How I Teach

Why this award-winning teacher starts the year eating lunch with her students

PHOTO: Courtesy of Katie Baker
Katie Baker leads her third-graders in a reading exercise.

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.

Katie Baker was recently surprised with a $25,000 check — and some national attention as one of the top teachers across the nation.

The Chattanooga teacher was one of 33 educators honored this year with a 2016 award from the Milken Family Foundation — an honor that drew accolades from Tennessee’s top education official.

“At the end of the day, they love you and know you love them,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said of Baker’s students in Hamilton County Schools.

Getting that classroom environment right, though, takes a lot of work. We asked Baker to tell us more about how she gets to know her third-grade students at Battle Academy, a K-5 magnet school in downtown Chattanooga, and why she tries to start each year with a blank slate. (This Q&A has been edited and condensed.)

What’s a word or short phrase that describes your teaching style?

Calm. While that may not be how I feel about teaching all the time, that is a word I’ve heard others use to describe my teaching style.

What does your classroom look like?

The first thing you would notice is our large rug where we meet for whole group mini-lessons. I have a guided reading table in the back corner, and the students’ desks are arranged in table groups of 4-6. The goal of the rug and the table groups is to give students opportunities to work together.

I have my classroom set up to allow for as much independence as possible. If my students need something, I want them to be able to get it without having to wait on me. I have designated areas in the room where students know they can look for resources by subject.

How do you get to know your students? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

I eat lunch with my students for the first few days of school, and that gives me some time to get to know what they are like and what they are interested in outside of school. There isn’t a lot of time in the day other than lunch and recess for me to talk to my students and just get to know them.

I like to find out about their families, friends, interests and life outside of school. Forming this relationship early on really helps the sense of community in the classroom. I think it helps all of us feel more comfortable around each other so we can make the most of the time we are in the classroom.

I also greet my students at the door each day to tell them good morning individually, give them a compliment, or touch base with them on something I know is going on in their life. And I try to take some time at recess to talk with individual students if I know they’ve had something going on in their life or I notice a change in their behavior.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

It seems just about every year I have a parent or family member approach me to “warn” me about their child. I’ve had parents apologize to me, saying they are sorry that I have to have their child in my class that year. Sometimes parents will start off right away with a list of “problems” their child has had in the past with school or reasons that they feel he or she won’t be successful. “She’s a really low reader.” “He just can’t focus.” “He was in trouble a lot last year.”

I try to emphasize that this is a brand new year and how I am excited to get to know them more. I try to touch base with parents for positive reasons and to keep them updated on any changes I notice. As much as I can, I try to be proactive. For example, letting parents know that I noticed a low test grade for this student and my plans for reteaching that lesson with them or tips they can work on at home.

The first time this happened was before my very first year, on a day when the students got to come find out who their teacher was for that year. As a new teacher, this worried me and also made me sad that this student’s family had already placed such low expectations on him. I knew I would have to work hard to offset that. Since that interaction, I try to start every year with a blank slate concerning my students and to set my expectations high for everyone in my class.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I love reading books written by my favorite comedians and actresses like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Drew Barrymore and Mindy Kaling. I just finished “Scrappy Little Nobody” by Anna Kendrick.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

My dad likes to remind my brother and me how “everything is temporary.” He has said it so often that we usually just laugh and roll our eyes, but I have to admit, he is absolutely right. This helps me to be a better teacher because I remind myself that this school year is temporary. I only have a few months to do everything I can for my students before they are moving on to be someone else’s students.

On the harder days, this is comforting because I know it won’t be hard forever. On the good days, this helps me to relax and enjoy the moment.

strike vote looming

Denver district, board members frame teacher contract negotiations as debate over values

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Denver school board members get the latest on negotiations that have hit a turning point.

With time running out to strike a deal with the teachers union, Denver school district officials in a special board meeting Wednesday portrayed the unresolved issues in contract negotiations as a clash over values.

The hastily called meeting was primarily a briefing for school board members from the district’s chief negotiators and Superintendent Susana Cordova. But it was also a chance for the district — and a board that generally supports its positions — to seize the narrative.

Cordova framed the district’s stance as honoring core district values, including getting teachers into hard-to-staff jobs and high-poverty schools, and keeping them there.

Under negotiation is the district’s pay-for-performance system, called ProComp. It offers teachers a base salary and allows them to earn bonuses and incentives for things like high student test scores or working in a hard-to-fill position. The union would like to take some incentive money and put it toward higher base pay to lift the salaries of all teachers.

The district’s general counsel, Michelle Berge, on Wednesday said the union wants to take $10 million being used now to incentivize teaching in high-poverty schools and spread the money around “like peanut butter.”

Talks hit a sticking point Tuesday, with the union insisting the district embrace a salary table with its preferred structure for paying teachers by “steps” corresponding to a teacher’s experience and “lanes” representing education. 

The two sides have bargaining sessions scheduled for Thursday and Friday, and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association has pledged to hold a strike vote Saturday if an agreement isn’t reached.

Denver teachers have long said the pay-for-performance system is too complicated and unpredictable.

Cordova acknowledged the two sides are far apart on money. The money on the table for teachers now, she said, “is not enough.” But she said the two sides should reach an agreement, then work together to “fix the core of the problem” — how the state funds schools.

Wednesday’s meeting gave board members a platform as Denver inches closer to what would be its first teachers strike in 25 years.

Board member Jennifer Bacon said a system in which teachers don’t know what they are going to be paid — it can vary from year to year under ProComp — is “crazy.” 

“What are we really negotiating on to make teaching an idolized profession?” said Bacon, one of two board members who often push back against the district’s policies.

Member Happy Haynes said she put a higher priority on rewarding teachers who take hard-to-fill jobs and work in high-poverty schools.

“It isn’t just simply numbers moving around on cells on a spreadsheet,” she said. “There are values that we are articulating here.”

A teachers union representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Union President Henry Roman, however, has previously cited values in articulating the union’s stance.

“We know the district has the money to pay teachers a living wage,” Roman said in a statement last week, “and it’s time that they get serious about budgeting their stated values, so that we can have a deal by the 18th and prevent further stress on educators, students, and the community. Any further delay in getting a fair and transparent compensation system will only serve to aggravate the situation.”

On Friday, district officials presented a new proposal that would put an additional $6 million into teacher pay. That’s on top of the additional $17 million the district had already proposed, for a total of $23 million more. Taking into account a previously promised cost-of-living raise, the $23 million would increase teachers’ base pay by 10 percent from this school year to the next on average, district officials said.

Board member Carrie Olson, a former teacher, indicated the school district has more work to do to describe its offer.

“When I sit here, I know it sounds good, but I know that is not translating into the teachers in our schools,” Olson said. “The feeling isn’t, ‘This is a great deal.’”

That doesn’t appear to be lost on district officials. Cordova fielded teacher questions for an hour late Wednesday afternoon during a “telephone town hall” with educators after the district blasted them with robocalls informing them of the opportunity.

Teachers, meanwhile, organized informational community meetings at no fewer than three Denver schools Wednesday afternoon or evening, part of an effort to engage parents, said union vice president Christina Medina. In some cases, school administrators took part in those or previous meetings to discuss implications of a strike and explain the district position, she said.

“No one is more invested than parents,” said Medina, a teacher at Academia Ana Marie Sandoval elementary school in northwest Denver. “So connecting with them is important because they love our kids and we love our kids. It’s making sure we are on the same page. Making sure that teachers stay and we have great teachers in Denver.”

First Person

Why I won’t strike: Denver teachers in high-poverty schools, like me, deserve real bonuses

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I’m in my eighth year teaching in Denver Public Schools. I have spent my career teaching in Montbello, where a majority of my students qualify for free and reduced lunch. I have a master’s degree in English, and at High Tech Early College, I teach primarily concurrent enrollment classes, for which students receive both high school and college credit.

For the last five years, I have been rated “distinguished,” the district’s highest evaluation rating for teachers. That rating, plus my degree and the fact that I teach at a high-poverty school, means I benefit from many aspects of our current pay system, known as ProComp.

So I’m watching the Denver teacher’s union negotiations for a new pay scale closely. And I’m concerned.

For one, I believe that my distinguished rating reflects my hard-earned successes in the classroom. The union has advocated successfully to end bonuses tied to evaluations under the new contract, which is disappointing. I see that change as funding less effective teachers at the expense of others, and I worry they could drive strong teachers from the district.

But far more important to me are the existing bonuses for teachers who work in high-poverty schools. The union is advocating to shrink bonuses for teachers in Title I schools to $1,500 from $2,500, and redistributing the rest to increase everyone’s base pay.

I can tell you from experience that schools where many students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch — an indicator of poverty — face complex and often painful challenges. We don’t talk enough about how, all over America, most poor kids go to school with poor kids and rich kids go to school with rich kids. That means teachers in schools like mine aren’t working with a few students arriving with challenges — behavior problems, unaddressed trauma, worries about being undocumented, for example — but often entire classes of students who need special attention for those reasons.

If those bonuses keep shrinking, what incentivizes teachers to teach at schools like ours? If it’s the same pay at two schools, what will bring teachers into the places where we need them the most? A sense of vocation and moral purpose, for sure, but that ignores reality. Turnover at my school is relatively high, and evening out teacher pay could make it worse. Students at those schools deserve great teachers who stick around.

To be clear, I love High Tech, and I’m not going anywhere. And I’m not anti-union. All teachers should be compensated for the hard and important work that they do, and I’m excited to see pay rise for everyone. I don’t believe that strong base pay and bonus money for qualified educators are mutually exclusive.

But the union’s stance on high-poverty schools is indefensible. I hope it reconsiders.

Alison Corbett is a teacher at High Tech Early College and was a 2017-18 Teach Plus Colorado Fellow.