By Michelle Love and Ryan Scott
“I realized that if I wanted to help people or make an impact on people, then teaching people is the best way to do it,” said Scotty Feltman, a science teacher at Woodlawn High School. Feltman in February was named the Birmingham School District’s “Teacher of the Year,” but his motivation for becoming an educator is hardly unique.
For the fourth installment in Weld’s year-long education series, staff reporters talked to teachers from across the Birmingham City School system. Though their backgrounds, schools, and students were all different, these educators expressed similar joys, frustrations, and aspirations for their school system.
Making an Impact
Feltman said that in his nine years of teaching, the best part of the job has been seeing his students mature and become young men and women.
“The first students I ever taught in my first fifth-grade class graduated last year,” he said. “Seeing the young ladies and the young men that they become when they grow up is really neat. For them to look back and say they really learned something from what I taught, or they liked a class because they thought it was interesting or it was a safe space or whatever, that always means a lot to me.”
In addition to teaching science, Feltman oversees Woodlawn’s Urban Farm, which is part of the Jones Valley Teaching Farm program. Every day, he heads to the back of the school’s campus, where a two-acre former practice field has been turned into an area for students to grow strawberries, collard greens, and other vegetables, which they sell at a local farmer’s market.
“I’ve known the kids that work out here for over a year, and to see the amount of growth they’ve made not only as a farmer but as a person, how they’ve matured, how much they don’t mind stepping out of their shell … that’s been really cool for me,” Feltman said. “We have some people who don’t talk to anyone, they’re quiet, and we’ve got them selling in a market where they have to talk to people, where they have to converse, and they have to step up and be a leader. … Just to be able to be put in a position to see it happen and be a part of it makes teaching great.”
For Brenda Kindred, a math teacher at Green Acres Middle School, the best part of the job is when she sees “the expression on [a child’s] face when they get a skill that I’m teaching.” Kindred, who said she went into teaching because of her love of children, has been a teacher for 42 years, 29 of which have been with the Birmingham City School system. She worked at Wylam Elementary for 19 years before deciding to retire in 2007. After that, however, she was asked to come back and serve as a substitute teacher for different schools in the system.
“I’ve been subbing ever since then. I tried to stay away, but I couldn’t,” she laughed.
Rebekah Nordine, a seventh-grade math teacher at Hudson K-8 School, didn’t always intend on becoming a teacher. “I actually had a teacher my freshman year of high school tell me, ‘You’re going to be a teacher someday,’ and I just went, ‘There is no way!’” she laughed.
It wasn’t until she reached college that Nordine felt drawn to becoming an educator. “I took a class called Black Issues in Education, and it just really opened my eyes to a lot of the inequality that is in our education system, more specifically for black males and how they are underrepresented in gifted programs but overrepresented in suspension rates. So I knew after that I wanted to get into education somehow,” she said.
After graduating from Vanderbilt University in May 2015, Nordine joined Teach for America, a nonprofit that helps direct teachers to school districts that need their services. “I wanted to get more of an education that would help me understand how to work with people who come from a different background than I do,” she said.
Nordine has been at Hudson for two years now and said that she feels connected to her students on an academic and personal level due to the school’s emphasis on communication between teachers and pupils. “We spend eight hours a day with children, obviously dealing with them in an academic setting, but then we also do a lot with their social [and] emotional growth as well,” she said. “We’re willing to stay after school to tutor our kids and give up our time to be coaches, but then past that we’re willing to sit and have conversations with our kids about what’s going on in the world.”
“I definitely get smart-alecked a lot”
Though she enjoys working with children, Kindred admitted that discipline in the school system remains a serious challenge. “I know all children don’t learn at the same level, but it bothers me when I try to teach, and I’ve got a problem here, and it takes time off the children that are really grasping it,” she said.
Kindred said that parents have become less supportive when a teacher tries to discipline their children in recent years. Parents no longer believe her when she informs them that their child has stepped out of line, which hinders her ability to maintain order in the classroom, she argued.
Feltman said that while discipline remains a problem in every school, in his experience, by the high-school level, students are more likely to be disrespectful than to physically act out or get in fights.
“I definitely get smart-alecked a lot,” he said with a grin, though he hastened to add that, paradoxically, “I got sworn at more by elementary school students than I do now [by high-schoolers], which is weird.”
Students’ missing class is a bigger problem at Woodlawn than disrespect or acting out, Feltman said.
“We spend so much time dealing with the kids who aren’t ready and the kids who aren’t here at all. You have to catch them up,” he added. “That’s my main concern. If you’re here every day, then I’m going to teach you something. It may not be a ton, but we’re going to learn something if you’re here every day.”
Another eternal challenge for teachers is managing time to get the most out of their classes. Feltman said that being an effective teacher requires plenty of work before the first bell has even rung.
“My typical day would be: You get up and prep everything in your house, whatever that may be, whether it means getting your kids ready for daycare or getting yourself ready, but as you’re doing that, you’re starting to mentally prepare for what you’re going to do during the day, making sure that you have everything you need ready for when those kids walk in, so you can start teaching,” he explained. “Because you have limited time. You have 50 minutes to teach a subject; you have 50 minutes to get kids engaged and keep their attention and make sure they have a pencil every day; so being prepped every day and knowing what you’re going to do [is important].”
Feltman said he generally arrives in his classroom around 40 minutes before first period begins, because “if you show up when you have to be here, that’s late as a teacher, because you won’t be ready. You’re going to spend 15 or 20 minutes of first period getting ready for first period.
“You have to be minimally ready every day,” he added. “You can’t have an off day, because if you come into the classroom and have an off day, you’re going to get eaten alive. … If you’re not ready as a teacher, nobody is going to learn anything and you’re going to end up wasting your time, and there’s going to be problems in your classroom.”
Even after he leaves Woodlawn for the day, Feltman said he spends time during his evenings planning the following day’s lessons and grading papers. Most of Sunday is dedicated to preparing for the week ahead and laying out lesson plans, though Feltman noted that as he has become more experienced, he has had to spend less time during the weekend to get ready for the work week.
“I guess it’s just like anything else. You learn as you go along. When new teachers start out, the first two or three years is really, really tough,” he said.
Nordine agrees that time plays a huge role in her challenges as an educator. While she and her colleagues place all of their focus on helping their students, finding the additional time to implement innovative ideas into the classroom is difficult. “We have a lot of really great ideas that go around our [school] system,” she said. “But it takes a lot of time to implement something well. There’s a difference between just doing it and actually doing it well.
“So much of our energy is focused on our students that sometimes these programs, while they are fantastic ideas, we haven’t had the chance to see them come to fruition at the moment,” she continued. “And they’re still there and we’re still talking about them [but] it’s just hard to find the time to [execute the ideas] well.”
Another challenge, she added, is overcoming the mindset in students that making a mistake means they are stupid or inadequate. This year, she has placed an emphasis on respect in the classroom, whether it be for “me, someone I have visiting, your peers, or yourself.”
“That’s something that’s been really important for me as well, teaching them to respect themselves,” Nordine said. “I have a chart hanging up in my room that replaces phrases people commonly use with more growth mindset phrases. So like, instead of saying, ‘I’m not good at this,’ you say, ‘What am I missing? What can I do differently?’”
Jacqueline Dent, an Alabama Reading Initiative coach for Oxmoor Valley Elementary, has worked in the Birmingham education system for 20 years, and said her biggest challenge is the emphasis placed on standardized testing. “Children don’t learn the same way! So I have to figure out ways to diversify my instruction, taking into consideration the needs of the auditory, kinesthetic, and visual learner, as well as the readiness level of my students,” Dent said.
Dent, who currently deals primarily with third grade students, said that it’s best to find ways the students can connect with the information they’re learning.
“In order for effective teaching and learning to take place, I can’t use skill-and-drill methods,” she explained. “I have to find ways for my students to make a personal connection to the material I’m teaching. Without the personal connection, some students quickly forget or aren’t interested in learning what’s being taught. The challenge is finding ways to relate what I’m required to teach to the world around them, so they can make sense, regarding why they need to learn the information I’m teaching.”
One of the most important factors determining whether a teacher is successful in teaching students, said Kindred, is the level of parental involvement in the child’s education.
“Parents are important. Because first [the kids] have to learn at home, and then they come here. And it takes all of us — the church, the school, everybody — to help these children,” she said. “If you do what you’re supposed to do at home, make sure they get their homework done, make sure they pick up a book and read, when you do your part and we do our part … they can’t do anything but succeed, if all of us work together as a team.”
Nordine said that there is a stereotype surrounding parental involvement in inner-city schools, but that is not her reality. “Our parents are some of the hardest-working people I know,” she said. “They will work a night shift and then still show up for a parent conference in the morning. It amazes me. They’re willing to come and sit in the classroom with their kids, and they’re watching their grades and making sure that they are performing to acceptable levels.”
It’s not just the parents that influence how students progress, she added, but the community as well. “When you’re in a school you’re not just confined to that building. School is about the community that surrounds it as well,” she said.
Oxmoor Valley is one of many Birmingham schools that make parental and community involvement a top priority, Dent said. “We have two parental involvement coordinators at Oxmoor Valley Elementary,” she said. “They assist us in building strong relationships with our parents. For example, we host various workshops for parents. These workshops provide information on topics ranging from healthy eating to homework tips. Additionally, we conduct family surveys to identify suggestions from parents. Those suggestions are used to identify ways in which we can enhance the home [and] school connection even more!”
Feltman, however, said that in his experience, poor communication between educators and parents has been a persistent problem in the schools where he has worked. He said he has consistently had problems with being unable to reach parents through the contact information they provided to the school.
“If I needed to get hold of a parent and I would go down the contact list of five people and I couldn’t get a hold of anybody, and nobody would call me back and I couldn’t leave a message or anything like that, that’s definitely an issue,” he explained. “You get discouraged if you try a number and it doesn’t work, and you just can’t deal with that because you have a 150 kids you have to see to.
“I think that just lack of communication is an issue, and it can go both ways,” he added. “I don’t think you’re going to have that in every single school district. That’s probably a problem that’s [specific] to us.”
Hopes for a New Superintendent
While the Birmingham Board of Education continues to search for a new superintendent, many teachers are voicing their opinion as to who they believe should take the position. Nordine, for instance said that while the individual appointed should understand the day-to-day struggles of being a teacher, he or she should also understand the issues Birmingham City Schools face in being judged in the community. It should be “someone who is willing to fight for our kids and fight for our district,” she said.
“Birmingham City Schools gets a really bad rap, and my kids get a really bad reputation, and I don’t think they deserve that,” Nordine said. “Because if you came and spent a day in my classroom, you wouldn’t say some of the things that they say about my kids, that they’re disengaged or they’re bad or they’re not meeting standards. You would meet kids who are excited about learning and want to tell other people about that. So I want someone who is ready to let others see that.”
Dent, however, said that regardless of who takes over the title, she will continue to place her students’ education first. “Whenever there is the possibility that leadership is about to change, you wonder, of course, about the direction the school system will be moving in. However, as a teacher, my greatest challenges are those related to teaching and learning. Therefore, regardless of things going on outside the classroom, I try to keep my focus on what can I do better to help my children learn,” she said.
Kindred said that she would like a superintendent who takes the time to visit schools and meet with students and teachers face-to-face to learn what their schools need.
“The thing that I would be looking for is a superintendent really having a mind for the children. Not just sitting behind the office, [but to come] out and intermingle with everybody and see what we need to succeed, to teach these children,” she said.
Feltman shared Kindred’s concern, saying that he hopes for a superintendent who personally checks in with the various schools in the system to help them meet their individual challenges.
“If you’re familiar with everybody, everyone starts trusting you and believing in what you’re doing instead of just saying, ‘Oh, we have a new superintendent; I wonder how long this is going to last,’” Feltman said. “I think there’s a lot of potential in Birmingham City [Schools]. We have a fantastic city. There’s money here, and there’s a lot of opportunity, a lot of potential. If the right person’s here, and stays here, and puts the time in for the kids, we’re going to be in good shape.”
Weld’s next monthly installment of the Education in Birmingham series will focus on summer education programs.