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.