How I Teach

Why this Memphis educator hates being called a ‘teacher’ and loves ‘organized chaos’

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Biology teacher Chikezie Madu oversees lab work with his students at White Station High School in Memphis. He is one of seven Tennessee educators honored this year with Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

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

Don’t call Chikezie Madu a teacher. He prefers “facilitator.”

Madu is constantly moving around his biology classroom to foster solution-focused discussions with his students at White Station High School in Memphis. It might look like “organized chaos,” but it’s quite intentional, he says.

And it’s paid off. This year, he was one of seven Tennessee teachers honored with Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, the nation’s highest award for teachers of those subjects.

Born in Nigeria, Madu’s path to teaching high school science has been a long and winding one. He taught music theory at a two-year college, then biology and chemistry at a military high school in Nigeria before joining his wife in 2002 in Memphis, where he began teaching middle school. He took a five-year detour as a cancer and genetics researcher at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, but missed mentoring and working with teenagers.

“They just want to learn and find what intrigues them,” Madu says. “I tell people I can’t believe I get to do this.”

In this installment of How I Teach, Madu talks about how he organizes his classroom and encourages students to learn from one another. This Q&A has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Why did you become a teacher?

I delight in the challenge the job presents in coming up with ways of unraveling complex concepts, especially watching youth as their faces light up. Also, I have always cherished mentoring kids and have served in that role since I was in college. Finally, as cliché as this may sound, I was greatly influenced by my high school economics teacher, Mr. Emmanuel Adegoroye.

What does your classroom look like?

It depends on who you ask. To the traditional teacher, I may appear too hands-off. There may be too many students talking (sometimes all at once). It might seem informal with a lot of arguments and disagreements happening, students participating in most of the decision-making process, often cluttered.

On most days, I circulate and facilitate the entire class discussion, allowing the students to learn from each other. I believe that students learn best when they are actively participating in the lesson by explaining, solving, struggling, making mistakes and learning from them.

I couldn’t teach without my ________________. Why?

Visual aids or teaching models.

I use very common materials that students can relate to. For example, a hand-turning whisk may represent ATP synthase (or the enzyme that creates the energy storage molecule adenosine triphosphate) while two zippers stapled together depicts DNA replication.

Almost all students respond very positively to this tactile form of learning. Using common objects to represent intangible phenomenon is a key strategy across all fields of science. Using both hands-on and simulated materials serve as potent learning strategies because the students encounter the materials in their daily lives, triggering reminders of the concepts they learned.

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

It can be frustrating if the student was distracted or was not in school during the early stages of the scaffolding process or does not know the right questions to ask to reveal where he or she needs help. We often figure out what the problem is by either back-tracking to where the confusion originated, asking another student to explain it in “teenage language,” using a different way to explain it, or sometimes all they need is a short break in the middle of a lesson.

I try to prevent that now by frequently checking for understanding every so often, asking the students to re-explain a concept I just did. The nod of a head never assures me that they understand.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Early in my career, I came to terms with the fact that I may not reach every child. But I try to spend some time with them outside the allotted classroom period. Many of them eat lunch in my classroom and we get to talk. I share my background with them. They know a lot about my kids. I give them my phone number, my house number and my wife’s number for them to reach me at any time. They often take me up on that offer. Someone called as late as 1 a.m. I also reveal my vulnerabilities. It’s not uncommon for me to let down my guard and act silly in class by breaking out in karaoke to the latest teen song or dance.

Just like life, adversity often builds strong relationships. A lot of times, a simple question about their struggling grades and expressing some empathy opens the door to a student’s many other struggles.

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

I have often been caught getting upset at a student and misjudging a situation or jumping to conclusions when a student appears to be “lazy,” only to find out that there was an underlying reason like problems at home.

I had a student like this once, where I was certain the student was just not “serious” about academics because they were frequently missing school, not turning in assignments and sometimes falling asleep in class. I eventually visited the home and was devastated at what I discovered.

Measures were taken to help alleviate the situation, and it was amazing the way things turned around. That was a huge learning moment for me. I’m learning daily to get the full story before jumping to conclusions and to determine if there’s anything I can do to help a student from failing the class. The student ended up graduating and going to college and turned out to be the first person to graduate from both high school and college in their family. We still keep in touch.

How I Teach

From bikes to blue hair: how one Denver kindergarten teacher shares his passion with students

Andres Pazo, a kindergarten teacher at Denver's Maxwell Elementary, with his class.

How do teachers captivate their students? 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 this series here.

Andres Pazo, a kindergarten teacher in an ESL Spanish class at Denver’s Maxwell Elementary School, doesn’t do things halfway. Before Denver Broncos home games, he’ll come to school with his face and hair painted orange and navy. For holidays or school book fairs, he wears full themed costumes. A passionate cyclist, he dresses in professional cycling gear to teach bike safety to children.

Pazo, who colleagues say has a smile for everyone he meets, received one of Denver Public Schools’ four Leadership Lamp awards last summer.

He talked with Chalkbeat about the teachers who inspired him to enter the field, why he uses secret codes to get his students’ attention, and how he gets to know students before school starts.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I’m from Caracas, Venezuela, and decided to become a teacher during my last year in my country. For all the universities that I applied to, I put elementary education as my first choice, and I got accepted.

During high school, I had some teachers that impacted my life — I think because they taught with their hearts and reached mine. Hector Zamora was my geography teacher in college. He didn’t care about scores. He just wanted us to know, love, and feel geography. Also, I can add Evelia Mujica, my eighth grade biology teacher. She was super-strict and funny, but in the end, I think she just wanted us to love and really know about biology. These two still inspire me every single day to be a good teacher.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is a room where my students feel safe and loved, and where they try hard all year long. It’s also messy, and you can see many masks and hats that I use to engage my students in lessons, and, of course, their projects throughout the year.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _____. Why?
Motivation. It is what keeps me thinking of activities, projects, lessons, and ideas so my students enjoy anything that they need to learn.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
My favorite lesson to teach is a writing unit at the end of the year, called “All About.” I always bring in things that I love — like my bikes — and write about them. I let students write about any small moment: about something that they love, the food their parents make, a family trip, a family visiting them, a good or sad day … anything they would like to share. They usually bring in their favorite toys.

The students’ writing is amazing because they apply everything they’ve been learning. They try so hard to write everything about their toys. You can hear them sharing their stories with others, and their pictures are incredible. Writing is a good indicator of how much they have grown during the school year.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I sit with him or her after the lesson is taught and work on the skill that needs to be mastered.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I use a lot of “secret codes” with my students. For example, when I say “mustache code,” they put a finger across their upper lips. They can be working, reading, or playing, and when I say it, I have 100 percent of students’ attention right away.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
It starts before the first day of class. I usually write letters to them or do home visits. I take the first two weeks of school to get to know them and what they like to do. I take time to welcome them so they can feel safe and confident in the classroom.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
When I was working at Denver Center for International Studies at Ford, we started a home visiting program. We first thought parents didn’t have time for us or that they didn’t want to take the time. But, once we started making the calls and found that parents wanted us to come, we understood that parents didn’t know about the program. After that, some parents became more involved in their kids’ education and with the school.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
A lot of mountain bike reviews about bicycles, parts, or trails to ride.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Never change my personality.

How I Teach

Tupac, Shakespeare, and ‘Stranger Things’: How a top Tennessee teacher relates to her students

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Katherine Watkins was one of 45 educators — and one of two Tennessee teachers — honored nationally in 2017 by the the Milken Family Foundation.

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 Katherine Watkins found out she would receive a prestigious national teaching award, her students at Millington Central High wrapped her into a huge bear hug.

“We relate to her because she relates to us,” one of her students said when asked why they enjoyed her class. Watkins was honored as a Milken Educator Award last November in front of her students, colleagues and Tennessee’s top education official.

Watkins was one of 45 educators — and one of two Tennessee teachers — honored nationally in 2017 by the Milken Family Foundation.

We asked Watkins about how she strives for relatability in her classrooms, where she teaches literature, English and coordinates the school’s yearbooks. Millington Central High is racially diverse and made up of about thousand students, one-third of which are described as economically disadvantaged.

Read in her own words how she uses pop culture to build classroom rapport and how she learned not to get flustered when her students got off track. (This Q&A has been edited and condensed.)

What does your classroom look like?

My classroom is full of books, images, and objects I’ve collected from my travels. These include a handmade Venetian mask I brought back from Italy, pictures I took while standing in front of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and a twelve-volume, leather-bound edition of the complete works of William Shakespeare that was published in London in 1786

Some people might say I’ve lost my mind to keep such precious relics within reach of teenagers, but I interpret the “value” of these treasures somewhat differently. I want desperately for my students to know and care about the world that exists beyond their immediate reality, and sometimes the best way to achieve that is through tactile experience. I’m trying to cultivate independent thinkers who have the confidence to test limits, ask tough questions, and arrive at their own conclusions. That can’t happen without direct confrontation with the unfamiliar, and until I can afford to actually take them to the places we read about in the literature we study, my souvenirs will have to suffice.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

I could not teach without my close-knit group of teacher friends. This is only my third year at my current school, but everyone was so warm and welcoming when I arrived that it really felt like coming home. We even have a group chat we use every day to share funny memes, vent about our frustrations, offer words of encouragement, and talk through ideas. Feeling like you can be yourself around friends in a judgment-free zone makes all the difference when it comes to a high-stress job like teaching.  Without that kind of solidarity, I know I wouldn’t be nearly as resilient or effective in the classroom.

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

I used to get visibly flustered if students were talking or off task during the lesson. It took me a couple years in the classroom to realize that getting upset is the least effective way to deal with this problem. Many students misbehave because they crave attention, so getting upset is the same as relinquishing control. Nowadays, I vary my approach depending on the severity and intent of the disruption, but regardless of the situation, I never lose my cool.

I have the most success defusing behavioral disruptions through the use of nonverbal cues, which can be as simple as changing my position in the room. For example, if a cluster of students is off task while I’m addressing the whole group, I continue lecturing and simply move to where the problem is occurring and the behavior stops. I’ve also become a sort of Jedi master at the don’t-you-even-think-about-it stare of disapproval. The right look delivered at the right moment can work wonders for classroom management. 

PHOTO: Katherine Watkins
Watkins said she starts each year by giving her kids a questionnaire that asks about their interests, hobbies, attitudes, and past experiences.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

Before my first day at Millington Central High, I had little idea what to expect of my new school and its students. I had driven through Millington a time or two on my way to other destinations, but that was the extent of my familiarity with this community. During my initial interview, I was briefed on school demographics: Millington is ethnically diverse with a high percentage of economic disadvantage, a large SPED population, and nearly a quarter of students coming from single-parent households. It would be a lie to say I never questioned whether the school would be the right fit for me. I worried about my ability to make a connection. Would my students accept me? Would I be able to make a difference in their lives?

I always start each year by giving my kids a questionnaire that asks about their interests, hobbies, attitudes, and past experiences. I use this information to get to know students and begin establishing a rapport. Left to my own devices, for example, I would never be motivated to keep up with pop culture trends, but if a large number of my students are listening to a particular artist or watching a specific TV show (Stranger Things anybody?), I make a point of consuming the same media so I can connect with them over more than just academic content. This extra effort on my part—cultural research, if you will—has worked wonders with the kids at Millington. The look of shock on their faces when they realize I can quote lines from Hamlet as readily as the lyrics to any 2Pac song is priceless.

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

Knowing what’s going on in a student’s home life is a crucial part of being a good teacher, and I always try to consider the bigger picture when difficult situations arise. I have had students come forward with stories of abuse, students who have experienced the death of a parent, and students who are basically raising their younger siblings because Mom works three jobs and Dad isn’t around. A student who arrives to school late and sleeps through first period could just be lazy, but it would be callous and irresponsible to punish the child without first having a conversation to find out what’s causing the behavior. We can’t forget that kids are human beings too, some of whom are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. Teaching has made me realize that you can never really know what someone else is going through until you make the effort to understand. This is why it’s so important to reserve judgment and approach students with patience and compassion.