How this Colorado English teacher connected with a mom everyone said was impossible

PHOTO: Steve Debenport | Getty Images

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.

It was the start of the semester and Ted Halbert, an English teacher at Brighton High School north of Denver, had been warned. The mother of one of his students was extremely hard to handle, the other teachers said.

But Halbert didn’t wait for problems to flare. Instead, he contacted the boy’s mother early on, outlining his hopes for the teen and establishing a pattern of email back-and-forth that lasted through the year.

Halbert talked to Chalkbeat about his rule of thumb for communicating with the boy’s mother — and all parents, why he feels heartbroken when district tax levies fail, and how he uses a Metallica song to explore an anti-war novel with his students.

Halbert is one of 48 educators nationwide selected for the 2019 National Education Association Foundation Global Learning Fellowship. The goal of the program is to help teachers develop the skills to understand and act on issues of global significance.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

Teaching is my second career. After graduating from Michigan State University with a degree in communications, I spent a year as a student with the international, cross-cultural, and performance-based organization Up with People. It was an incredible experience for me. I loved learning about the world and being in the world with diverse people and living with host families (I have lived with more than 140 host families on four continents). I was hired by Up with People and spent nine years with them — the last three as general manager. But, the organization ceased operations in December 2000 and I was out of a job.

I got a job working for Girls Inc. of Metro Denver as the director of new business and marketing but didn’t love it. But after school the girls would come to our facility for classes and I immediately figured out that I loved being around the learning environment and the learners.

And then, Sept. 11, 2001, happened. That day I made a vow to myself to make the most of my life and not wait for change. The next day I quit Girls Inc. and told the president that I was going to become a teacher. And so I did. I was 33.

How do you get to know your students?

From the first moment they walk in my classroom I do two things: First, I welcome them personally, by name, every day. Second, I try to find out something unique and interesting about each and every student and ask them about it as often as I can. This is an intentional process and must be considered carefully because there are some students who want to hide — they don’t want me to engage and interact — but I refuse to let them and eventually, we create a positive relationship based on growth and trust (and laughter).

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

Before reading the incredible novel “Johnny Got His Gun” by Dalton Trumbo, we listen carefully to Metallica’s song “One,” which was partially inspired by the movie based on Trumbo’s book. We draw what we think is thematically happening in the song, and pull lyrics as evidence to back up our ideas. This gets them engaged and excited to read the book. I mean, if Metallica wrote a song about it, right? So cool.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

Cool socks.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

The refusal of the local community here in Brighton and the 27J area to support education through bonds or mill levies is absolutely maddening. Our textbooks are 25 years old. Our technology is outdated. Our rooms are packed with kiddos and when the bell rings at 7 a.m., some of them are barely awake. It truly takes the entire community to ensure the complete education of our young people and when a community does not step up, it breaks my heart. There is serious inequity in how we value our young people and something needs to be done about it. Regardless, I welcome every kid with enthusiasm and work my hardest so that they get the best education possible.

For the record: We have passed some bond issues, but only after making drastic decisions like split schedules (when 9th and 10th grades come early in the morning and 11th and 12th grade stay later) and pack our classes with kiddos. These actions wake up the community for a while so we can pass bonds so we can build new schools and facilities. Makes me sad … These kiddos are so amazing and they deserve better from their community.

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

I had a boy in my room and I was warned that his mom was “crazy” and impossible to manage. People who had the student in their class in other years would roll their eyes and wish me luck.

I reached out to her immediately and set up a relationship with her with very specific guidelines and goals. The goal, obviously, was the academic growth of her son, but I also made it clear that it was my goal that he have fun and be engaged, and want to come to class. Right off the bat, this impressed her and we were off to the races. The other goal (and this is so important when working with individual parents) was that our email communication would not take longer than 20 seconds to create and send. I’m rather serious about this with parents. I will keep in touch with them on an individual basis, but it must be concise and honest. The mother and I built a great relationship based solely on the health and success of the child. We had an incredibly successful year. The other teachers would grumble and complain, and I would just smile.

What part of your job is most difficult?

Understanding why education and young people and teachers aren’t more valued by our society is by far the most difficult part of my job. My students are the economic drivers of our future and deserve the best we can offer them. Where are the adults? Where are the politicians? Where is the support?

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

My biggest misconception was that the students would be difficult to manage. I was wrong. They are wonderful, curious, funny, smart, and engaged and they give me hope. It is society and the community not supporting us that I didn’t expect.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I am always reading multiple books, usually one fiction and one non-fiction. Right now, I am inhaling Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” (wow) and “The Bounty: The True Story of Mutiny on the Bounty” by Caroline Alexander.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

Teaching is about relationships. Build the relationships and they will come.

Don’t just help students graduate. Prepare them for what’s next, says high school teacher

Sharon Collins at a New Heights Academy Charter School graduation with 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.

When Sharon Collins found out that some of her students who were strong academically in high school had dropped out of college, she realized more could be done to prepare students for success after they graduate.

An environmental engineer-turned-teacher, Collins has taught middle school math and nearly every high school math subject. Currently teaching seniors at New Heights Academy Charter School in Harlem, Collins tries to ensure that her students feel supported and prepared after they leave her classroom by continuing to meet with and advise them as part of OneGoal, a program that helps teachers become mentors for students during college.

On top of that, her school models their classes after college courses to get students used to a university structure. And to continue growing as an educator herself, Collins works with Math for America as a co-facilitators on a peer learning team. Here, Collins shares how she engages students and pushes them to enjoy math and continue learning.

What’s one way you build strong personal relationships with students?

I teach seniors, so at the start of the year I meet with each of them individually. It helps me know them as people and as learners. I ask them about the future, about college, about possible careers. Where do your interests lie? It’s important know their feelings about math. We have a four-year math requirement, whereas there is normally is a three-year requirement in high schools. My goal is always for the students who hate math to like math by the end of the year — I show them how math relates to the world around them. I also get to know them through going on senior retreat and spending time during lunch period to open classroom. Once you put in that extra time to show that you care, they will put in more effort.

What does your classroom look like?

When you walk in you’d see student projects everywhere. You can see calculus students building roller coasters, board game designs made by the statistics class, who invite 8th graders to come play them to show them that math is fun. In pre-calculus, we do “Shark Tank,” where students come up with idea for product that will help them get money or help humanity and build prototypes of them. I have students from previous years come and serve as the judges. My classroom always has students coming in. Even during 9th period, which is when they can go home, they love to stay, and they get tutoring or just come and talk to me about what they’re thinking about college.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now and how are you addressing it?

Something in general is the intensity of the anti-immigration bias because the student population is 95 percent Latino at my school and that it had an impact on Washington Heights. One way to help with that is with this program I’m involved in called OneGoal, a program where you become a mentor for students in college to help them graduate. In it, we have the space to talk about these issues and just have individual conversations, in particular with undocumented students —just letting them know that they have a safe place here.

But in regards to policy, the issue in high school of not focusing on college is an issue. The goal of high schools is more on graduating students rather than what the next step is for them. That’s how I got involved with OneGoal. I mean, students graduate, but it was interesting seeing who graduated and who didn’t. Even students who were really strong academically sometimes didn’t graduate. I attended a workshop that helped students through college. It’s not all about academic challenges, it’s the social-emotional part too. So OneGoal starts in high school and follows students through the first year, providing them mentorship and support. So over the past year my focus has been going through that transition with students. It can be overwhelming. Their academics go at a faster pace, and its difficult transitioning from teacher to mentor. But it helps so much and college readiness is something that high schools need to be more focused on.

What does your grading style look like and what hacks do you use?

At New Heights, we changed grading style last year to make it more similar to what college looks like. There’s homework and classwork but they don’t count for grades, so this was a big flip for students since now it’s exam based. If you don’t do well on an exam, though, you can retake it. You can do test corrections, or in humanities you can write a paper to bring up the grade. That was a big switch, and I still feel like homework is important to make sure students do well on an assessment. So if you want to retake the test you have to do all of your homework and classwork, to show that there’s a connection between the homework and the testing. But in my class the summative assessments that are a big part of the class are the projects. We do about three to four per quarter. They’ll submit one and publicly present to class or school administration, and they have a rubric they can look at to see which areas they didn’t score high on to be able to resubmit it for a new grade. It’s all challenging because it’s a whole new way, but we want to show them the process of modification.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Show unconditional love to all students. The influence of a great teacher lasts a lifetime. I was the first one to go to college in my family, and most of my student will be too. The amazing teachers I had and their confidence in me and what I could do was transforming.

What’s your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?

To get students attention, I have this saying “Tres, Dos, Uno, Namaste,” and that’s kind of the keyword where they know to come together. I love doing yoga and at the beginning of every yoga class my teacher says “the light in me sees the light in you.” Students face challenges, with poverty and tragedy. I try to make the classroom a positive space. I greet them at the door, I high five students. Learning should be fun, and that’s something that I want to associate for them. So namaste, that’s the word that they associate with me.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand something?

One thing I do is I have students work in small learning teams — so what happens is I’ll give a formative instruction, see who’s struggling, pull them aside to work with them on the content during a project. Something that I tried last year was having a co-teaching model —so students would teach students, and sometimes they just feel more comfortable doing that. It might just click more, because their peers can relate the materials to things they know about. Another thing is that I always give students my cell, so that they can text me at any time. Sometimes I’ll get a text so late at night. I won’t give them the answer but I’ll help them, I’ll ask them questions to make them think about the problem a different way.

Why one teacher relies on the power of music to engage immigrant students

PHOTO: Kristin Gladish
Music teacher Kristin Gladish (right) leads her students in a song at the Indianapolis Public Schools Newcomer Program. Gladish was one of 10 finalists for the district's 2019 Teacher of 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.

Music is the first language spoken in Kristin Gladish’s classroom.

No translations. No barriers. Just the sound of drums, recorders, and ukuleles fill Gladish’s music class in the Indianapolis Public Schools Newcomer Program.

“The burdens the students carry can be heavy, and many suffer from trauma, so one thing I try to do in music class is to provide a fun, caring environment,” Gladish said. “A place where troubles can be forgotten and even healed.”

The Newcomer Program is designed to help students who are new to the United States acclimate and learn English before transitioning to another school in the district. For Gladish, it’s about introducing students to an unfamiliar place through the power of music.

She tries to do this by finding music that students can relate to and understand, as well as encouraging them to build relationships and trust in the music room.

Gladish was one of 10 finalists for the district’s 2019 Teacher of the Year. Now, she’s sharing the story behind what drives her to be a mentor for immigrant students.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

How do you get to know your students?

PHOTO: Kristin Gladish
Music teacher Kristin Gladish poses with her students in the Indianapolis Public Schools Newcomer Program.

I get to know my students through chit-chat in the hallways, at my doorway, and through relationships built in the classroom during lessons. Since Newcomer Program is designed to teach our English as a Second Language students as much English as possible, I will often start class through a question for students to answer in English. We talk about everything from their weekend plans, high school futures, to the lessons and music we are working on in class. Students often visit me in between classes and at lunch, and that is another opportunity for relationship building.

Honestly, this part of teaching doesn’t come naturally for me, as I can tend to become hyper-focused on my lesson content. However, after focusing on getting to know students on a more personal level and also opening up and sharing more about myself, I find students are more likely to work hard, try new things, and there are less behavior problems in class. I now make the conscious effort to get to know each student, to notice things they like or are good at, and to learn something interesting about them. For the new students who don’t yet speak much English, this can take time, but I just keep talking to them until they eventually start to answer, which is pretty cool.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

My favorite lesson to teach is modern band, hands down, which is funny since I started out my teaching career as a choir director. Last fall, I went to a training hosted by Little Kids Rock, a non-profit organization, to learn how to integrate teaching modern music into my music lessons. This experience changed the way I teach, and we also received instruments for our school.

To implement our modern band unit, our lessons revolved around small group centers and whole class instruction to learn how to play basic chords and rhythms on each instrument, including ukulele, guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar, keyboard, and drums.

As the final part of this unit, we worked on current popular songs like “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” “I Gotta Feeling,” and “Havana” as an ensemble with students on each instrument, based on their preference as well as aptitude.

I loved seeing students so engaged, and I saw students’ self confidence blossom as new talents were discovered. It was also just plain fun to play, sing, and jam together. I had a small group practice with me during their lunchtime, and other students would crowd around the doorway and inside my room just to listen and applaud. I loved seeing my students so proud of themselves and love teaching modern band.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

First comes my coffee, but then I’d have to say teaching without my microphone would make me feel the most helpless. We are making music every day, and an entire class of students playing drums, recorders, or ukuleles is loud. My voice and vocal health is so important to me, and without my microphone I would struggle. I also play the ukulele or whatever instrument we are working on along with my students, and without my instrument to demonstrate and model, especially with the language barrier in my classes, my job would be much more difficult.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

The current situation with immigration and changing immigration laws absolutely affects students at the Newcomer Program. We have had students and/or their parents deported, while others are waiting on deportation hearings or going through the process of citizenship. We also are home to many refugees who are resettled here in Indianapolis. All of our students are starting new lives here in our community and many arrive without many material possessions.

The Newcomer Program is pretty amazing, though, in that we have a social worker and a parent involvement educator who help provide what the students and families need, both emotionally and physically, and even provide a school food bank.

The burdens the students carry can be heavy, and many suffer from trauma, so one thing I try to do in music class is to provide a fun, caring environment, and a place where troubles can be forgotten and even healed.

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

We have something in IPS called PIT Day, which is Parent in Touch Day. This is a day where all parents or guardians are invited to the school, along with the student for a student-led conference. I remember meeting with one parent and a particular high school student, who was one of the few students I taught who refused to participate in music. In this meeting, his mother shared with me some of the difficulties he had gone through and some personal family struggles, which opened my eyes to his issues. She also shared her concern for his future and for his overall mental well-being.

I realized that music class was the least of our worries. It can be easy to focus on what is going wrong in the classroom and to forget that there is often another story completely unrelated to school that is playing a role in student behavior.

After that meeting, I made an extra effort with this student and also let him have his space when he needed it, which was often. Through time, with help from a grief group at school, and with a lot of patience from his teachers, he did adjust to school and even to my class. He actually became one of my biggest helpers and even learned some guitar chords.

On the last day of school, he told me he was sorry and gave me the biggest bear hug. That is a hug I won’t ever forget.

What part of your job is most difficult?

This past year, the hardest thing was saying goodbye to my students at the end of the year! At the IPS Newcomer Program, students are in our program for one year before transitioning to their neighborhood or choice school. After creating such a strong bond with students and such a safe space, it was truly heartbreaking to say goodbye and to send them off. It was a day full of tears, hugs, special notes, and it was much harder than I thought it would be on both the students and the teachers. I hope to keep in touch with my students and to see them achieving success in their new schools.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

When I first started teaching choir, I was a somewhat high-brow, classically trained musician, and I expected all students to respond to and and to like every piece of music I wanted them to learn. I quickly learned that wasn’t going to happen. I realized I needed to meet students halfway, and find music they could relate to and understand, and build relationships and trust in the choir room before presenting music so far out of their comfort zone. I also started integrating more fun songs and activities in between the more difficult pieces or concepts to keep class engaging and lively. I now try to integrate many types and genres of music into my lessons to reach students who have varied interests. This is especially important now that I teach at a school with students from so many different countries and cultures. This past year I taught everything from African Drumming to Beethoven to Drake.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I hope to read more for enjoyment this summer as I tend to consistently read teaching pedagogy books. I currently am reading “Enrique’s Journey,” which is the story of a young boy on his journey to the United States from Honduras to reunite with his mother. My principal purchased a set of these books for our school so we could better understand our students, and it’s been on my list to finish.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

The best advice I’ve received about teaching is to practice self-care. The burdens of teaching can be great, but if we take care of ourselves, spend time with our families and friends and on our own hobbies, our cup will be full to be able to keep giving to students. I know when I am feeling happy and content, that spills over into the classroom and I have more patience with the students who need it the most.