but the time spent building a classroom culture at the beginning of the year can’t be made up.

Another of my favorite things is finding out my students’ birthdays to celebrate them with the class by asking them three questions: Are you going to drive? What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment,? What do you hope to accomplish before your next birthday?

This allows me to spotlight my students and have them think critically about themselves and their goals. I have asked these same three questions for years, and students have started coming to me on their birthdays after they have left my class to share their accomplishments and goals.

What does your classroom look like?

I love to display student work in my classroom, both from my current and former students, so my walls are pretty well covered in posters and art. I think it’s important to make a classroom into a reflection of the students who learn there and goes a long way toward building community.  I arrange the desks in small sections of rows so that I can easily get to all the students to provide support on a difficult concept or assignment or encouragement to stay on task.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Lowell Milken, chairman and co-founder of the Milken Family Foundation, and Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen surprise Franklin with her award.

Google Drive! I am a huge reflector and save all of my lesson materials and reflections on my Drive. That way, I can easily access previous lessons and see how to best adapt them for my current students or the current social-political climate.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

One of my favorite lessons to teach began as my absolute least favorite: Campaign finance reform. The first couple of years, it went terribly. Students didn’t come away with an understanding of campaign finance but were more confused than when we started.

I am big on incorporating technology in my classroom, but for this lesson, I have them write down the original limitations of campaign finance and then cross them off in a different color as we learn about repeals. The action of crossing an item off of the list and annotating with the case or law that repealed it really sticks with them. This lesson is one of my favorites because I get to teach a relatively small amount of content over a class period, students get to work in groups and really wrestle with the content, and they have the opportunity to share their understanding with the whole class.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?

I try to figure out what it was about the lesson they did not understand. I can usually do this by reviewing data from a quiz or test or other assessment or just by asking them. I spend a lot of time in my class focusing on how to ask and answer questions to encourage my students to be advocates for their education both in and out of my classroom. After I figure out what I need to remediate with my classes, I do my best to come up with an example or analogy that is relevant to them. If that doesn’t work, then I ask a colleague how they teach that topic and try that. I am constantly looking for new and different ways to teach content that my students typically struggle with so that I am prepared to switch it up if my plan isn’t working.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

It is OK to leave it on your desk; it will still be there in the morning. You are not a bad teacher for needing time for yourself.

How I Teach

Crazy contraptions, Chemistry Cat, and climbing stories: How this Colorado science teacher connects with kids

PHOTO: Courtesy of Shannon Wachowski
Shannon Wachowski, a science teacher at Platte Valley High School, holds a toothpick bridge as a her students look on.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Shannon Wachowski once started a parent-teacher conference by sharing that she was concerned about the student’s lack of motivation. The boy’s mother quickly began adding criticisms of her own — alarming Wachowski enough that she started defending the teen.

It was then the student’s behavior began to make more sense to Wachowski, who teaches everything from ninth-grade earth science to college-level chemistry at Platte Valley High School in northeastern Colorado. She realized that school, not home, was the boy’s safe place.

Wachowski is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education.

She talked to Chalkbeat about how she uses parent conferences and classwork to learn students’ stories, why making Rube Goldberg contraptions boosts kids’ confidence, and what happens when she raises her hand in the middle of class.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
Originally a practicing chemical engineer, I became a teacher because I wanted a more fulfilling career. I had tutored chemistry in college and really enjoyed it.

What does your classroom look like?
Because my students work in teams 90 percent of the time, my tables are arranged so that students can sit in groups of four. I wrote a grant last summer for standing desks so each two person desk raises up and down. They are convenient for labs or when students need a change of scenery. My walls contain student-made license plates (an activity I do on the first day of school) and other student work from class, including various Chemistry Cat memes!

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ________. Why?
My heart. Initially I became a teacher because I loved my content. I soon realized however, that while content is important, developing relationships with students is paramount. No learning will happen if positive relationships are not established first. When I am frustrated with student behavior, I try to put myself in their place and respond in a caring and compassionate manner.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite lessons is when my students build Rube Goldberg devices. It gets somewhat chaotic because they are working in teams and materials are everywhere, but every single student is engaged. In the end, they can apply what they know about energy to design a multi-step contraption. I have seen very low-confidence students excel at this activity, and it is very rewarding to see them experience success in a science class.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
One strategy I’ve recently started using came from my experience leading professional development for other teachers. I will be somewhere in the middle of the room (usually not the front) and raise my hand. When students see me raise my hand, they will raise theirs and pause their conversation. Then other students see those students and raise their hand, etc. Once everyone is quiet, then I’ll make my announcement. Like all other strategies, I need to practice being consistent with it.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I always plan the first couple of days for “get to know you” activities. My students design their own paper license plates using whatever letters, numbers, or design they would like. They then have 30 seconds to talk about their license plates.
I noticed that in some of my more challenging classes I needed a way to better connect with my students. At the beginning of most class periods I share some sort of funny story about what happened to me the evening prior — for some reason, I am never short of these stories — or a picture of my dog, or my latest climbing adventure. Sharing this information does not take long and eventually, students will ask if I have a story to share if I haven’t done so in a while. This also leads to them sharing stories with me, and finding that we may have more in common than we think.

Tell us about a memorable time-good or bad-when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
At parent-teacher conferences one year I had a parent come in with their student. This student was not the most motivated individual — not disrespectful, just did not seem to want to do anything with his time. As I was explaining this to his parent, the parent started talking very negatively to and about the student, so much so that I found myself trying to defend the student and bring up positive qualities about his character. This interaction helped me to understand some of the student’s behavior in class, as well as realize that for some students, school is their safe place. There are often lots of reasons for a student’s behavior that I may not be aware of, which is why it is important to get to know each student and their situation as best as possible.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
When I have time outside of school, one of the things I enjoy doing is throwing pottery. I am currently reading “Science for Potters” by Linda Bloomfield. It combines my love of science and art into one book.

What is the best advice you ever received?
Since I teach a variety of levels, I often have one class that challenges my classroom management skills. This can be frustrating as I am the type of person that would like to achieve perfection in every circumstance. When I have a discipline issue in my class, I often see it as a personal failure. My husband often reminds me that “You can’t control other people’s behavior, you can only control your response to it.”