How I Teach

This fourth-grade teacher doesn’t take away recess or use points to manage the class. Instead she’s built a culture of respect.

PHOTO: Liz Fitzgerald
Liz Fitzgerald teaches fourth grade at Sagebrush Elementary School in the Cherry Creek district.

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.

Liz Fitzgerald, a fourth-grade teacher at Sagebrush Elementary in the Cherry Creek School District, used to hang flags and posters to represent all the different cultures represented by her students. Then she decided that wasn’t enough.

She wanted her students to know they were in a safe place regardless of their background or opinions. She worked with them to create a classroom built on acceptance and civility — even when viewpoints diverge.

Fitzgerald is one of 15 teachers who were selected for the inaugural Colorado Teaching Policy Fellowship operated by the national nonprofit Teach Plus. The nine-month program aims to involve teacher leaders in state-level education policy discussions, including how the state responds to the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new federal education law.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I always wanted to do something important and that made the world a better place. I see education as one of the very few universal human experiences, and so it has always struck me as a place where we, as a society, can make the most impact. If we can guarantee that every person has access to an excellent educational experience with highly effective teachers, I think we can create a lot of change in our country and our world. I wanted to be part of that!

What does your classroom look like?

I spent the first four years of my career in a school where most of my students rarely ventured outside of their neighborhood. My students lived five miles from downtown, yet many of them had never been there. I wanted to find a way to bring the world to them and introduce my students to life beyond their neighborhood. I started decorating my library with travel posters, I hung up flags from countries that represented my students’ backgrounds, and I started incorporating ideas, traditions, and stories from all around the world into my curriculum.

As I grew past my second year of teaching, I realized that hanging up flags and posters of students’ cultures was only one piece of celebrating who they are and encouraging them to explore new ways of thinking. I wanted the classroom to be more than superficially welcoming but emotionally safe as well. So today, my classroom still has many of these artifacts, but we also write and hang agreements of how we will treat one another. We refer back to these agreements on our rough days and celebrate them on our good days. We have words and phrases on the walls that help us share our truths but also consider the perspective of others. I hope that this creates a safe and welcoming space yet also stretches all of us to grow.

What apps/software/tools can’t you teach without? Why?

One aspect of my master’s program was learning and utilizing the Seven Norms of Collaboration. As I practiced these norms in working with adults, I realized that my students were capable of using them too. Instead of a classroom management system that takes away points, recess, or stamps, I decided to approach this year differently. I adapted the Seven Norms of Collaboration to meet the needs of my students, and then I spent the first weeks of school teaching my students our norms and expectations of working together.

Today, if you walk into my classroom, you see students setting social and academic goals for themselves, collaborating in groups, and monitoring progress toward their goals. Our discipline problems have been minimal — the occasional spat at recess — and I feel like our classroom community is built on deep respect. My students are comfortable living in a state of cognitive dissonance, and we have guidelines for how we disagree respectfully with one another. I cannot imagine teaching any other way, and most importantly, I hope that these are skills that stick with them for the rest of their lives.

How do you plan your lessons?

Every lesson begins with the evaluation of my students’ current level of understanding. Sometimes this is a formal process of pre-assessment, while other times it consists of analyzing patterns of student performance. Either way, I try to be very thoughtful in the objective that I am trying to teach, how to adjust for students who may struggle, and how to extend the lesson for students who quickly master the material. I work with my grade-level team and my English Language co-teacher to determine where each lesson fits into our curriculum maps as well as best practices for teaching.

I use the workshop model in every subject, so I try to keep my mini-lesson at approximately 15-20 minutes and allow for 30-50 minutes of student work time. This large chunk of time allows me to conference with students one-on-one or in small groups and really modify or extend the lesson as needed. Similarly, it allows students to spend the majority of time doing what they need the most — practicing and engaging in their own learning!

What qualities make an ideal lesson?

The words of my first principal echo in my head — “Intro, model, check, release” — and I still think those are the four most important parts: engage students in a lesson, model the skill, check student progress on the skill, and release students to work. But my favorite lessons are the ones where students take the lead, make connections to a previous concept, or take over the conversation. I LOVE watching my students engage in respectful disagreements among themselves and arrive at new learning in a natural way.

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

I love the workshop model because it allows me to meet the needs of all my students. During that large period of student work time, I can meet one-on-one with students, modify or provide support as necessary, and ultimately help that child reach the objective. I try to stay very calm and patient, validate the student’s hard work, and hold the same high expectation. I want students to feel comfortable asking for help and empowered that they can achieve.

What is your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?

I think it is so important to remember that no one can have their best day every day. When a student has lost focus, I try to keep this in mind. Part of our classroom is the expectation to “Pay Attention to Yourself,” monitor your emotions, and make deliberate choices when you notice something is off.

When students are having a rough day, I remind them of this expectation and work with them to determine appropriate next steps. Knowing my students really helps with this. I know that some of them need to be coached into a minute of physical activity, others need one minute to doodle, while others may need to take a quick lap around our school.

How do you maintain communication with the parents?

I send an email every Monday with classroom celebrations, a detailed schedule of our week (special events, homework…etc), upcoming notes or events, and questions for families to discuss with their students at home. These questions include everything from probes about our classroom content to reflections about what was challenging for students. My hope is that by including specific questions, parents feel more connected to what happens in our classroom and can have meaningful conversations about our classroom at home!

I also complete rounds of family check-ins every few weeks. During these check-ins, I call every parent in my classroom and share student progress, anecdotes, and any concerns I have. This time also allows me to hear what is on the minds of parents and make sure that no frustration, concern, or question goes unheard. I have found that these check-ins help develop my relationship with each parent and our trust in each other.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I’ve always loved historical fiction, and I have been enjoying a few new titles thanks to our school staff’s book club. Recently we read When the Moon Was Low, which is the story of a family fleeing Afghanistan, which gave us a lot of perspective on the experiences of many of our families and community members. We also have read Yellow Crocus about a white woman growing up with a black wet nurse and their very different searches for freedom.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

The summer before my first year of teaching, I read a book titled Teaching with Love and Logic. The authors wrote that a student “will do anything for a teacher that they love, even things they wouldn’t do for themselves.” I believe so much in the power of building a positive, meaningful relationship with every student, and that it can be the difference-maker in a classroom. Even on my frustrated days, I remind students that in this classroom they are loved, they are believed in, and they matter, and if nothing else, I hope they take that with them at the end of the day.

How I Teach

This Memphis teacher went viral for holding ‘class’ on Facebook Live during a snow day

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Candous Brown teaches one of her 12th-grade English classes at Raleigh-Egypt High School. Brown has been teaching in Memphis for 10 years.

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.

When a week of snow days brought Candous Brown’s 12th-grade English class to a wintry halt, her students convinced her to take her lesson live on Facebook.

So wearing pajamas and with occasional photobombs by her 10-year-old son, Brown sat down at her laptop and convened an impromptu class with about 40 students from Raleigh-Egypt High School in Memphis. Some participants were actually previous students who decided to drop in.

“I’m so proud of y’all for actually wanting to do this,” she said at the outset, complimenting her students for their resourcefulness, ingenuity, and good use of technology.

The 33-year-old teacher has a knack for engaging her students where they are. That means frequently tapping into their love of music to grow their passion for literature.

“Why wouldn’t we focus on that?” she asks rhetorically.

During Black History Month, for instance, Brown pairs excerpts of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1964 book “Why We Can’t Wait” with freedom songs from the documentary “Soundtrack for a Revolution.”

“I want them to know how music was utilized during the civil rights movement,” she said. “ In many instances, it was the thing that kept people motivated and unified.”

Chalkbeat spoke recently with Brown about teaching on Facebook Live and how she builds relationships with her students every day. (Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity.).

Why did you become a teacher?

I have always enjoyed literature and reading so it fit that I would be an English teacher.  As a student, my teachers would use me as a peer tutor.  I assisted classmates with their assignments and they would tell me I’d make a great teacher.  Of course, I would reject the idea; but looking back on it, they were leading me in the right direction.

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

I love teaching anything Shakespeare. But more recently, my favorite lesson has been to teach “The Hero’s Journey.” We were reading Beowulf and I wanted the students to trace Beowulf’s journey into the hero that we know him to be in today’s culture. When I first start the unit, I have them think of heros within their own lives. Or times when they felt like they were the hero in a situation. I want them to be able to connect this hero’s journey to themselves.  We read the text, participated in class discussion, did an analytical comparison of the movie and the text.  The students loved it.

Recently, you received national attention for holding class via Facebook Live during a snow day. Why was it important to make instructional time happen during that long break? How do you instill excitement for learning in your students?

That was actually my very first time going live. I was so nervous. I didn’t want to say something foolish and have the entire virtual world see my flub. I got up that morning, planned for some anticipated misconceptions, and went for it.

My students were the ones who set everything up. They asked if I’d be willing to do the lesson and, of course, I couldn’t say no when they were willing to do the work. I told them about my apprehensions and then one student used a phrase that I tell them when they are afraid to try something new: “First time for everything.” At that moment, I knew I had to do it. It was important to make it happen because they wanted it to happen. I always tell them that they cannot wait to be within the confines of a school to learn.

It pleased my soul that they were still attempting to do the work without me and that they trusted me enough to reach out. I think when they see me get excited or passionate about certain topics, it resonates with them.

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

Students tend to shut down when they don’t understand a lesson. Then, they state the infamous sentence: “I don’t get it.” I force them to think about the lesson and target the source of confusion. They have to be able to explain the problem to me before I help them. More often than not, their own explanation of the misconception helps them figure out the issue on their own. Also, they know that I am a last resort.  They will ask a peer or neighbor before they ask me because they know I will make them explain everything they know before I will help. It forces them to explore their own understanding of the concept.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?

I usually don’t have to say or do much. My facial expressions do the talking for me.  Once the kids see my face, they tell each other to get it together before I start fussing.  Apparently, the last thing they want to hear from me is fussing.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Brown says her facial expressions can do the talking for her when her students get off track.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

At the beginning of the school term, my students complete an “Interest Survey.” I participate with them and allow them to ask me questions. I figure if I’m asking them questions about their lives outside of the classroom, they should be allowed to ask the same of me, within reason. When the surveys are done, I file them. No one will see their answers but me. When appropriate, I incorporate things I learn about them into the lessons to make them more relatable. In that way, they know that I am paying attention and it opens the floor to them so that they know I am trustworthy and truly have their best interest at heart. I never demean them for the things they reveal and I don’t shy away from tough conversations. My door stays open to them unless I’m grading or planning.

What’s the best advice you ever received as a teacher?

To remember why I’m in the classroom. Sometimes, the classroom can be daunting and overwhelming. I have my students, I’m the single mother of a 10-year-old son and, on top of that, I’m working toward a master’s degree. I could easily get discouraged. But if I remember why I’m there, it becomes manageable. I am there to serve my students. I am there to lead my students. Those two things are never lost upon me.

How I Teach

Lessons from the school store: How this special education teacher sets up students for an independent future

Wendi Sussman, a teacher at STRIVE Prep - Federal in Denver, with an eighth-grade student during a field trip to the Air Force Academy.

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.

Fridays are a big day for the middle school students in Wendi Sussman’s class at STRIVE Prep – Federal in Denver. That’s when they operate the school store — an endeavor they start planning as soon as the school year starts.

For Sussman, a special education teacher, the store is a chance for students to practice all kinds of life skills, from making change to talking with customers.

Sussman, who was a finalist for the 2018 Colorado Teacher of the Year award, talked to Chalkbeat about how her students decide what to sell at the store, what fueled her interest in special education, and why there’s no stigma when lessons are repeated in her classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I grew up with a sister who has cerebral palsy, so my passion to work with individuals with disabilities has been developing since I was young. I saw firsthand how the school system let down families with children who have disabilities. I spent time in high school and college working and volunteering with this population, and started understanding the value they bring to our society. I began teaching as a way to work with people with disabilities in the early stages of their lives.

After college, I joined Teach for America as a special education teacher and was placed at a college prep charter school. Working at this type of school showed me the importance of giving all students options in their lives after completing their K-12 education, especially those with high needs. I continue teaching so that I can ensure my students have the options they deserve. This is my fifth year teaching in a multi-intensive center program, which serves students with intellectual disabilities as well as other impairments. I could not be happier.

What does your classroom look like?
I want to say that my classroom is clean, neat, and organized and that all staff and students know where everything is and where it belongs. While this is true to some extent, my classroom looks less than perfect due to the joint ownership between staff and students. We set up together, we clean together, and we organize together, which means everything has a place and it’s not always perfect.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
I couldn’t teach without my co-teacher and educational assistants. Running a successful center program takes a team. In a classroom of 14 students with individualized and intensive needs, it is not possible to provide the instruction to all students all the time. While I set the vision and do half of the instructional planning, it is the staff I work alongside who ensure the implementation is successful on a daily basis.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? 
Teaching life skills requires skills to transfer from the school setting to the real world. Our student-run school store allows for these connections to be made all year long. Starting in August, students brainstorm ways that we can make money for community trips and life skills lessons throughout the year.

My number one goal for the students in my classroom is to give them authentic practice that sets them up with the skills they need to have options in their lives and to have an independent future. For one student who is visually impaired and does not read or write, this store provides time to practice counting money, interact with customers, and organize merchandise. Another group of students working on social skills and appropriate interactions with adults are able to recruit customers around the school and let them know the store is open. Students with more advanced money skills work on giving correct change to customers and use calculator skills that allow them to run the store with minimal adult support.

While the actual store only happens once a week, the students are invested in the process throughout the year to ensure our Fridays are successful. Preparation includes selecting merchandise, setting prices, and advertising for the store. This year, the class created a survey and graphed the results to determine what would be most popular. Using survey results, students chose to add potato chips to the store’s inventory. The class went to a local store to determine the price of chips in bulk and then set a price for the chips at the classroom store. To raise school-wide excitement, the students prepared announcements and made posters to put around the school. Each Monday, we count our money using both mental math and calculator skills and set aside money to fund upcoming life skills lessons.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
For students with intellectual disabilities, it can take a large amount of repetition before they are able to complete a skill on their own. When teaching and reviewing students work, I look for progress towards a complete understanding of a topic and continue to teach the content until this mastery has been reached. I believe and want my students to believe that anyone can learn anything. With this message in my classroom, there is no stigma to repetitive teaching and learning.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
My students want to learn. More often than not, if a student is talking or off task, it is because the work I have provided for the student is not meeting their needs. In the moment when a student is off task, I take a look at their work and see what accommodations it is lacking and make immediate changes. If I notice a pattern in off-task behavior, I think about how I can invest the student in their own goals. I ensure that the work they are provided is scaffolded appropriately to help them reach their goal. When a student feels confident about what they can do, there is very little wasted time in the classroom.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
With our center program model, I teach students for three years, and they are in my class for large parts of the day. This is very different than a typical middle school teacher and something I love about my job. I eat breakfast and lunch alongside my students and make time outside of instruction each day to get to know them. I open up about my family, my hobbies, and what I cook for dinner each night. Students take interest in who I am outside of work, and they begin to open up about themselves as well.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I recently attended a meeting led by my co-teacher focusing on updating a behavior plan for one of our students. During this meeting, the student’s parents helped structure the student’s day to keep him focused during times they knew he would have trouble being alert and gave input on ways to help enforce the updated behavior plan. This was one of the first times I saw both the family and the school creating a plan together. I reflect on this meeting often, because it is exactly what I want my meetings with parents to look like.

Rather than coming to this meeting with a behavior plan already made, she came with ideas, trends, and questions to initiate partnership, rather than bringing a plan for parents to review and approve. This meeting reminds me what is possible with home and school collaboration and gives me a goal to work towards to create team work in future meetings.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
Any thriller … “Everything You Want Me To Be” by Mindy Mejia, “Behind Her Eyes” by Sarah Pinborough.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Focus on teacher actions. In my first years of teaching, I would catch myself complaining about a hard day too often, almost always putting the blame on students and their “terrible behavior.” My perspective changed when a co-worker reminded me that while I can’t force a child to make good choices, I can control my own actions. I continue to have hard days, but I now can reflect on situations in my classroom and ask myself what teacher actions caused a student to react this way and what can be done differently next time. Venting to coworkers or friends is important and needs to happen at times, but it doesn’t change the frustrating situations that can happen every day.