Why this Indianapolis teacher assigned less homework after visiting her students’ homes

PHOTO: PhotoAlto/Anne-Sophie Bost

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 the series here.

To better get to know her students, Jaclyn Wehmeier ventures outside of the classroom, to visit each of her third-graders at their homes.

Home visits are part of the teaching approach at Christel House Academy South, an Indianapolis charter school that aims to serve students from low-income families in underserved communities.

During those home visits, Wehmeier can meet her students’ families and learn more about their backgrounds. Seeing more of her students’ home lives has changed the way that Wehmeier approaches teaching.

Wehmeier, who was recently named one of 68 finalists for 2019 Indiana Teacher of the Year, talked to Chalkbeat about how home visits changed her perspective on homework, how she teaches children to love science, and how she learned to manage her own self-care.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

How do you get to know your students?

A unique experience that Christel House Academy South has provided me with is home visits. Every year, I get to visit each of my students at their house to spend time with their family, play games, and take a tour of their rooms (which they normally clean for me!). This is a valuable time for me to understand their culture and background. Since it is a school culture for our teachers to visit the students at their homes, students are often very excited and eager for us to visit. During my second year of teaching, I created the Home Visit Selfie craze that has gone school-wide. Every time a teacher visits a student’s house, they take a selfie to hang on the classroom door.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I have always loved science and enjoy teaching my students how to love science, too. In third grade, our curriculum starts with a book called “The Case of the Gasping Garbage.” It was about two science detectives, in the same grade as my students, who work together to solve mysteries and conduct experiments. The experiments are provided in the back of the book for the students. I make each student a lab coat that they get to wear throughout all of the experiments and create a classroom that feels like a science lab. The students learn how yeast rises, discover what chromatography is, and problem-solve how to improve our school through community service.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

Honestly, I would be helpless without my 1-to-1 computer cart now. I have integrated so much engaging technology into my classroom, I don’t know how I would teach without it. The materials and projects that my students are able to produce at such a young age on a computer is inspiring. It has taken me from a lecturing teacher to a facilitating teacher who guides students on their own discoveries. Also, I would be lost without my Apple Watch. Checking my texts messages, emails, heart rate, and stopwatch with ease makes the day run so much more smoothly.

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

After going on so many home visits with my students, my perspective about homework has changed drastically. I used to give packets of homework and expect the students to have them done completely and correctly on time. But after spending so much time in my students in their homes, I realized many of my students do not have a place to work quietly on their homework, or have someone who can help them. Many of my students do not get home from the Boys and Girls Club or from a babysitter until close to or after dinner time. I was placing so much stress on my students for what? Extra work or practice that these students couldn’t complete properly in their home environment. Releasing this stress has helped changed my students’ perspective about school and extra work that they volunteer to do on their own time.

What part of your job is most difficult?

Being a teacher is difficult. I wouldn’t be a teacher if it weren’t challenging to me. But the challenging part of the job personally for me is separating my professional and personal life. Being in my fifth year of teaching, I am starting to understand how to manage self-care and personal time. So often in the past, I brought work home trying to help every single student individually succeed and did whatever it took to make that happen. I have learned that I cannot help every student grow two to three grade levels in one year, and the most important fact is that each student feels loved in my classroom in the morning, at school, and when they go home.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

Reading for enjoyment has not been something that I have done much in my life until recently. I am a very active person and struggle to sit down for long periods of time. However, this summer was the first summer I didn’t work a part-time job in 12 years. I found that I truly had the extra time to just sit and discover what that was like. I have read 12 books in the last two months (that’s probably more than I have read in the last 10 years outside of school work.) I am currently reading “Girl, Wash Your Face” and “Little Fires Everywhere.” My favorite books from the summer were “The 57 Bus” and “Southernmost.” I have committed with my students to read 25 minutes every night as homework just like I ask them to do.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

I have learned that there is always tomorrow. A lesson might not go as planned or a student might not behave how you would like, but everyone can be better than before.

How this Indiana teacher helps hospitalized students transition back to school

PHOTO: FS Productions / Getty Images
Nurse talking to girl in hospital bed

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 the series here.

When Sara Midura meets her students, they’ve often just gone through a crisis.

As an educational liaison at Riley Hospital for Children, Midura is both a teacher and an educational advocate for patients in the Simon Skjodt Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Unit. She helps them keep up with schoolwork and transition back to school once their hospital stay is over.

“Many times, the students who come to us are either slipping through the cracks or seen as having huge ‘behavior issues,’” Midura said.

Her work includes easing the anxiety of a student returning to school; partnering with the family, school, and treatment team to make sure a student’s behavioral health needs can be met; and finding a “go-to person” at school who understands the student’s situation.

Midura, who was recently named one of the top 25 finalists for 2019 Indiana Teacher of the Year, talked to Chalkbeat about how she supports hospitalized children and how the lack of mental health resources in schools can affect students.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I decided to be a teacher in kindergarten — I loved my teacher and loved school, so it felt like a no-brainer to my 5-year-old self! I proceeded to force my friends to play school with me in my basement and made lesson plans during days that I stayed home sick. I toyed with other ideas for professions through my K-12 education, but solidified my desire to be a teacher as a camp counselor during my high school years.

How do you get to know your students?

Since I only have my students for a short period of time, I try to capitalize on the time I have with them by having them fill out a “school profile,” which really serves two purposes. Since the first time I meet the kiddos is almost always their first day on the unit following a crisis, I know that they are not functioning in their prefrontal cortex and are in crisis mode. They understandably are typically shut off, so the school profile is a great way for them to easily and safely let me get to know them a bit. It starts a good rapport, and I can always connect to something in there. Then each day I just make sure I check in with them, always reminding them that I am their advocate. We talk about school, life, and anything else. It can be easier to get to know them since they are in such a small group setting of up to 10 kids. This is my favorite part of the job!

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I am certified in Applied Educational Neuroscience (I took a nine-credit hour graduate course at Butler University with Lori Desautels), so I run a group on my unit every week called “Brain Club.” In this, I teach students about their brains, stress, emotions, and how the coping skills we teach them in their therapies and on the unit are truly brain regulation strategies. We talk about the different parts of the brain, which ones we function in where, our amygdala and fear, and so much else! The kids typically love brain club and are so engaged!

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

My iPad! Between playing music — I cannot work in silence! — looking up information to help students with their assignments, and using the different educational apps to fit all of my kids’ needs, I bring my iPad with me everywhere.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

Mental health resources, or the lack thereof in many districts, greatly impact what happens inside my classroom and on my unit. There are many schools that are so underfunded and lacking resources, leaving staff burnt out. In my mind, this creates and unsafe environment for my patients returning to school. My patients need a school staff that can understand mental/behavioral health.

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

The first really challenging case that I had was a few months into me working on the unit. We had a very high-achieving student who was going through some intensive setbacks, and the student’s dad was extremely concerned about school. I assured him that we would be able to “fix” everything with school and ensure that it went back to his expectation of normal, but that ended up not happening. This experience taught me that I cannot ever promise any outcome, but I can promise families that I will be with them each step of the way to ensure that education matches the treatment needs. This has changed my approach to speaking with families.

What part of your job is most difficult?

Navigating all of the different school systems and cultures during such a short hospitalization period can be very difficult when discussing behavioral health needs. I have my patients for about a week typically, so trying to provide enough support and education to patients, family, and school staff can be very challenging. I often feel like I don’t have the capability to serve schools as well as I would like to with supports! It is also difficult to not know how my students are doing after they are discharged — I wonder about them so often.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I’m not so sure that this was a misconception rather than an underestimation, but I really did not comprehend until I got into teaching how huge of a difference a teacher can make on a child’s life. Now what I know about the brain and mental health is that one positive, intensive relationship with a teacher can absolutely change the course of a student’s life — it’s amazing to watch.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

This is very nerdy of me, but I loved reading books that relate to behavioral health, so currently I am reading “Life Without Ed,” a book told from the perspective of someone who battled an eating disorder. I work with many kids with eating disorders, and it is such a terrible, heartbreaking disease that I greatly misunderstood before working on my unit.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

The best advice I received about teaching was to “fill your four circles consistently.” One of my amazing professors from Butler, Theresa Knipstein Meyer, gave a lecture one day about how crucial self-care is for educators. She showed us the theory of the four circles, where you have to consistently be taking care of different aspects of your health for the circles to be balanced and keep “your fire within” ignited. I think that it is so easy for educators to pour their entire hearts and souls into teaching only to get burnt out, and I have had to be conscious about taking care of every aspect of my life. This makes me a much better teacher and person, and I am so grateful to have learned that.

For this Detroit teacher, math is about teaching ‘what makes something true’

PHOTO: Michael Chrzan
Michael Chrzan teaching math during Math Corps, a summer program at Wayne State University.

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 the series here.

Asked what he teaches, Michael Chrzan says “mathematics.” Because in his classroom at Henry Ford Academy, a charter high school in Detroit, math is more than the calculations you need to tip a server or balance a budget. Chrzan, a third-year teacher, sees the abstract reasoning skills of mathematics — the proofs and deductions — as tools to help his students develop a firmer grasp on every aspect of their world.

This is just one of the ways he is unusual. A Teach for America alumnus, Chrzan also went through a traditional teacher training program in college. He is a African-American male math teacher in a country that produces far too few of them. And remember the Pokemon Go craze? He still plays.

Less than a week before Chrzan is to be honored as Teach for America’s teacher of the year in Detroit, Chalkbeat spoke with him about his dealings with parents, the toughest parts of his job, his social media habits, and how he finds  “greatness” in every student.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I’ve been teaching in some capacity — teaching or tutoring — since high school. I was a teaching assistant at a summer camp at Wayne State called Math Corps. I caught the bug for teaching there. I did that for three summers. I knew at some point in my life that I would get back into teaching. In college, I took a couple of computer science and math and education classes. And the computer science classes were fun, but I was like, this is just a hobby.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I taught geometry the last two years. It’s really a beautiful class because it’s the only class in high school where kids do the work of professional mathematicians. It’s the only class where they do proofs. So we get to have a really rigorous conversation about what makes something true, which is really important in our society right now.

Every year I pull in examples of deductive reasoning from outside of mathematics too.

One of the things I’m going to try this year is bringing in a Supreme Court decision and talking about the deductive reasoning that shows up there.

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

I had a conversation with a very young student’s mother who had the frame of mind that he was responsible for himself.

I was calling to talk about some issues that I’d seen on his homework, and just about getting it completed. That’s a really important part of the learning, that independent practice. And she was very much of the mindset that I needed to have that conversation with him, not her. It was not her job for him to get that done.

It changed how I discussed things with him because it got a much deeper understanding of what he has to deal with outside of these four walls.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The hardest part is motivating students. There are some students who have a really long history of messaging that they’ve gotten from schools, of the kind of person and students they are. I try to reverse that. You plant a seed when you’re the one teacher who’s telling them something different, but sometimes you don’t get to see that seed bloom in one year.

What was the biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

That I was ready for it. I did a lot of pre-professional teaching things. In college, I went to New York for two summers and taught in a program called Breakthrough. I did student teaching. I did Teach for America. I was like, I’ve got to be ready for this, I’ve got so much more experience than most people do when they enter the profession.

I was not ready. There’s is nothing that will prepare you for day in and day out being responsible for your kids’ learning.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

“Children of Blood and Bone,” by Tomi Adeyemi. It’s possibly one of my favorite books of all time. As a millennial, I’m very into social media. I will typically lull myself to sleep on Instagram. And I’ve gotten back into Pokemon Go.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

There are two. I can’t decide which I like better. The first would be, ‘don’t take anything personally.’ That really helped me understand that if I’m having a management issue with a kid, it may not have anything to do with me, that’s probably a kid who needs help. And that pairs up with assuming the best of my students. They came to class because they want to learn, and maybe something got in the way. I try to find their greatness, whether it’s math or otherwise. That’s a more human way to see students, and it opens them up to new things, like trying difficult mathematics.