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.

Future of Teaching

Undocumented students face hurdles getting into college. Here’s how Indiana teachers have helped them succeed

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Cinthia, Jessika Osborne, Angela Adams, and Karina Garduño were panelists featured in a discussion moderated by Mike Elsen-Rooney, a reporter with the Teacher Project. The event focused on undocumented students' access to college.

Navigating the college admissions process can be a challenge for any student, but in Indiana, undocumented students can face extra hurdles in pursuing higher learning. That’s because Indiana is one of just six states that prohibits undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition rates at public universities.

Helping Indiana teachers identify pathways to college — and through college — for their undocumented students was a focus of a panel discussion Wednesday, put on by WFYI Public Media and the Teacher Project, an education reporting fellowship at Columbia Journalism School. Educators in the state say that in recent years, they have noticed an increase in undocumented students in their classroom, and many of these students assume that higher education is out of reach for them.

Under federal law, all students must be allowed to attend public K-12 schools, regardless of immigration status. But access to public colleges in Indiana is inextricably tied to immigration status. While it’s possible for undocumented students to be accepted at and to enroll in colleges, entrance exams and figuring out how to cover the tuition, can be tricky, especially because undocumented students can’t receive federal student aid. They also worry that the application process puts themselves and their families at greater risk of deportation.

Wednesday’s event was held at the WFYI offices in Indianapolis and brought out dozens of educators, students, and community members. The gathering was part of an ongoing series about the intersection of education and immigration.

The panel featured Cinthia, an undocumented student who graduated from Emmerich Manual High School in 2015. Cinthia did not provide her last name because of her immigration status. She spoke passionately about how instrumental her English-as-a-new-language teacher, Jessika Osborne, was in eventually getting her to college and ensuring she felt safe once there.

“She’s always been in my life,” Cinthia said. “I felt like Osborne would protect me no matter what.”

Cinthia, Osborne, and two other panelists answered questions and participated in a moderated discussion about advice for other educators struggling with how best to help their students who are undocumented pursue higher education.

Read more: Should undocumented students be afraid? These are their rights.

Work to build trust.

Karina Garduño, IUPUI’s assistant director of multicultural planning and another panelist, said one of the biggest hurdles for teachers is determining which of their students might be undocumented, and therefore might need extra help with the college admissions process.

Garduño said the first step is establishing a good rapport. When students trust you and feel comfortable, they are more likely to disclose their immigration status and open up about whether or not they need assistance with the college process.

“A lot of these students will not share this information with just anybody,” Garduño said.

Making the time to do this outreach is no easy feat for many educators in the state. Garduño said she’s known guidance counselors who are responsible for hundreds of students. Such ratios aren’t uncommon in Indiana or across the country.

“As much as you are well-intentioned and really want to help, your human capacity is not necessarily always there because you have so many students to serve and they each have so many individual needs,” she said.

Osborne said she, too, has felt overwhelmed juggling her classroom responsibilities with the intense needs of her students, especially amid changing policies around immigration and undocumented populations. Still, she’s seen how consistent effort to build trust with students can pay off.

“There wasn’t a time where I remember Cinthia saying, ‘I’m undocumented,’” Osborne said. Rather, there were just hints over time that Cinthia needed help applying for college and getting paperwork that proved she was in school.

To help students like Cinthia, Osborne said she sometimes gives up her lunch hour and planning time. She also makes herself available after school and before sports practices begin.

Don’t panic.

Angela Adams, also a panelist and an Indianapolis-based immigration attorney, said she gets a lot of questions about whether teachers need to report students who disclose they are undocumented, or whether helping them is “aiding and abetting” some kind of crime.

“First of all, don’t panic,” Adams said. “You’re not doing anything wrong by not reporting this person or by having this person in your classroom.”

Adams said FERPA, the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act that protects certain information about students, applies here.

“You can’t disclose to third-parties even if you wanted to — you’d probably be losing your job,” Adams said.

Know your limits.

Adams and Garduño encouraged teachers to be supportive, but not to go beyond their roles as educators. For example, they can reassure their students that they won’t tell anyone about their plight without their permission. But they shouldn’t be giving out legal advice. Rather, they can recommend speaking with an immigration attorney.

“Be careful,” Adams said. “Because you don’t know what you don’t know … you could end up getting someone in a worse situation even if you’re trying to do the right thing.”

And in the meantime, panelists advocated that teachers familiarize themselves with available resources, such as the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Indiana Undocumented Youth Alliance, La Plaza, and the Indiana Latino Institute.

In the classroom, Osborne suggested teachers identify when it might be wise to avoid working in large groups on college-related assignments. At Manual, she said, students have been taken in groups to a computer lab to fill out college financial aid forms. But undocumented students might not feel comfortable in that setting — and some just didn’t show up, she said.

Osborne said her department has also held smaller parent nights for information about immigration, the college application process, and the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Most of all, Cinthia said, she appreciated that Osborne and other teachers never made her feel like her dream to complete her education and become a nurse was out of reach — even if she faced more challenges along the way.

“Don’t make them feel like they’re not going to finish,” Cinthia said. “Just help them and support them through the whole way.”

positive discipline

How this Indiana district is rethinking discipline to keep kids in school

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Warren Township administrators are taking a new approach to discipline — often forgoing traditional punishments, such as suspensions, in favor of interventions that better support the children who have gotten into trouble.

It’s called “positive discipline,” and it takes into account that traumatic events, such as a parent in jail, the loss of a family member, or homelessness, may be at the root of a child’s misbehavior. In those cases, experts say making a home visit or providing mentoring — paired with a consequence such as detention — can be more beneficial than forcing a student, who may need help, out of school.

“Children have problems at school because of things that have happened in their background,” JauNae Hanger, president of the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana. said. “As educators we’ve got to be cognizant of that.”

The result of these more mindful discipline policies: better care for students, and fewer students missing class.

This softer approach to discipline is gaining traction throughout the United States, particularly as schools confront high suspension and expulsion rates that have been found to unfairly target students of color.

Indiana in particular has grappled with such disproportionately harsh discipline for black students. Now, the state is establishing guidelines for educators to use this new approach in their own classrooms.

“Even one detention in the ninth grade can increase the risk of a child going into the juvenile justice system,” Hanger said. “School discipline data suggests that we do have a problem. It’s a statewide problem.”

Through a new state law passed this year, the Indiana Department of Education is developing a best practice model for districts like Warren Township that are interested in implementing “positive discipline,” which seeks to teach rather than to punish.

The model will provide ways to reduce out-of-school suspension and inequities in discipline, to limit referrals to law enforcement or arrests on school grounds, and to draft or strengthen policies that address issues of bullying on school property.

Schools are not required to adopt the best practice model, nor are they required to reduce their suspensions and expulsions, but the state must provide information and support to districts upon request.

“Operating in the mode of punishment without supports is not productive for families or kids,” said James Taylor, Warren Township’s director of student services. “We want to support families as much as we can because we’re the first line of defense before the juvenile system.”

Warren Township is one of seven Indiana districts that participated in specialized training last year to learn how to respond to misbehavior in a way that considers what’s happening in a student’s life outside of the classroom. Children in poverty are more likely than their peers to experience traumatic events.

The training is hosted by the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana, which is known for its efforts around reforming laws, policies, and practices to keep children in school and out of the criminal justice system. Training comprises a two-day summit and four one-day sessions during the course of a year.

Each session is designed for a different group of school employees, including administrators, teachers, and school resource officers. The final session brings everyone together for cross-disciplinary training, team building, and strategic planning.

Jim Sporleder is a trauma-informed coach who helps lead positive discipline training sessions across the U.S., including Indiana. He has seen how adopting a different mindset on discipline can be difficult: “It’s going against tradition,” Sporleder said. “It’s going against how we were raised.”

That was an early challenge for Warren Township schools. The strategy requires “a paradigm shift,” Taylor said.

“Everybody has to be on board, but everybody’s not always on board,” he said. “It’s tough to get people out of that mindset that this kid really painted a black eye for our school, and how do we move past the pain and the hurt of the situation when it happens?”

At Warren Central High School, 584 out of 3,710 students received out-of-school suspensions before the district began taking this new approach in 2016-17. But last year, when the district started the positive discipline training, the number of out-of-school suspensions decreased by more than 15 percent, according to state data.

Warren Township now outlines its approach to positive discipline in its student handbook, which defines discipline on the cover as, “instruction that corrects, molds, or perfects character and develops self-control.”

At the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana, Hanger said she uses schools’ discipline data to identify schools with a high rate of suspensions and where leaders are willing to address the issue. She and her team are still collecting data, but they believe suspensions will go down within the first year of training.

Suspensions have long been a problem in Indiana: During the 2012-13 school year, one in 10 Indiana students were suspended. For black students, the number was even greater — one in five.

However, some groups that represent educators have had concerns about how to roll out this approach effectively. Tim McRoberts, associate executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals, said he doesn’t want schools to restrict how teachers can discipline students. Teachers still need to have a full range of options when dealing with incidents.

Still, he said he supports keeping students in school.

Sporleder, the trainer, said that in order for a shift toward positive discipline to work, the entire school has to change the way it looks at all students.

“Some people separate out who’s trauma and who’s not,” Sporleder said. “We can’t do that because we don’t know. Your most compliant student in classroom could be most traumatized. Trauma isn’t a checklist. It’s who you are.”