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Karen Vogelsang, a former Tennessee Teacher of the Year, was tapped to join Shelby County Schools' leadership team part-time to provide teacher input.

Karen Vogelsang, a former Tennessee Teacher of the Year, was tapped to join Shelby County Schools’ leadership team part-time to provide teacher input.

Courtesy of Karen Vogelsang

Tennessee’s 2015 Teacher of the Year on teaching economically disadvantaged students in Memphis

Karen Vogelsang, 54, wasn’t always a teacher. Formerly a mortgage banker, Vogelsang didn’t pursue a career in education until friends and family urged her to consider the profession. It was a good suggestion. Twelve years after stepping in front of a classroom for the first time, Vogelsang was named Tennessee Teacher of the Year last October by the State Department of Education.

A fourth-grade teacher at Keystone Elementary School in Memphis, Vogelsang spoke recently with Chalkbeat about her work, why she doesn’t have a desk in her classroom, and the challenges of teaching in a district where nearly 70 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. Here are the highlights:

Before you became a teacher, you were a mortgage banker. When did you know you’d made the right decision?

My very first experience in the classroom, I knew I’d made the right decision, which isn’t always the case for a lot of teachers. I already had a bachelor’s degree in business. But in order to teach, I got my master’s degree in elementary education. During my first or second semester of coursework, we had to teach a Junior Achievement class. I taught a business course to middle school students at Appling Middle School and, at that particular point in time, that was the age of my sons so I was very familiar with the age. Of course, I’d spent 14 years in banking and I had a business degree so I knew about Junior Achievement, but I still remember the feedback of the classroom teacher. He said, “You’ve never taught before?” And I said, “No.” He said, “That was amazing!” That was when I knew I had made the right decision because everything just fit beautifully, and the students were engaged.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

The hardest part is “not being enough.” I mean that in two ways. First, as a teacher, you’re constantly reflecting on what’s going on in your classroom, and you have 20 or so of these human beings walk into your room and no two are alike. So you have a situation where you’re expected to grow them from where they are to where they need to be by the end of the year. Some of them get it, some of them don’t. Some of them don’t get it very easily. For some, it takes constant re-teaching. So the hardest part is feeling like it’s never enough, no matter what you do.

Second, you never have enough time. You never have enough human resources. I think of what teachers have been expected to do in the last 12 years. When I started teaching, I shared a teacher assistant who helped with bulletin boards and filed papers and worked with students who had been out of school for sickness or for whatever reason and needed help catching up. Today we’re expected to do so much with so much less. None of our teachers have a teacher assistant. Our teacher assistants are basically doing administrative responsibilities. So one of the hardest parts is not having all the human capital that could really help us.

We understand that you don’t have a desk in your classroom — or at least, that you don’t sit at your desk. Why not?

I don’t have a desk, because I should never be sitting down behind anything. I need to constantly be interacting with my kids. I need to constantly see what they’re doing. I need to ask them what they’re thinking, ask them what they’re writing. So the only time you’ll see me sitting in my classroom is if I’m working with small groups or I’m sitting on the carpet because we’re doing some kind of activity.

A few weeks ago, results of a Scholastic Inc. poll were released based on a survey of Teachers of the Year across the nation. Interestingly, when they were asked to identify the greatest barriers to school success for K-12 students, most identified factors that don’t have anything to do with classroom teaching and learning. Instead, they identified non-academic issues such as family stress, poverty, and learning and psychological problems. Do you agree with these answers?

Based on the questions asked, I do agree. I’ll give you a perfect example. Last year, I had a little boy in my class and the electricity got shut off at his house. He was bouncing from one neighbor’s house to another neighbor’s house. I can assure you when he’s coming to school in the morning, he’s not thinking about learning. He’s thinking about where am I going to have my next hot bath? Where am I going to be sleeping tonight? Whose bed am I going to be sharing? So I think those kinds of things do impact a child’s ability to learn.

While poverty is a barrier, students have and will continue to overcome their circumstances to be successful. I think an engaging learning environment can contribute to a child’s success. It can contribute to motivating them to want something better. But is it a cure-all? No.

You work at an elementary school in the Frayser community of Memphis with about 500 students — the vast majority of which come from low-income families. What challenges does this present to teaching and learning in your classroom?

Vogelsang’s students learn together in small groups.

Vogelsang’s students learn together in small groups.

Courtesy of Karen Vogelsang

I think you don’t often see the support for education in the home that you might see elsewhere. That’s not always the case, but I’ve worked with many parents who feel they’ve been jilted by the school system. I had a family where the children had significant cognitive challenges and the mother had significant cognitive challenges. We had a real difficult time getting her to come in and sign paperwork that would provide her children with some additional support, because she felt labeled when she was in school. She felt bullied when she was in school. She felt like she had been allowed to slip through the cracks, and she felt like if she signed paperwork that the same thing was going to happen to her kids. So it’s not because the parents don’t want something better for their kids; they just have a negative view of school and don’t think that school is going to make a difference for them.

You have to get to know the families. You have to understand what stressors they’re dealing with. Most of my kids come from single-parent homes. Mom may be working two or three jobs. So unless you build a relationship, you can’t make assumptions that they don’t care or they don’t want to or they can’t help. You have to find out the rest of the story.

In Shelby County Schools, district data shows that 70 percent of third-graders aren’t reading on grade-level. The district is targeting strengthening early literacy as a district-wide goal. We understand the vast majority, if not all of your students, are proficient in reading, however. How have you managed to be successful in teaching literacy in a district that has acknowledged that’s it’s mostly failing in that area?

I think every teacher has to believe in every child. [My students] know that I want something better for them. Expectations play a big role. Believing that they can do it is another big part. Meeting them where they are. I can have a curriculum map that says on week 1 we’re going to do this and by week 36 you’re going to be doing this. That’s great; that gives me a framework to work in. But if I have kids coming into the fourth grade who are reading at a second-grade level, I can’t start at a fourth-grade beginning curriculum. I’ve got to meet them where they are. I find out what they know, and I start laying out a road map and we start constructing that road together to get them to where they need to be. Some children meet those challenges head-on; some have a great deal of difficulty. If they don’t care, I can’t make them care. But I think when they know I care, then they are more likely to care.

Shelby County Schools is considering joining other districts in Tennessee in suing the state over allegations of chronic underfunding of K-12 education. Have you noticed underfunding as an issue in your district? In your classroom?

I have everything I need and then some. I really do. I have to balance that with the fact that I’m in my classroom, so I don’t really get to go to other schools and classrooms. I believe the principal has a lot of leeway in how they spend Title I money that they receive. I know that I’ve been blessed in the last eight years to have a principal who wants to make sure that instructional money goes towards instructional purposes, and it’s always been directed in that manner.

“It’s not your job to be their friend; it’s your job to be their teacher.”

What advice do you have for new teachers?The first thing I would say is find your voice with your kids. I’ve seen a lot of teachers struggle because they want to go into a classroom and be the students’ friend. That’s not your job. It’s not your job to be their friend; it’s your job to be their teacher. In the course of being their teacher, you can show how much you care about kids because of your role of teaching them new skills — whether those skills are content-related or social skills in terms of respect, responsibility, organizational skills, values like that.

Second, don’t take no for an answer. Go after what you think your kids need. Do what’s best for your students. Maybe because I went into this profession at an older age instead of fresh out of an undergraduate program, I’ve always had the philosophy of asking for forgiveness instead of for permission because I’ve always believed that I’m doing what’s best for my kids. If your guiding thought is to do what’s best for your kids, then you’re going to make great strides and your kids are going to accomplish a lot.

Third, don’t isolate yourself, which is easy to do when you’re getting started. If you’re not assigned a mentor, find one you can trust — and continue to learn.


Editor’s Note: Each month, Chalkbeat conducts a Q&A interview with a different leader, innovator, influential thinker or hero across Tennessee’s education community. We invite our readers to email Chalkbeat your suggestions for future subjects to maldrich@chalkbeat.org.