“Sneak attack!” Miguel screams as he hurdles himself towards me for the fifth time today. It’s only 8:10AM – exactly one hour since he entered my classroom – and I feel my ribs crack for what seems like the hundredth time this week. His six-year-old arms slid around my waste, tightening like an angry cobra, and he rests his head right into my ‘pillow,’ he calls it – but I call it a stomach.
I wince – he’s not letting go anytime soon – and a giggle breaks out on the carpet. As I was right in the middle of explaining how to add three two-digit numbers together, Miguel’s aggressive-but-loving ‘sneak attack’ jolted my body so hard, it sent my chalk flying across the floor. “Alright, my love,” I say. “It’s time for Number Corner, so I need you to sit down.” He unlatches his arms from my burning ribcage and peers up at me with the most adorable, dopey grin, his eyes gleaming from underneath his race-car stripped glasses. Despite my aching ribs, it is moments like this that illustrate the intensive joy and growth I’ve seen in Miguel and my other first grade students.
Just six months ago, Miguel was so jarred by human contact that an accidental brush with a classmate in line sent him hurtling out of the school just feet away from the middle of a busy Austin street, haunted by the physical and verbal attacks he experienced in his former public school. I reminded myself that he deserves so much better than a not-so-patient teacher with a lesson to get through before the art teacher arrives. His playful yearning for connection and contact erased my frustration and growing worry that he was distracting 22 other souls on my carpet.
I flash a wink at the class, turn back to Miguel, and struggle to pretend-frown. “Wait,” I call. “Sneak attack!” I open my arms and Miguel jumps in, smiling and giggling. “Okay, you win!” I sing. “You are the sneakiest sneak in the whole wide world!”
In this moment, Miguel’s exponential progress – and my classroom – is summarized best by a quote from Miguel’s mother: “Su corazón, por primera vez, es aprender la alegría.” His heart, for the first time, is learning joy. My teaching style is simple: we celebrate the small things, find joy in everything around us, and find beauty in growing pains. The most important thing I will ever teach a child is this: we are all beautiful because of our differences, not in spite of them. I teach joy, and the gentle and tremendous growth my students make because it leaves me breathless.
This progress, despite the odds stacked against these prodigious little estrellas, is my most feverous passion. These sneak attacks are the reasons why I teach at a public charter school. Miguel’s family was given the choice – their choice – to find a school that would celebrate, not diminish, their child. I teach at a public charter school so mothers can choose who teaches – and loves, and celebrates – their child. Miguel’s name and some details for his story have been changed, but the imprint he left on my heart – and my belief in charter schools – has not. Seeing his progress and growth, from being afraid of physical contact to a big bundle of never-ending sneak-attack joy, is the biggest blessing I’ve ever had the honor of receiving.
KIPP Comunidad, Austin
“I really appreciate you giving me the opportunity, but I don’t think I would be the best fit for the position.”
Humiliated, I tapped the text to my friend who’d convinced me to interview with one of the few charter schools in East Texas, UT Tyler University Academy, a STEM academy, known for its Project-Based Learning instructional model. I’d just attempted to complete a task that had overwhelmed me as I tried to make my very first Skype call in order to speak to the school’s administrators. I connected, though it was faint and flickering, but could not hear the three women who spoke to me. After pressing an array of buttons on my computer in attempts to solve this deeply confounding problem, I did precisely the opposite of what I had advised countless students to do: I panicked and quit.
Fortunately, that text I sent fell on deaf ears; they wouldn’t let me quit the interview process due to a technical failure. It didn’t take me long to realize that would be a recurrent theme. I was offered a teaching position and became part of the University Academy (UA) family.
I quickly learned that at UA, you never give up. This was a culture where I was pushed to be a better teacher than I thought I could be. That push came in the form of constructive feedback from the highest levels of administration and from my students. It came from working closely with my colleagues, people with vastly different life experiences from my own. It came in the form of the obstacles we ran into as we “constructed an airplane while it was flying”.
That first year at UA, I tried to give up again. I agreed to teach fifth and sixth grades. I’d only ever taught high school, so the shift from talking with students about their driver's licenses and after school jobs to Minecraft and the lunch their mom had packed was startling, as was the way they required my constant attention. It wasn’t long until I found myself, overwhelmed and exhausted, in the office of my Campus Director, intending to quit. For the first time in years, I lacked confidence in my ability to teach and manage a classroom effectively and wanted to run back to the safety of a familiar environment. She read my letter of resignation and, over the next hour, patiently talked me down off the ledge. She predicted that this painful period of growth would yield to a time of success and fulfillment. She put the letter in her filing cabinet and asked me to stay at least another month, then reassess if needed. Fortunately, I persisted despite my defeat, and continued to teach.
In the past five years at UA, I have grown into the teacher I never thought I could be. Not only have I mastered the art of the Skype call, I have integrated a variety of other digital technologies into my lessons and evolved my pedagogy. I’ve presented my own research at educational conferences and visited both Austin and Washington, D.C. to meet with legislators about education policy. I have gained the courage and fortitude to venture out, beyond the confines of my comfort zone.
I’ve worked with the same students – my kids – the absolute highlight of each of my days, for all five years. Certainly, they have taught me more than I could ever hope to teach them. I have become better. I have achieved more than I ever thought possible because I was surrounded by a community who encouraged me to keep going and never give up.
And that is why I teach at a charter school.
By Heather Richmond, M.A., English
Master Teacher/Dual Credit Coordinator,
UT Tyler University Academy at Palestine
When I was in middle school, I was inspired by my math teacher, Mrs. Heinz. She noticed a special talent in me that she wanted to cultivate. I was good at calculations, so Mrs. Heinz scheduled time during the school day for me and a few others to work on advanced math. I loved it. Looking back, the thing that I loved even more was how an adult noticed something about me and took the time to invest in me. It makes me tear up just writing this because just a year prior, in 5th grade, I felt like I wasn't worth the investment after my parents got divorced and my dad moved away.
In high school, I was inspired again by my math teacher, Mr. Southworth in Precalculus. He picked up where Mrs. Heinz left off and filled in where my dad couldn't. He challenged me, encouraged me, and set high expectations that he helped me meet. Mr. Southworth always kept his promises, so I knew I could depend on him. Both he and Mrs. Heinz made the biggest impact on me.
My teachers helped me realize my calling to be an educator. I wanted to give back to students what I had received at a very important time in my life. Answering the call was not easy though. I was the first in my family to go to college. During my senior year, I was convinced to explore other fields first for the money. After college, I went into IT, selling and configuring computer servers. Finally, in 2012, despite many barriers, I obtained my teaching certificate in the state of Illinois. I got a job right away teaching Calculus, Precalculus and Geometry. Three years later, I moved to Austin, Texas where I accepted a Calculus teaching job at a local ISD. Things seemed great, but I as I entered my fourth year of teaching, I nearly quit. I was overloaded with prep and had over 160 students, 100 of those in Calculus alone. The workload was intense and I barely made it to Thanksgiving break.
Things were gloomy until I met a parent whose children attended a new classical charter school operated by Responsived Ed. This parent listened to my story and later shared a job posting for a math teacher. Given I was discouraged in my current role, I applied. I got the job, kept teaching, and I haven’t looked back. Over the past three years, I have been able to answer my calling as an educator more than ever before. Now that I am at a public charter school I am able to manage my workload, support all of my students and be present with my family.
Now I get to live out my lifelong dream of teaching. Like Mrs. Heinz, I get to identify various talents in students and cultivate them. Like Mr. Southworth, I have the opportunity to challenge and encourage students. Like many of my teachers in the past, I get to show up each day and inspire students to learn new things, to nerd out in math, and to become outstanding citizens.
By Cameron Starc, High School Math Teacher, Responsive Ed