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.

How I Teach

Why students’ birthdays are the perfect icebreaker for this award-winning Tennessee teacher

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Paula Franklin gets a hug from one of her students after the announcement that she was one of two Tennessee teachers to win a Milken Educator Award.

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.

Paula Franklin’s students describe her teaching style as “relaxingly engaging.”

Maybe that’s because she starts out by building relationships with her students, then begins to introduce the content in her Advanced Placement government class at West High School in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Since she took on the course, enrollment has doubled. And more than 80 percent of her students exceed the national average on their final AP test scores.

Her efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. Last year, Franklin was one of two Tennessee teachers chosen by the Milken Family Foundation for their prestigious national teaching award. The honor includes a no-strings-attached check for $25,000.

We spoke with Franklin about why she became a teacher, how she uses birthdays to build relationships with her students, and why campaign finance reform is her favorite lesson to teach. (Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity.).

Why did you become a teacher?

My high school AP Biology teacher, Mr. Wheatley, was my inspiration. He cared about his students as people first and whatever we learned about biology was secondary. As a result, I learned a lot of biology, and a tremendous amount about myself, for which I am forever grateful. I work every day to provide the same type of environment to my students. I try to teach them about themselves through the lens of civic education. I want my students to leave my class not only more confident in their knowledge of our government, but also as inquirers and risk-takers who are equipped to ask questions and find the answers.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them?

I spend the first two to three days of class using Kagan class-building strategies to get to know my students and to get them to know each other. I can always make up time for content later, but the time spent building a classroom culture at the beginning of the year can’t be made up.

Another of my favorite things is finding out my students’ birthdays to celebrate them with the class by asking them three questions: Are you going to drive? What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment,? What do you hope to accomplish before your next birthday?

This allows me to spotlight my students and have them think critically about themselves and their goals. I have asked these same three questions for years, and students have started coming to me on their birthdays after they have left my class to share their accomplishments and goals.

What does your classroom look like?

I love to display student work in my classroom, both from my current and former students, so my walls are pretty well covered in posters and art. I think it’s important to make a classroom into a reflection of the students who learn there and goes a long way toward building community.  I arrange the desks in small sections of rows so that I can easily get to all the students to provide support on a difficult concept or assignment or encouragement to stay on task.

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

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Lowell Milken, chairman and co-founder of the Milken Family Foundation, and Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen surprise Franklin with her award.

Google Drive! I am a huge reflector and save all of my lesson materials and reflections on my Drive. That way, I can easily access previous lessons and see how to best adapt them for my current students or the current social-political climate.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

One of my favorite lessons to teach began as my absolute least favorite: Campaign finance reform. The first couple of years, it went terribly. Students didn’t come away with an understanding of campaign finance but were more confused than when we started.

I am big on incorporating technology in my classroom, but for this lesson, I have them write down the original limitations of campaign finance and then cross them off in a different color as we learn about repeals. The action of crossing an item off of the list and annotating with the case or law that repealed it really sticks with them. This lesson is one of my favorites because I get to teach a relatively small amount of content over a class period, students get to work in groups and really wrestle with the content, and they have the opportunity to share their understanding with the whole class.

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

I try to figure out what it was about the lesson they did not understand. I can usually do this by reviewing data from a quiz or test or other assessment or just by asking them. I spend a lot of time in my class focusing on how to ask and answer questions to encourage my students to be advocates for their education both in and out of my classroom. After I figure out what I need to remediate with my classes, I do my best to come up with an example or analogy that is relevant to them. If that doesn’t work, then I ask a colleague how they teach that topic and try that. I am constantly looking for new and different ways to teach content that my students typically struggle with so that I am prepared to switch it up if my plan isn’t working.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

It is OK to leave it on your desk; it will still be there in the morning. You are not a bad teacher for needing time for yourself.

How I Teach

Crazy contraptions, Chemistry Cat, and climbing stories: How this Colorado science teacher connects with kids

PHOTO: Courtesy of Shannon Wachowski
Shannon Wachowski, a science teacher at Platte Valley High School, holds a toothpick bridge as a her students look on.

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.

Shannon Wachowski once started a parent-teacher conference by sharing that she was concerned about the student’s lack of motivation. The boy’s mother quickly began adding criticisms of her own — alarming Wachowski enough that she started defending the teen.

It was then the student’s behavior began to make more sense to Wachowski, who teaches everything from ninth-grade earth science to college-level chemistry at Platte Valley High School in northeastern Colorado. She realized that school, not home, was the boy’s safe place.

Wachowski is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education.

She talked to Chalkbeat about how she uses parent conferences and classwork to learn students’ stories, why making Rube Goldberg contraptions boosts kids’ confidence, and what happens when she raises her hand in the middle of class.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
Originally a practicing chemical engineer, I became a teacher because I wanted a more fulfilling career. I had tutored chemistry in college and really enjoyed it.

What does your classroom look like?
Because my students work in teams 90 percent of the time, my tables are arranged so that students can sit in groups of four. I wrote a grant last summer for standing desks so each two person desk raises up and down. They are convenient for labs or when students need a change of scenery. My walls contain student-made license plates (an activity I do on the first day of school) and other student work from class, including various Chemistry Cat memes!

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ________. Why?
My heart. Initially I became a teacher because I loved my content. I soon realized however, that while content is important, developing relationships with students is paramount. No learning will happen if positive relationships are not established first. When I am frustrated with student behavior, I try to put myself in their place and respond in a caring and compassionate manner.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite lessons is when my students build Rube Goldberg devices. It gets somewhat chaotic because they are working in teams and materials are everywhere, but every single student is engaged. In the end, they can apply what they know about energy to design a multi-step contraption. I have seen very low-confidence students excel at this activity, and it is very rewarding to see them experience success in a science class.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
One strategy I’ve recently started using came from my experience leading professional development for other teachers. I will be somewhere in the middle of the room (usually not the front) and raise my hand. When students see me raise my hand, they will raise theirs and pause their conversation. Then other students see those students and raise their hand, etc. Once everyone is quiet, then I’ll make my announcement. Like all other strategies, I need to practice being consistent with it.

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 always plan the first couple of days for “get to know you” activities. My students design their own paper license plates using whatever letters, numbers, or design they would like. They then have 30 seconds to talk about their license plates.
I noticed that in some of my more challenging classes I needed a way to better connect with my students. At the beginning of most class periods I share some sort of funny story about what happened to me the evening prior — for some reason, I am never short of these stories — or a picture of my dog, or my latest climbing adventure. Sharing this information does not take long and eventually, students will ask if I have a story to share if I haven’t done so in a while. This also leads to them sharing stories with me, and finding that we may have more in common than we think.

Tell us about a memorable time-good or bad-when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
At parent-teacher conferences one year I had a parent come in with their student. This student was not the most motivated individual — not disrespectful, just did not seem to want to do anything with his time. As I was explaining this to his parent, the parent started talking very negatively to and about the student, so much so that I found myself trying to defend the student and bring up positive qualities about his character. This interaction helped me to understand some of the student’s behavior in class, as well as realize that for some students, school is their safe place. There are often lots of reasons for a student’s behavior that I may not be aware of, which is why it is important to get to know each student and their situation as best as possible.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
When I have time outside of school, one of the things I enjoy doing is throwing pottery. I am currently reading “Science for Potters” by Linda Bloomfield. It combines my love of science and art into one book.

What is the best advice you ever received?
Since I teach a variety of levels, I often have one class that challenges my classroom management skills. This can be frustrating as I am the type of person that would like to achieve perfection in every circumstance. When I have a discipline issue in my class, I often see it as a personal failure. My husband often reminds me that “You can’t control other people’s behavior, you can only control your response to it.”