What these award-winning Indianapolis educators want you to know about teaching

By Shaina Cavazos
Assistant Director – Communications & Operations
Office of Education Innovation

The educators were recognized this past summer as finalists for the Office of Education Innovation’s Teacher of the Year award.

It’s hard to imagine a more challenging time to be an educator. Teachers have experienced incredible whiplash during the ongoing pandemic, expected to deploy in-person, remote, hybrid, and every kind of instruction in between. All the while, they’re trying to meet every demand and care for themselves, their families, and their students. 

In short, it’s a lot.

Teach Indy wants to continue celebrating teachers in the year ahead for everything they do for our communities, and we have a lot of plans in the works to do just that.

But until then, we also know one of the best ways to celebrate teachers is to listen to them and recognize them as the experts they are. 

So we’re pulling advice we’ve published this year from 11 award-winning teachers. From rethinking how we teach math to challenging ourselves and our coworkers to confront our biases and demand culturally relevant curricula, we’re excited to start this semester learning from some of the best.

Be consistent, but not without caring

“The two biggest pieces of advice I would give to anybody, especially new teachers, would be that consistency is everything. Being consistent with your expectations, consistently carrying out all of your procedures on a daily basis, it’s huge for kids. They thrive on structure. The second piece of advice I would give, and it’s truly helped me become good at what I do, is showing kids that you care. A professor told me that if a student knows you care about them, they will do anything you ask them to.”

Rebecca Norman, fourth-grade teacher at Paramount School of Excellence – Cottage Home

Find the value in developing foundations

“Often, especially in math, as teachers move up, they move out of those lower-level Algebra I classes and move into calculus or precalculus. There’s also a need there, but I’ve found real value in helping our most struggling students develop those foundational skills. It’s hard work to take a kid who has never taken a test before, isn’t used to doing homework, or struggles to sit in a class. It’s just as valuable to hone my math education skills as it is teaching kids how to do school. Those are skills that will serve them well in every class as they move through their high school career.”

Bonnie McNeely, math teacher at Riverside High School

Know that plans are not necessarily where learning happens

“If a kid says, ‘This thing isn’t useful, how will it help me in life?’ It’s not my job to be defensive. It’s my job to provide an opportunity so they can see how it can. That’s the challenge … Have a plan for what skills and concepts you’re going to teach, but explore those passions that your students introduce you to. This is me giving you permission to explore your students’ dreams.”

Jeff Mayo, music teacher at Matchbook Learning at Wendell Phillips School 63

… But hands-on activities probably are

“Students get really fired up about what goes on in the world once they’re educated on it. We’ll read To Kill a Mockingbird and learn about racism, disabilities, poverty, and what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. We read Maus and learn about the Holocaust and modern genocides. Opening their eyes to the idea that this was horrible, but genocide is still occurring –you’re just not being told about it all the time. You’d be surprised how many of those kids have come back to me and said these projects meant so much to them, and they’re doing something even now that has something to do with policy. If we can move away from things like standardized testing and benchmark assessments and get students to do project-based learning, that just builds such a better classroom environment. By doing a hands-on activity, they’re more excited to learn, they’re more excited to make those connections.”

Angela Coffin, seventh- and eighth-grade English teacher
at Vision Academy at Riverside

So set the bar high

“My first principal set the bar high, and I think every person who was in that building has carried his legacy. He always said that if you expect their best, students will rise to the occasion. They will rise to the bar you set.”

Jennifer Newman, second-grade teacher at Tindley Genesis Academy

Don’t overlook your needs

“Teachers often burn out because we are in close proximity to so many of the inequalities in our society, but we have limited capacity to effect change on our own. It can be easy for anyone in a similar position to become overwhelmed with responsibility and forget about self-care. Self-care is critical, especially for early career teachers. If we take a little more time to care for ourselves, more educators will find capacity to continue teaching for many years to come.” 

Ronak Shah, science teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle School

Challenge yourself and those around you

“Challenge your administrators to let you be culturally relevant — because what on earth are they doing if they don’t? None of us are the same, and if we’re not cognizant of that, if we’re not understanding of that, if we’re not trying to be more open-minded, how will we teach? I can’t teach somebody I’m scared of. I can’t teach somebody I think is less than me. I challenge all educators to educate yourselves and understand you do have biases. Deal with them. Don’t teach them to your students. Use that voice and use that power to continue to be good and righteous for your students and your families.”

Orleta Holmes, fifth-grade teacher at Ignite Achievement Academy
at Elder W. Diggs School 42.

Spread awareness to eradicate ignorance and ensure equity

“I have often been asked why I teach in an urban school — why I go to the city every day. My answer is that I love my school and I love our students. But there is also a lot that all-white schools are missing, and that’s seldom part of the conversation when we talk about equity … If no one is teaching suburban kids about their racial identity, they are going to perpetuate racial segregation. That’s part of a teacher’s job, to make sure they spread awareness and break down these barriers and walls around ignorance. We all need to work together to make our schools more equitable spaces.”

Ashley Sciacca, English teacher and Literacy Specialist at
Victory College Preparatory Academy

Move with urgency when things aren’t going well

“At some point as a teacher, I was told if something is going on and it’s not going well, you should fix it immediately. That’s how I approach teaching — the best time to make a change or to make things better is now. Having that urgency to move forward is what our students need. A lot of them come to us behind or come to us with situations that make learning difficult. Wasting any time — a week, a month, or even a minute — puts them only further behind. I only have so much time with them. I need every single minute of every day to be useful and purposeful, and I can’t allow wasting any time doing things that aren’t working.”

Rahul Jyoti, eighth-grade math teacher  at Victory College Preparatory Academy

Prioritize relationship-building

Building that relationship with me made him see he can also impact other people positively. As long as we’re all working together, we can do incredible things for our scholars.

Morgan Arthur, counselor at Charles A. Tindley Accelerated School

And remember there’s no one right way to be a teacher.

“When I was a newer teacher, some of the most useful advice I got was to remember that the teacher is the thermostat, not the thermometer — We are the ones who set the space. There’s no one right way to be a teacher, and students need you to show up every day as your authentic self, willing to listen to them, coach them, and support them with whatever they are struggling with.”

Lauren Perkins, reading teacher at Enlace Academy

This past summer and fall we featured each of the 11 Office of Education Innovation 2020 Teacher of the Year finalists. Read more about them in the posts linked to their names above.