Teaching with Happiness and Joy

Program Director and EdCo Member, Amy Nystrand recently ‘’sat down” virtually with two Edco teachers, Katie Donald and Luke Johnson. Katie is the Assistant Head of School and Pre-K teacher at Episcopal School of Nashville, and Luke teaches 9th and 12th grade at Battleground Academy. Listening to them speak is a quick reminder of the joy, excitement, and natural talent that dynamic teachers bring to into their classrooms. Read to find out more about.

Where do you teach, what do you teach, and how did you get into teaching?

Katie: I currently teach at Episcopal School of Nashville.  I’m the assistant head of school and Pre-K teacher; I don’t think there’s another one of those in the whole country, but we are a new school, and so everyone around here wears many hats as we grow.  I really always wanted to teach, it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I got into it by kind of going through a back door.  I started with Teach for America; I taught 1st grade and was a total failure, it was awful.  It was not a good year, and what do you do when that’s all you’ve wanted to do and I’m not any good at it?  So I took all of my savings and I bought a ticket to Hawaii and lived at the Y, and thought, well I’ll just wait tables and figure it out. I ended up with a job at the University of Hawaii’s children’s center, where they put me back together, you know, they got me enrolled, I worked as an Assistant 2 year old teacher and then an Assistant 3 year old teacher, and then eventually after taking some classes and being there a couple years I was the 4 year old teacher, so anyway, that was my beginning. I met my husband over in Hawaii.  He was stationed over there, getting out, and we moved back to Nashville, I went to Vanderbilt, so when we were leaving Hawaii because it was so expensive, and to be nearer my family, we moved to Nashville.  Then we moved to Memphis and now we’re back to Nashville.  So I’ve been teaching for almost 29 years, that’s a long time.

Luke: I teach at Battleground Academy in Franklin, TN and I teach 9th grade Honors English and 12th grade College Prep English, so I like to say that I get everybody eventually in the high school. I got into teaching in grad school as part of a fellowship, and I think I knew already that I loved being in the classroom, but that was kind of the first time that I got to be coordinating and shaping a curriculum in a class rather than, like the difference, I guess, between cooking a meal and eating one, like I hadn’t seen the appeal of sort of curating and cooking a meal, as much as I had loved devouring meals, metaphorically, for years.  I started out teaching in Higher Ed and adjunct at a few places before eventually deciding that I wanted to be around the kids more, or I should say students for Higher Ed, and realizing that Secondary Ed was more the place for me.

This is year 5 at BGA, I graduated grad school in ‘09, so I guess year 11 or 12 of teaching. I think 12.

So how do you think that your students describe you?

Katie: I think my students describe me as happy and loving, like I’m a big hugger. This one little girl, every time I see her, she’s going into 2nd grade this year, but I taught her in Pre-K, and everytime I would see her around campus, it was like this look on her face, you know, like, “is she gonna hug me again?” And I think I must always be smiling, because I remember last year there was a new student at our school, and I was joking around with some of the kids, and I can’t remember what I said, and he said, you’re joking, and I said, no I’m not, and he said, you’re smiling, I know you’re joking, and this little girl walked by and she goes, that’s not it, she’s always smiling.

Luke: I hope joyful. I think my classroom’s a really fun place. More fun if you’ve done the reading than if you haven’t. And I think the thing that I always strive for is consistency. I don’t ever want a kid to feel like they can’t ask a question, or they can’t admit that they don’t like something.  I remember I was so afraid to tell teachers when I was in school that I hated a book, because I felt like they’d take it personally.  Whereas some of the best conversations I have with students is when they’re like I don’t like this. It’s like, okay.  A lot of people probably don’t. There’s nothing defective in you because you don’t like something. It’s just you probably learn more about yourself from not liking something or as much. Yeah, I think the thing that I’m always hoping for with students is that somehow seeing how excited I get about the books we read helps them to access their own thing, everybody has a text that they love, the text that they love might be TikTok, it might be a certain video game, it might be baking brownies. Just because something’s difficult and not everyone gets it, like I got a Master’s Degree in poetry and most people aren’t that interested in poetry, but just because not everyone is on board doesn’t mean one, that it makes you like a pariah or an outcast or a weirdo, and two, doesn’t mean that you can’t get people on board with that joy.  I guess that’s what I hoped students would say, is that he made me enjoy English class or books in a way that I hadn’t before.

What is something that you hope your students learn from you that’s not in the curriculum?  

Katie: I think I’ve been doing it long enough that I have in my head the concepts and the curriculum I want to cover.  I have this general idea, but I never know what each day is going to be, I mean I do plan for activities, but I’m very good at following children’s lead, and seeing a direction they’re heading that can address a lesson that I know that we want to get to, and so jumping on that and feeding that, you know watching them play, interacting with them, and running over to my closet and pulling things out to enhance that or enrich that. That being said, I do not know how to do that virtually.  It’s about social emotional growth, learning who you are and who you are in relation to other people and using your words and collaborating. There’s just no developmentally appropriate way to do that.  

In terms of curriculum, I do introduce the letters and sounds through a lot of kinesthetic moving, songs, finger plays, sign language, anything to engage their full body.  But I guess the main thing I want them to learn is to not give up, and that there’s not always a right answer, or that you might get you the right answer through a whole different path than somebody else got the right answer, and to listen to anybody’s good idea because their good idea might be something you never thought of before.  But how to value the strengths and thought processes of everybody in the class.

Luke: I think that paying attention to things makes your life better. And when I say paying attention to things, I guess I mean how to be present when you really don’t want to be, and how to be present for things that aren’t easy to be present for, like say if you hate reading Shakespeare how to be present for a moment in Hamlet that could make you feel like you’re time traveling, because someone 500 years ago felt something that you feel right now. And how you kind of have to work for those moments. I’ll often tell them, on the spectrum of joy, literature is probably the harder ones to access; it’s harder to be joyful about reading The Road by Cormick McCarthy than it is about eating a lollipop, but it rewards a lot more if you can train yourself to ask, how do I access this joy.  And that’s by paying attention, because really all an English class is asking you to do is enjoy your life more because you’re paying more attention to it, and to be able to articulate that joy back to someone else like in a way that they understand.

I think a lot of times in other classrooms “I don’t know” is a thing that they’re afraid of; they don’t like to admit that they don’t know the answer or that they did the work and they couldn’t figure it out. Whereas “I don’t know” in an English classroom is kind of liberating, because nobody knows, literature is like life, you mostly don’t know what anything means, like your cat peed on your bed, that doesn’t mean anything, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pay attention to it. And that’s a cool thing, when they’re like oh, I like this, but I don’t know why, and that’s the fun thing to kind of poke at as an English teacher, well let’s figure out why we like it.

The Educators’ Cooperative is a non-profit organization that provides a professional learning community for K-12 teachers. Created for teachers by teachers in 2016, EdCo provides professional development and support for educators to collaborate across sectors, disciplines, and career stages. EdCo aims to revolutionize teacher development and leadership by focusing on the essential agency, autonomy, and common ground all teachers share. EdCo is based in Nashville, Tennessee with a reach far beyond that physical location and potential for replication in communities throughout the nation. When educators collaborate, the future of education is greater than the sum of its parts.    Please visit educatorscooperative.com for more information and to sign up for our newsletter.

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