At the recent Ideas in Education Festival in Potomac, MD, I had the pleasure of meeting Andrew Ezekoye. Andrew is a 4th grade teacher at Springhill Lake Elementary School. During our time at the Festival, Andrew and I talked about his career and his Teach for America experience. He shared his passion for teaching and internal conflict regarding the impact of his role and how he can work towards sustainable change in the education system.
He followed up after our conversation with this email. I was in tears by the end of it. Andrew’s reflections articulate the realities of what it means to teach and the heart and internal struggle of how to make sustainable difference. This is a long posting, but I wanted to leave all of Andrew’s thoughts ‘as-is’. This is the kind of Teach for America story which doesn’t lend itself to a neat soundbite. It’s the kind of teacher story which never reaches the headlines. It should.
I hope this email finds you well. This is Andrew Ezekoye, we met at the Ideas Festival at St. Andrews. Please excuse my extreme lateness in emailing you, this week has been a particularly hectic one at school - the kids have been taking the End of the Year PARCC exams.
Continuing, I just wanted to shoot you an email and thank you for your incredible and insightful discussion of your ideas; as well as the kind words and great advice you gave me in particular. Like I told you on Saturday, since graduating from Harvard I am currently a Teach for America Corp member working as a 4th Grade Teacher at Springhill Lake Elementary School. So, I wanted to give you some news and updates from my classroom as we head into the last quarter before Summer vacation begins. To sum up my experience thus far: through my training teaching at summer school at Mastery-Harriety in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to now having completed three-quarters of the school year, although I've always believed this, but it has become even more evident that teaching is a really - and I mean really - tough job. I knew that, and in many ways expected and embraced that reality heading into the classroom, but to be honest, it's definitely been more difficult than I could have ever imagined. However, as long as I constantly remind myself that I'm in the classroom for a purpose greater than my own, playing a role in the intellectual and social growth in my scholars has been an incredibly rewarding experience, and it makes makes everything that goes into doing the job effectively worthwhile. I really love this job, and while I'm here I wanna make the biggest difference possible. I'll start with a quick introduction of my class, and then progress to academic updates, and then end with some concluding thoughts about my experience thus far.
To start, I teach at 4th Grade at Springhill Lake Elementary, a Title One Elementary School in Greenbelt, Maryland. I am self contained, so I teach all the subjects to my class of 4th Graders (Math, Reading, Science, Social Studies, Health). Although our school population is pretty large, (we are technically overcrowded, with about 930+ kids in grades K-5), we are also a very very transient student body - our student body is comprises many homeless kids, immigrants, transitional families, and the like. I started out with 22 scholars in my class, but 10 of those scholars moved away within at various points in the 1st quarter of school, and now it's just my 12 scholars and me in our temporary classroom/trailer. To be honest, to have 12 students is absolutely mind boggling, as many of my colleagues have upwards of 30, and some even up to 32-33 (technically, the rules say that the max anyone should have in their classroom is 30.. but I'm not sure that one gets enforced as rigorously as some of the other provisions...)
I have tried to build a culture for learning by facilitating an environment where my scholars developed a sincere belief that they have the ability to lead or make changes for the better in their lives, for their families, and in their communities. I have taken care to ensure that scholars develop a sense of pride in their "space" and allow them to view the classroom as their own safe environment where they are welcomed, valued, and equally in charge - this also comes with setting extremely high expectations and high standards, but relies on constant discussions with the scholars of "why" those expectations, rules, standards, and objectives are important to them. In short, those "whys" are always tied back to the scholars and their hopes and dreams during the academic year and beyond. With this, scholars are equally invested in their learning and view their learning as more in “their hands” than in “my hands.” This, in conjunction with building relationships with parents, building relationships with students, and sharing my own educational experiences, has promoted a collaborative culture of learning, education, and knowledge in our classroom. Also, because I am a young, new teacher, right out of college, my lack of classroom experience meant that I would have to rely very heavily on being able to connect with my students and their parents on a deeper level, forge these relationships early on, and maintain them throughout the year. There were also positives to my age in conjunction with my life experiences, in the sense that I was able to relate to my students in unique ways. by sincerely finding ways to foster an authentic relationship and partnership with my students’ families, they were able to see that I am a passionate individual who sincerely cares about the success of their children. For all of my scholars (12 out of 12), I am the first male teacher they've ever had. For most of my students, (7 out of 12), I am currently the most constant male figure in their lives. This reality comes with a whole lot of responsibility. With that said, I can definitely say that my students, their families, and I have definitely have formed the right partnerships that have lead to amazing results for my classroom management, buy-in, and overall positive environment in the classroom.
I spent the first six weeks of school building community in the classroom, and did not even touch the curriculum, because I knew that without the feeling of family and community in the classroom, the curriculum would be meaningless. However, this is not to say that absolutely no learning took place; quite the contrary. I also took time during the first six weeks of school to give my students in depth diagnostic and screening exams in addition to the to the ones mandated by the county. I was able to able to fix instructional outcomes and goals that were suitable for the individual student and tailored to each individual students particular needs. In addition, I assessed my students "learning styles" through multiple inventories to get an accurate indication of their particular learning style. For instance, when I looked at my students diagnostic scores from the screenings that i gave them or the bench marks that they take, I determine strengths, weaknesses, and possible contributing factors to their current level of mastery or lack thereof. After, I created targeted and specific recommendations on how each individual scholar could perform better on the next assessment or the next skill based evaluation, in conjunction with the scholars and their families. Those recommendations could be as simple as fostering more writing in conjunction with their reading, to more intensive strategies like a refocus on certain components of literacy (phonemic awareness/phonological awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, decoding, etc) in order to accelerate comprehension ability in reading.
With all of this data, I was able to craft individualized and high level learning plans for each of my scholars, in every component of literacy.
The 4th Grade Lexile scores for grade level performance are as follows: a Lexile Score below 600 is considered below grade level, a score from 600-900 indicated proficiency, and anything above 900 indicated advanced reading level in the 4th Grade. My MTLD (mentor teacher through Teach for America), Nick Brooks, and I set an ambitious goal of achieving an average of 2 years (Grade Levels) of Reading Growth by the end of the year (June) in my class. Prince George's County Public School District has set a goal of achieving 40Lexile Points increase in reading attainment. I am pleased to say that my class achieved two years of reading growth by January, and the class' Lexile score average increased about 150 points from pre test to post test, with everyone increasing over 100L points, (except one student, who increased 65L). At the January mark, the average growth in my class was already 2.2 years of reading level growth, and almost every single scholar increased by at least a year (except 1, who increase 90% of 1 years growth). My scholars' hard work coupled with my reliance on data and research driven instruction and analysis (coupled, of course, with forming authentic relationships with my students) can best explain this growth.
In the Common Core era, attaining conceptual understanding is an important; albeit difficult, part of Mathematics. I know that it's not enough to have students simply memorize algorithms and apply them without understanding the deeper concepts at play. For me, I found that many times even if students intuitively understood the algorithm and the procedural skills required to a Math Problem, they often were relying too much on procedural skill understanding, and not enough on conceptual knowledge and thus, often times could not apply what they learn to other areas of Math. The first thing emphasized heavily in my Math class is the importance of the connections of vocabulary terms, by not only stressing the precision of its definition (and its application thereof), but also how vocabulary terms connect to each other in a way that joins mathematical concepts together. I learned that vocabulary instruction in the common core era meant that vocabulary instruction should "emerge from experience and discussion aimed at building an intuitive model of the thing to be defined, but eventually students must have a clear, unambiguous basis on which to build further knowledge." So, i structured my math instruction in a way that allowed students to see the connections first explicitly, and then gradually move towards application armed with the knowledge of the definitions, but also it's implications and connections.
When it comes to my Math instruction, I have been very analytical in my approach to reflection. All of my reflections are always framed in the context of helping students move towards academic and life success, from using data to differentiate, incorporating cultural responsiveness into lesson plans, utilizing assessments to plan for mastery, and adjusting pacing due to observations. By placing an immediate emphasis on goal setting based on data analysis, I have been able to properly analyze my instruction for the benefit of my scholars.. For instance, one particular week during the multi-digit addition and subtraction unit, I spent about 3 hours going over pretest and post-test data, reviewing footage of myself teaching, and creating a weekly plan based on my analysis. The lessons that I planned really modeled effective teaching, in that it was based on my reflections and analysis from the past week. So, the following week's lessons were were engaging, incorporated gradual release of student responsibility, utilized math tools and manipulatives, student application, and checks for understanding - and these changes are changes I had made based on some advice I was given by other instructors. Then, I used the data to assess the effectiveness of the lesson so that I could start the cycle over. I have effectively been able to leveraged the teaching and learning cycle of backwards planning, teaching a lesson, assessing the students, and making adjustments based on the data. I think the use of that cycle has been a major factor in my students’ success.
We set an academic goal that my scholars would increase their pretest math score to post test math score by at least 20% from the pre-assessment to the post-assessment, which was a September to March time frame. While we were close in that effort, we will be (all but 2 scholars), we are definitely on pace to ensure that every single one of my scholars will be entering the 5th grade on at least proficiency Math Level or Advanced Math level for 5th Grade Mathematics. In short, my scholars will be a year ahead in Math skill when they leave my class.
I have been observed officially 4 times this year (4 official times because I am an untenured, first year teacher). I have consistently ranked either proficient or distinguished in all of my categories, a feat that is very atypical for a first year teacher. Here is a screenshot of the ratings from just my second out of four observations:
Here's a screenshot, now of my third observation rating:
One area that I constantly was rated "proficient" as opposed to "distinguished" was in the area of "Student Questioning." Next year, one thing I will definitely try and do differently (or approach differently) is to leverage my great relationships with my students in a way that involves them more in all parts of the instruction, in addition to taking care to account for different processes of understanding. As a new teacher, that was something I had did often - I tended to pose great questions to my students, but I need to do a better job of posing questions that are more open ended and foster more discussion, rather than analytical-answer seeking (black/white, right/wrong) questions. My scholars were more than capable of driving the flow of the lesson and I could have easily allowed them to take the reins of the instructional day a bit more when it came to questioning. In terms of communication with families, my Principal has commended me on setting a new standard of what it "means" to be in constant communication with my families, and what it means to build authentic relationships with them as well. However, though, the proficient rating is based on the fact that, much like the Student Questioning, I need to ensure that I have set up a system in which students are interacting with parents about their daily academic lives on a daily basis. I have some ideas on how to accomplish that for next year.
Academic success is neither a destination nor an end point, but rather a journey. With that, I believe that intrinsically motivated students are indispensable components for effective learning. With each day, intrinsically motivated students learn because they want to satisfy their curiosity and thirst for knowledge and sincerely believe that the acquisition of knowledge is beneficial to help them live the lives that they want to live. It follows, then, that intrinsically motivated students instinctively adhere to the classroom behavior and management protocols, because they seek to take full advantage of their daily academic journey and also because they appreciate the significance of the responsibility of not disrupting the journey for others. I believe, though, that my job as an educator is not (and cannot) be to directly motivate students in such a manner. Instead, I believe that I must construct a classroom in a way that is conducive to fostering and encouraging students’ intrinsic motivation to learn. As an educator, I must be keenly aware to ensure that the intimate dynamics of the classroom social environment, management procedures, instructional methods, feedback mechanisms, and student-teacher relationships, all work together to foster and produce the intrinsic motivation and bring about the best possible environment for effective learning.I believe that in order to create an engaging and effective learning environment for my students, they first need to believe in the journey – namely, they must sincerely believe that each step and every aspect in the journey is meaningful and important, rather than arbitrary and capricious. This includes, but is not limited to, ensuring that I, as their teacher, articulate a clear and direct vision emphasizing the importance and reasoning behind the aforementioned aspects of social environment, management procedures, instructional methods, feedback mechanisms, and student-teacher relationships. Only then will students gain the confidence that these aspects are meaningful to them and connected directly to their own desired accomplishments.
Accordingly, it is my duty as an educator to take into account the individuality of each and every one of my students. I must recognize and appreciate the diversity and complexity of their needs and make sure I am constantly doing my best to accommodate each one of those needs into each scholar's daily academic journey whenever possible. The use of culturally relevant materials, different modes of engagement, and using multiple forms of assessment are particularly useful in creating an environment in which students can feel like their learning is in their hands and tailored to their needs. With that being said, I have really tried to adopt pragmatic and positive modes of feedback, with the knowledge that it is particularly important to build students’ self-esteem in lower elementary grades. I praise each of my student’s students for high levels of effort and contributions, rather than quality of outcome. This encourages students to continuing working and putting forth a high level of effort–an indispensable part of the academic journey. To be sure, I always take the chance to use strategies such as competition and collaboration, in order to drive students to strive to achieve different goals and successes, whenever appropriate.
Finally, just as intrinsically motivated students are a necessary component for effective learning – intrinsically motivated teachers are an equally necessary component as well, if not more. For me, my life experiences have inspired me to give back to society, to be a role model for children and young adults, empathize with daily lives of the underprivileged, and instill a sense of hope in others. It is this intrinsic motivation upon which I base my strengths as a teacher. Through my experiences living in poverty since I was young, losing our home and becoming homeless in high school, being able to work hard and ultimately graduate from Harvard was truly special for me. However, I know that my success was not the results of my hard work and efforts alone, but also the hard work and efforts of my teachers and counselors who worked to assist me in any way they could inside and outside of the classroom, as well as my Mother’s absolute interest and participation in my learning experience. I believe that I have brought a sense of hope and resilient passion to the community of Springhill Lake Elementary, but I also know that “it takes a community” – this effort will work best when all partners involved work together. For my part, I teach with tremendous compassion, energy and humor. Students must able to trust that I am a “real” person, and must also genuinely believe that I care about them. I personally know that for this to occur depends on my ability to present themselves in a way that resonates with students. Therefore, although my determination to succeed despite poverty and homelessness, or the handling of my academic responsibilities in addition to my two-sport schedule at Harvard, demonstrates that I may be able to handle the work, make the necessary adjustments, learn, and ultimately succeed as a teacher, in reality my greatest strength is demonstrated by how my life experiences have inspired me and will fuel my through that process and allow me to forge the personal relationships with my students necessary for trust, care, and compassion to help foster learning. Furthermore, I have brought to the community of Springhill Lake Elementary a desire to develop my own teaching skills, but specifically through building relationships with colleagues, students, and parents because, in the end we all share in the belief that the most rewarding aspect of education is witnessing the personal, intellectual, and growths of our students.
I hope that this email was not too long. Thank you for all of your help thus far. I plan on staying in the class room for about 2 years. After those two years, if I don't stick in the classroom, I still plan on heading to law school and policy school, where I will take my experiences in the classroom with me. Hopefully, I can leave law school and policy school armed with a new sense of directions of how I can use legal interventions to achieve policy objectives in the field of education, which is my primary professional goal in life. Until then, I will continue having the time of my life, and the challenge of my life, teaching 4th graders at Springhill Lake Elementary School,