How do teachers captivate their students? Welcome to How I Teach, a feature in which we ask great Detroit educators how they approach their jobs. Have a recommendation of someone we should profile? Write us at [email protected].

Michelle Shorter had planned on becoming a lawyer, but a summer job while she was in college sold her on teaching. That’s where she discovered the thrill of the “aha” moment — that magical  instant when a student finally grasps an elusive concept. When she finished college in the 1980s, she decided that helping children learn would be more fun than studying law. She’s been teaching ever since.

In May, Shorter, a high school social studies teacher at Cody Medicine and Community Health Academy, was named the 2018 Fred Martin Educator of the Year by the Coleman A. Young Foundation. She was nominated by two of her students.

Our conversation with Shorter took on food deserts, positive communication with parents, and how she combats negative messages about her students.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

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

It was the summer of 1986, and  I was attending Spelman College. When I came home, I had a job at the YMCA Fisher branch. I was a summer programs youth director.

My original plan was to become a lawyer, but when I started working with the kids, I was like ‘wow, this is kind of cool.’ You watch them figure something out, and their eyes light up.

That’s when I realized. You guys are paying me to do this with kids? Ok! I just wanted to be part of that “aha” moment — to get kids excited about learning new things.

How do you get to know your students?

It usually takes me two weeks, but I try to talk to all the parents, just let them know that I have an open door policy.

How do those calls typically go?

Usually they think something is wrong already. Parents have been conditioned unfortunately to just respond negatively when they get a phone call about their child. During the year I do what I call sunshine phone calls.

If a kid has been misbehaving, I wait until I catch them doing something right, and I call home. I say ‘hey, Michael had a great moment today.’

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

We’re starting to see a lot more community gardens over in the Cody area — and markets that have popped up to sell those fresh vegetables. Cody, our high school, is in a food desert, so we’re teaching them about growing their own food. They actually get to see the garden; they get to see the market where the food is sold.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The part of my job that’s most difficult is getting community organizations and businesses to partner with us financially. There are a lot of things that I would like to do in the classroom that I can’t do because the school is financially strapped.

Ever since I’ve been at Cody I’ve been wanting to take my students to Washington, D.C. I teach civics and U.S. government, and there’s no better living classroom than Washington to teach those lessons. There’s only so much we can do in a book. But I can’t get sponsors.

Most of my students live in a bubble. They have not been able to travel; they have not been able to leave the neighborhood where they grew up. Their parents have not been able to do so because of the socioeconomic status of the students in my school.

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

Before I got in the classroom I would hear  a lot of negative talk about kids in the city. ‘Kids in the urban city don’t learn at the same rate as kids in the suburbs. They can’t learn because of their circumstances.’ I found that to be false. Poverty does put some restrictions on kids in urban schools, but it doesn’t prevent them from doing the things that they need to do, which is to learn, to grow. We can motivate them.

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

The best advice is to not listen to other teachers talk about students. Stay out of the teachers lounge.