This Colorado history teacher learned an important lesson from an angry father

Nathan Pearsall, a history teacher at Vista Ridge High School, with his students.

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.

Don’t be alarmed if you see wadded up paper flying across history teacher Nathan Pearsall’s classroom at Vista Ridge High School in the Falcon 49 school district in Colorado Springs. It’s probably part of his favorite lesson on the modernization of trench warfare during World War I.

Pearsall’s plan to become a history teacher took shape when he was in 11th grade. He talked to Chalkbeat about the man who inspired him to enter the field, how he earns students’ respect and what he learned from a student’s angry father.

Pearsall is one of 20 educators who were selected for the state’s new Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education on the impact of education policies in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I became a teacher because I come from a long line of educators and I felt it was my calling in life. I had a true moment of enlightenment during my 11th grade AP U.S. History class. My teacher inspired me with his passion for not only the content of the course but also the relationships he built with each student. I knew from that point on that I wanted to pursue a career where I could have a similar impact on students.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is a former computer lab in the interior of the school. I have no windows, but make up for that with many maps and student work. I have two whiteboards and a 70-inch television with Apple TV. I have laptop computers available on occasion for the class. Additionally, near my desk I have some pictures and letters from former students as well as my diplomas and comic books so students may see some of my accomplishments and interests.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
I enjoy teaching about the new technologies of World War I and how the war changed the way war was conducted. The lesson not only describes the many new technologies of modern warfare, it shows the shift from a cavalry that used horses to one that used cars, trucks and tanks.

We also conduct in-class trench warfare using balled-up paper to simulate some of the conditions and strategies used in World War I and demonstrate how ineffective they initially were. We then look at how warfare had to change to adapt to the new technologies so that victory was ensured.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I use many formative assessments and informal checks for understanding in order to gauge the learning of all students for each lesson. When a student doesn’t understand, I encourage self-advocacy and asking questions. I also make sure that I walk around the room and ask probing questions throughout the lessons and especially during individual or group activities to see where the students are in their understanding. I respond as much as I am able and if they are still not getting the material, I talk with colleagues to see what strategies have worked for them.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
We establish a social contract at the outset of the year to ensure that students have an understanding of classroom procedures and expectations. Many of my expectations address problems with off-task behavior preemptively. I use traditional teaching strategies such as proximity to encourage students to get back on task and address the off-task behavior personally with a level of respect that is typically reciprocated.

If it is a classroom issue, I will stand at the front of the room silently until the class is ready to move on. Most students understand when I am ready for their attention and help fellow students get back on track. This mutual respect takes time to build, but is certainly worth it to reduce the disruptions and off task behavior.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I get to know my students in a variety of ways, including personal conversations and shared stories during individual work time, greeting students at the door, knowing every student’s name and a favorite hobby or interest. I can use this information to better make connections to the content in the class and to make stronger and more respectful relationships throughout the school year. I focus heavily in the first couple of months on getting to know each student in my classes. I also involve myself in as many activities as possible out of school.

I am the Student Council Adviser, which puts me in contact with more students throughout the school. I also make sure to attend students’ sporting events, concerts, plays, etc. so they know that I support them. Just being there for them to see is sometimes enough to build a lasting relationship because students know that you care about them and are interested in what they are passionate about.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I benefitted from a particularly contentious encounter with a parent of a student who was not in my class. In my second year as the Student Council Adviser, a student asked if Student Council could help her put on an event to raise money for children in Japan. Long story short, her father was upset with the seeming lack of promised support that she was receiving and brought it to the attention of my principal without first speaking with me about the issue.

We called a meeting with the father to find out exactly why he was feeling the way that he was. After a 45-minute conversation with my principal and the father, we discovered a solution as well as the reason for his negative feelings regarding the alleged lack of support.

This taught me a couple of very important lessons, 1.) Make sure we are extremely clear in our communication about our ability and willingness to help students outside of Student Council accomplish a desired task and 2.) Many parents are fierce advocates for their children, but typically run on only one perspective: their child’s. I have since not had any problems with parents or family members being upset with me, but that is because I have learned to be proactive and clear in communicating my expectations and expected outcomes.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I am currently reading the collective works of C.S. Lewis. I also enjoy reading comic books and connecting the themes to the historical time period in which they were written — especially older Captain America, Spider-Man, Batman or the Avengers.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Teaching is less about the content and more about the relationships. Students may not care about what you are teaching them, but if they care about you and respect you as an educator, they are much more inclined to succeed in your class.

Chalkbeat’s newest newsletter is made for teachers. Sign up here.

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Josue Bonilla, 13, left, gets a high five from his teacher Wendi Sussman, right, after completing a hard reading lesson in his multi-intensive special education class at STRIVE Prep charter school in Denver in 2016.

We’re about to launch another newsletter over here at Chalkbeat, and this one is especially for teachers.

The newsletter is a spinoff of our interview series How I Teach. Over the past year, our reporters have already introduced you to a Memphis teacher who uses Facebook Live on snow days, a government teacher in East Harlem tackling debates about race and the presidency, a Colorado Springs teacher who helps students navigate parents’ deployments, and dozens of other educators from across the country.

Our goal is to share realistic snapshots of what life looks like in classrooms today, and make sure you don’t miss the tips and tricks those teachers have passed along to us. (Our goal is definitely not to provide any more professional development or pat answers about successful teaching.)

In the newsletter, we’ll also include stories we think might be especially useful to teachers, including our take on new research and thoughtful pieces written by educators themselves. And we’ll use this newsletter as another chance to bring you into our reporting — letting you know what we’re working on and how you can help by sharing your own experiences.

Ann Schimke, the Colorado-based reporter behind some of our award-winning coverage of early childhood issues and many How I Teach features, will be your guide.

Interested? Sign up below. And for those of you keeping track, we now have local newsletters for each of our bureaus — Chicago (where coverage is launching soon), Colorado, Detroit, Indiana, Newark, New York City, and Tennessee — plus a national newsletter and a Spanish-language newsletter out of Colorado.

‘Mathonopoly’ and basketball: How this Memphis teacher uses games to teach math

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Yomyko Clark, in her first year of teaching at Aspire Hanley Middle School, says she has taught several game-based math lessons throughout the year.

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.

In a classroom in Memphis, sixth-graders are hard at work creating their own version of Monopoly.

Dubbed “Mathonopoly,” students are prompted to design a board game that incorporates 15 math problems. After several class periods of strategizing, the students take turns playing each other’s games.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Clark helps her students design their game of “Mathonopoly.”

Yomyko Clark, in her first year of teaching at Aspire Hanley Middle School, says this lesson is one of several game-based math lessons she teaches throughout the year.

“Our students pay attention when they are having fun,” Clark said. “Do many of my kids associate ‘fun’ with math? No, but my goal is to help them see how math is a part of everyday games that they love.”

Clark, 25, grew up in Memphis, graduated from East High School, and went on to study social work at the University of Memphis.  She found her way to the classroom through a teacher training program with Aspire Public Schools, the national charter operator that runs Hanley as part of Tennessee’s state-run school district.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

My inspiration to teach derives from working with children for several years throughout my college career. I started in social work, but I realized that I wanted to work more closely with kids. I wanted to be in a classroom. I chose to teach because I want to be an example to children that they can succeed and accomplish anything that they dream. My goal is to encourage children to feel self-sufficient in their own learning skills.

How does your own education experience impact you as a teacher?

I graduated from East High School, and I had one teacher there who really changed my life. She taught English, and she was so hands-on in her classroom. She showed me how engaging education could be. And she had this mother’s love. If you were failing her course, you better believe she was going to talk to your family. But she also wasn’t going to give up on anyone.

Now, I try to tell my kids, “I’m your mom. You’re my babies, and I’m going to fuss over you, but you’re going to learn.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?

One of my favorite lessons to teach is ratios with percent. I love this lesson because it deals with comparing different quantities.

Most of my students love to throw balled up paper in the trash like they are playing basketball. So, to teach this lesson, I incorporated a paper basketball tournament where students played “basketball” with the trashcan and balled-up paper. As a class, we kept a record of how many shots students attempted versus how many shots made. We’re able to create different percentage ratios from this.

What’s makes this lesson work — like the Monopoly game — is that it’s fun. Students are engaged the whole time; they’re cheering on their classmates as they shoot baskets. But they’re also shouting out the ratios we calculate. They’re learning, and they don’t even know it.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?

Aspire Hanley, math, classroom, students
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Clark teaches 6th-grade math at the middle school run by Aspire Public Schools.

To get the class attention when students are talking I use a call and response. For example, If you can hear my voice, say “Oh Yeah!,” and the students will respond “Oh Yeah” and get silent.

We also have an incentives system at our school — where we can give students “bonuses” and rewards. If I student is modeling great behavior, I point it out to the class and mention that they’ve earned a bonus.This really works well because students have really bought into receiving bonuses and earning incentives.

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

One day after work, I saw a student walking in the hallway around 4:45 p.m., which was after dismissal. The student informed me that she missed the bus and didn’t have a phone to contact her parents. With no hesitation, I gave her the phone. The student could not remember the number so I called a number in her file. I was able to speak with the grandmother and the grandmother did nothing but refer to the student as dumb and stupid because he/she missed the bus. Saddened for the student, I was able to understand why he/she was soft spoken and very sensitive when given a behavioral redirection. This situation opened my eyes greatly and made me more vulnerable to the student’s feelings. It changed the way I interacted with her in the future.