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This Memphis teacher shares why her classroom is a moving experience

Two first grader girls stand at a white board and answer questions for a project about bees.

“They love racing across the room and racing each other to answer the questions,” said Memphis teacher Ericka Payne-Clark, who keeps students moving to keep them engaged.

Allison Shelley / The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

Keep them moving. That’s Ericka Payne-Clark’s secret to student engagement. After two decades in the classroom, Payne-Clark has noticed that many students learn best when they’re out of their seats and on their feet. 

“I build a relationship with them, create a classroom climate that is inviting, and just make them feel comfortable and protected,” she said. “... Sometimes kids don’t have that at home, and they come into our building or our classrooms, wanting that feeling.”

Payne-Clark, who started her career as a middle school English teacher, now teaches at Balmoral Ridgeway Elementary School in the gifted program, known locally as CLUE. It stands for Creative Learning in a Unique Environment and is operated under Memphis-Shelby County Schools Department of Exceptional Students. Payne-Clark’s first through fifth grade students meet with her in small groups twice a week, leaving their regular classes for the two-and-a-half-hour enrichment sessions. 

In recent years, there has been a national debate about the best way to implement gifted learning programs, with New York City’s former mayor announcing plans to overhaul its program. Memphis has also changed how it identifies students for its gifted program. Previously, teacher recommendations led to students undergoing the necessary eligibility testing. Now, all elementary and middle school students are screened as part of the district’s universal screening program. More boys and more students of color are now eligible since the change, and Payne-Clark welcomes the expansion. 

“We had so many more qualify once we started using the universal screener,” she said. 

“We have a lot of gifted babies in this district,” added Payne-Clark, who recently shared with Chalkbeat how she keeps students moving forward, and why she’s still moved every time she enters the classroom.

How did you know that teaching was the right career for you?

Headshot of woman in Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. sweater.

Ericka Payne-Clark

Courtesy of Ericka Payne-Clark

In the early 2000s, right after college, I was still getting my master’s degree, and I was substitute teaching. I started subbing under the leadership of [principal turned district administrator] Dr. Roderick Richmond in long-term substitute positions when someone was pregnant, for example. And he saw something in me that I didn’t. He would come and sit in during my lessons as if he were observing one of his regular teachers. And one day he came to me and said, “I like what I see.” 

It was amazing because teaching never felt like work to me. It came naturally. I was always excited to go into the building. But once he said, “Hey, you’re really good at what you’re doing. You’re making a difference. I really think you should consider this,” I was excited and motivated! I knew I wanted to teach, and that just confirmed that I was going in the right direction. 

Twenty years later, do you still feel that same spark?

Teaching is instantly gratifying. It allows you to see the immediate impact that you’re making on the lives of children. When students come into my classroom, they are all the same regardless of their socioeconomic background. It’s my job to ensure that all of their needs are met, academically and emotionally.

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We’ve had two years of disrupted education with the COVID-19 pandemic. How has that changed the way you approach your work?

My main goal is to reach students where they are academically; however, it’s also important that I advocate for them. Many of my students experienced turmoil during the pandemic, and their emotional well-being was impacted. So I think it’s very critical that as a teacher — and oftentimes we wear so many hats — we provide empathy and understanding to those who are struggling, especially with the conditions we’ve faced recently.

What’s your favorite lesson to do with your students?

I have so many, and that’s why I love CLUE, but it’s always good to keep our students moving. And I’m lucky enough that I have a large classroom. So one lesson that we’ve played numerous times is Research Relay. In this game, they take a piece of text and locate information while racing against each other. And they love it! Basically, the skills that they’re learning are how to locate and identify facts. They’re looking for text-based evidence to answer the questions in front of them. They love racing across the room and racing each other to answer the questions, but at the same time, they’re practicing the skills they need for the annual standardized tests.

Recent data shows that fewer college students are majoring in education. What would you say to that college sophomore or college junior who’s considering a career as a teacher?

Every career has something that you may not like, and it’s so easy to look at the negative parts of it, but I can get past all of the misconceptions about teaching because it’s so much bigger than that. When a student comes to you that day, or years down the line, and she says, “Hey, Ms. Clark, you made a difference.” Or “I remember that lesson you taught us.” Or “I remember that vocabulary word you emphasized,” that’s the rewarding part. Teachers are the ones who make every other profession possible. And I think if you’re open to it, you’ll get a chance to see that it’s so rewarding. The good and the challenging experiences make you a better educator.

Bureau Chief Cathryn Stout oversees Chalkbeat Tennessee’s education coverage. Contact Cathryn at cstout@chalkbeat.org.

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