getting to know you

These Teach-Off finalists unlock math for students with real-world context

Terrance O'Neil, left and Tim Livingston will participate in the first-ever Great American Teach-Off March 7.

For Houston educators Terrance O’Neil and Tim Livingston, math is all about context.

Too often, they say, students give up on math because word problems feature information or elements students can’t relate with. One recent example that stumped students, Livingston said, was a math problem featuring a person purchasing an $85 thermal to go camping.

“Some of these kids have never been camping,” he said. “And they were confused. One girl asked what a thermal was and why would a person buy one for $85.”

So they say students, especially those from low-income families, often need context — or information they can relate too — to help them better connect equations to real-world problems.

“A student should be able to relate to the problem,” said Livingston, a math coach in the Spring Independent School District. “The context grants them access.”

Together O’Neil and Livingston represent one of the two teacher teams Chalkbeat readers chose to participate in the first-ever Great American Teach-Off. The live event, which debuts at the SXSW EDU conference March 7, is designed to elevate the craft of teaching and showcase the many decisions that go into just one lesson.

Each team of teachers will demonstrate a mini-lesson on stage in front of a panel of judges and a cheering audience. A lively discussion among judges, coaches, and the teacher teams following the lessons will help attendees “see” teaching with new, clearer eyes.

Before O’Neil and Livingston head to Austin, we caught up with them to discuss the Teach-Off and their teaching philosophy. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What inspired you to go into teaching?

TIM: I guess I always had a knack for teaching. When I was in the military, I spoke to my wife and said, “I think this is something I want to do.” I love children. They were always drawn to me. And I could always communicate with them in a way they understood. Once I finished up my second enlistment, I went forward. And once I got into it, I saw what I wanted to be true, came true.

TERRANCE: The initial push came from my parents. I grew up in one of the roughest communities in Houston. They continually pushed us to get a good education. It was a nonnegotiable. They believed it was key to escape the community we grew up in. Once I left the community — because of education — I knew I needed to go back to that same community to help. I went back to my former community as a teacher. I fell in love with the kids. I learned quickly how one teacher can change the perspective of a student who might not get any sort of positive reinforcement when he leaves the school.

How would you describe your teaching style or method?

TIM: When I first began teaching, I would give out all the energy. My students would point out how my armpits would sweat. It was high energy, 24/7. But as I matured as an educator, I’ve learned to let it not all come from me, but put it in the mathematical task.

TERRANCE: I try to demonstrate that I’m passionate about the content — math or science. I always try to start with some sort of real-world connections. And I feed into that. I want to see the students excited about what they’re learning. Depending on the demographics of your class, you learn to use different real-world connections. I want them to do the work. To get them do that, I have to demonstrate some passion first.

Why did you want to be part of the Teach-Off?

TERRANCE: Probably because we think we’re better than any everyone else. [Laughs]

TIM: Next question! Honestly, I was intrigued by the vision of what Chalkbeat was trying to do. It got me hook, line, and sinker. Teaching is an art. And to hear that someone understands it’s an art and craft, I said, “This is it.” And my heart is for mathematics.

How were your schools affected by Hurricane Harvey?

TERRANCE: We had well over 100 students that lost everything. Everything. The devastation affected us severely. It was dramatic for a while. But our kids are resilient. Some are still displaced. But the district has done an excellent job of serving these students. They’ve done things that I wouldn’t have expected them to do. Some students had to move to outside the district, into other suburbs. And our district sent buses to get them so they wouldn’t have to switch schools. Not to mention, the district and many campuses have developed grant programs to serve those families. Here at McNabb, we’re still helping families with food and clothes. It’s been something amazing to watch.

What do you expect the audience to see at the Teach-Off?

TIM: Everything! All of it! They should expect laughter, energy. I love impromptu. That’s one of my strengths. So the whole notion of the event that something is going to change, that doesn’t make me nervous. That brings me in.

TERRANCE: That genuine love for teaching. Sincerity. That passion. And of course that content. You have to be passionate, and you have to be teaching something.

TIM: They can expect a demonstration of the depths of what it takes to teach mathematics correctly. It’s more than just adding and subtracting. It takes effort to plan to teach and reflect, and that’s what I love about this.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received regarding teaching?

TIM: The issue is never mechanical, it’s adaptive. Meaning, there is no fix that someone can prescribe to me that does not consider my students, the school we’re in, the story that is our classroom. Every problem is adaptive. I can’t go find an answer. I have to collaborate with teachers and students. All those things have to be considered.

TERRANCE: My first superintendent would tell us all the time, “If you are really teaching how you’re supposed to teach and what you’re supposed to teach, it will be seen in the learning in students.” Your success is not what you do as a teacher, but what your students can do after they’ve been with you for a year. That difference there, that determines how effective I am as a teacher.

What's Your Education Story?

We can’t wait for you to hear these Indianapolis teachers’ stories — join us April 19

PHOTO: Ronak Shah

Indianapolis teachers have more stories from their classrooms to share this spring.

Over the past year, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from the teachers, students, and leaders of Indianapolis through our occasional series, What’s Your Education Story? Some of our favorites were told live during teacher story slams hosted by Teachers Lounge Indy.

The stories dealt with how a teacher grappled with coming out to his students, a class that organized to save historic trees in their community, and the unexpected lesson of a mouse in the classroom.

Next month, Chalkbeat is partnering with Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media, and the Indianapolis Public Library to host a story slam. The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, April 19, will showcase tales from across Circle City classrooms. It is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, April 19, 2018
Central Library, Clowes Auditorium
40 E. St. Clair St., Indianapolis, IN
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

Town Hall

Hopson promises more flexibility as Memphis school leaders clear the air with teachers on new curriculum

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson answers questions from Memphis teachers at a town hall hosted by United Education Association of Shelby County on Monday.

The Shelby County Schools superintendent told passionate teachers at a union town hall Monday that they can expect more flexibility in how they teach the district’s newest curriculums.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the teachers who score highest on their evaluations should not feel like they need to read from a script to meet district requirements, although he didn’t have an immediate answer to how that would work.

Teacher frustrations were reaching a boiling point on district curriculums introduced this school year. Although the state requirements have changed several times over the last eight years, this change was particularly bothersome to teachers because they feel they are teaching to a “script.”

“Teachers have to be given the autonomy,” Hopson said. Although he cited the need for the district to have some control as teachers are learning, “at the end of the day, if you’re a level 4 or level 5 teacher, and you know your students, there needs to be some flexibility.”

Vocal teachers at the meeting cited check-ins from central office staff as evidence of the overreach.

“I keep hearing people say it’s supplemental but we have people coming into my room making sure we’re following it to a T,” said Amy Dixon a teacher at Snowden School. “We’re expected to follow it … like a script.”

The 90-minute meeting sponsored by the United Education Association of Shelby County drew a crowd of about 100 people to talk about curriculum and what Hopson called “a culture of fear” throughout the district of making a mistake.

Hopson said his team is still working on how to strike the right balance between creativity and continuity across nearly 150 district-run schools because so many students move during the school year.

He reassured despondent teachers he would come up with a plan to meet the needs of teachers and keep curriculums consistent. He said some continuity is needed across schools because many students move a lot during the school year.

“We know we got to make sure that I’m coming from Binghampton and going over to Whitehaven it’s got to be at least somewhat aligned,” he said. “I wish we were a stable, middle-class, not the poorest city in the country, then we wouldn’t have a lot of these issues.”

Ever since Tennessee’s largest district began phasing in parts of an English curriculum called Expeditionary Learning, teachers have complained of being micromanaged, instead of being able to tailor content for their students. The same goes for the new math curriculum Eureka Math.

The district’s changes are meant to line it up with the state. Tennessee’s new language arts and math standards replaced the Common Core curriculum, but in fact, did not deviate much when the final version was released last fall. This is the third change in eight years to state education requirements.

Still, Shelby County Schools cannot fully switch to the new curriculums until they are approved by the Tennessee State Board of Education. District leaders hope both curriculums, which received high marks from a national group that measures curriculum alignment to Common Core, will be added when textbooks are vetted for the 2019-20 school year.

Some urged educators to not think of the new curriculums as “scripts,” and admitted to poorly communicating the changes to teachers.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Pam Harris-Giles

“It’s not an expectation that we stand in front of our children and read off a piece of paper,” said Pam Harris-Giles, one of the district’s instructional support directors, who helps coordinate curriculum training and professional development.

Fredricka Vaughn, a teacher at Kirby High School, said that won’t be easy without clear communication of what flexibility will look like for high-performing teachers.

“If you don’t want us to use the word script, then bring back the autonomy,” she said.

Hopson stressed that the state’s largest school district could be a model for public education if everyone can work together to make the new curriculums work.

“It’s going to take work, hard work, everyone aligned from the top, everyone rowing in the same direction.”