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.
Victoria Bull, who teaches government, economics and history at Northglenn High School in the Adams 12 district, is a study in contrasts. Her classroom features inspirational quotes from a 3-year-old next to photos of a U.S. Supreme Court justice. She’s an energetic joker who says she can’t teach without her copy of the U.S. Constitution.
“It is the basis of all I do and teach,” she said.
Bull, who won the 2017 Colorado Civic Educator of the Year award from the Denver-based Civic Canopy, shared her thoughts on student-made podcasts, making class fun and the power of a calm mind.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
Why did you become a teacher?
When I was in college I traveled with groups of students from my high school to different countries through EF Tours. It was through this experience that I realized how much I loved watching kids learn and experience new things. It also made me realize that I personally could have more impact as a teacher than a lawyer.
What does your classroom look like?
I have Ruth Bader Ginsburg pictures on every wall, maps from the countries I have visited, inspirational quotes from my 3-year-old nephew who is the smartest philosopher I know. I also have hundreds of pictures of former students, friends, and family, and my academic and athletic trophies.
Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ___________. Why?
The U.S. Constitution. My pocket Constitution is always with me. Students all get one too. It is the basis of all I do and teach. It is everything.
What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
One of my favorite lessons I taught this year was having the kids create podcasts about linkage institutions — political parties, interest groups, elections and the media — and our government. I am obsessed with podcasts so it wasn’t a difficult thing to think up.
How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I try to talk through the ideas with the student, use language and examples that relate to them and their lives.
How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
One of the best things I started doing this year was to play a song that relates to the warm-up they are working on in class. It usually quiets them down because they want to hear the song or sing along. When we were learning about imperialism, one of my warm-ups asked them about the poem “The White Man’s Burden” and the effects of imperialism. The song I played with this was “Where is the Love?” by the Black Eyed Peas.
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 think just by being myself. I like ad-libbing and telling jokes in class and I think they enjoy it. (If they don’t they haven’t told me.) I try to pay attention to their moods and make sure they know that I recognize when they are happy, sad, angry, etc.
Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I can’t think of one singular time, but just the contact I make with the parents during We the People — which includes a competition where students participate in simulated congressional hearings. (I enjoy) getting to see parents watch their student perform at district and state competitions and being so proud of them.
What are you reading for enjoyment?
A book about Ruth Bader Ginsburg — but to be honest I usually have a podcast in my ear. Obsessed. NPR, The Daily, Who Weekly, This American Life … so, so many.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
It was actually advice with regard to tennis. My coach and good friend, when she first started coaching me, quoted Lao Tzu: “To a mind that is still the whole universe surrenders.” Both on the tennis court and in life sometimes my brain is too energized.
The second-best advice was from my 3-year-old nephew Joaquin when he told me, “That’s not a safe choice!” I use that in the classroom every day.