Program Director and EdCo Member, Amy Nystrand recently ‘’sat down” virtually with three Edco teachers, Allison Hardy, Chris Collins, and Dave Harrison. Allison teaches Chemistry at Hillwood High School, Chris teaches Math at Hume Fogg Academic Magnet, and Dave teaches 4th Grade at Gower Elementary. Listening to them speak is a quick reminder of the love that teachers have for their students, and how it goes well beyond academics.
Where do you teach, what do you teach, and how did you get into teaching?
I currently teach at Hillwood High School, and I teach standard chemistry, essentially a form of tracking, and honors chemistry and AP chemistry. Technically two preps right now, because I’m only teaching three classes, but there are 35 in each of the standard chemistry classes and then 14 in the AP Chem class, so still a lot of students, there were 40 at the beginning of the year in standard. Those numbers have gone down, that’s because high school is doing like the 4 block schedule, and so next semester I’ll have three, but supposedly like 90 minutes of each class every single day, so that will be a lot.
I’ve only been teaching for three years, I think I’m on the third year, not technically, so initially when I went to undergrad college, I wanted to go to med school or get my PhD in Chemistry, both my parents have their PhDs in cell biology, so the pressure, but then I did research and I didn’t really enjoy it. As a side job I worked as a teaching assistant for organic chemistry, all the science preps, and I was like oh my gosh, this is amazing, I love the student interaction, so I feel like that was the start of it. I really love chemistry so I think that was a part of it, and I did a lot of tutoring like one-on-one type stuff, and I was like wow, this seems really cool. Then I applied to Vandy for like my masters program and got more into schools and stuff, and discovered that I really didn’t like middle school, and I didn’t like tiny people, I like them much bigger, and I’m also like super sassy in class, and so I enjoy that sarcastic humor, of where I can say something, and high schoolers still take it the wrong way sometimes, but at least they can kind of understand where I’m coming from, I like the relationships that result from high school students a lot more than I did from middle school.
I teach at Hume Fogg Academic Magnet. I teach 9th and 10th grade math, more specifically I teach Integrated Math I and Integrate Math II, which are majority freshman classes, but I do have a few sophomores in the IM II class. I did not feel empowered or successful in previous teacher’s classes, and I was motivated, even in middle school, all I wanted to do was be a teacher, ever since middle school. I wanted to be that for my students, so that was my motivating factor. This would be my ninth year of teaching. I have always been in Metro. I student taught in Williamson County at Glencliff, and after my experience at Glencliff I just knew I wanted to teach in Metro schools.
I teach at Gower Elementary, I teach 4th grade math and science, and I got into teaching because I got into subbing, as a kind of a lark, something to do when I wasn’t on tour, and I just found that I really liked it. I really liked being around the kids and I really liked teaching. It got to the point where after I left touring I subbed a lot, like almost everyday. And I was like, well I’ve taken this as far as it can go. So the next step is to become the teacher of record, and so I went to Trevecca University and picked up my Masters of Elementary Ed. It’s a pretty good job, there’s a lot of really cool perks, if you know where to look. The subbing that I did kind of over the course of about seven years, and then being a teacher of record I believe this is my ninth or my tenth year, so we’re coming up on a decade of it.
What is something that you hope your students learn from you that’s not in the curriculum?
This is one thing that my students reflected on today, one of my big goals in the course is to feel comfortable making mistakes, and that they know how to learn from their mistakes, and finding a way to emphasize that in the virtual classroom is something that’s really hard, and finding a way to pull away from the grading aspect has definitely been one of my long term goals, we really want to learn, but how do I emphasize learning when I have to evaluate you. So thinking about that a lot, but really I hope that they are able to feel comfortable making mistakes and recognize that those are good things to be doing, and that that’s the process of learning. Also, to feel comfortable and confident in the world of science, this is something that we talked about today too, like one think they mentioned that they’ve been learning so far in chemistry is the importance of the periodic table, and how when they look at it they’re like, oh, there’s so much information I know, and that’s something that will continue on, no matter if they go into any form of science room or lab they will see the Periodic Table, so that have some background knowledge or something they can say about it, which is exciting.
I hope that they learn that who they are, as in their identity, it does not matter how others perceive them, because they should just be true to whoever they are and what makes them happy. Like I have no shame in the mistakes I make, I have no shame in the stuff around me, like my classroom is fully decked out, it’s really nerdy, and I’m sure kids would make fun of me all day for it, I’m like, okay, cool, roll with it. I’ll just throw it back at them. I’m not going to hide things that I enjoy just because they’re not typically like the normal interests of people. I’ll be true to myself and you should be true to yourself. We should be true to each other.
That’s easier to answer than one might think. The value of being silly. I put such a premium on that in my life with my own boys and with my students. The value of just being silly and how important it is to laugh and to just be relaxed. That’s my lesson plan, that’s my plan, is just get everybody in a place where they want to learn and they’re comfortable, and they’re relaxed. And a lot of it comes to just absolute silliness. Last year I said, somebody toss me up an expo marker, and 25 expo markers just flew through the air at me, and I had to stop and just belly laugh for 5 minutes. Frasier taught me a great deal, she’s one of my great mentors in life, not just as a teacher, but as a human being. She taught me, one, that every classroom takes on the personality of their teacher. So I was trying to figure out why kids were walking on the tables and Fisher’s kids were reading a book quietly like it’s Stepford County. Then I just realized that it’s because that’s who I am; I’m the walking on the table guy. In the end if the kids are really happy and the parents are happy and the experience was good, and the scores were acceptable to the adults who pay attention to that, I never do, and they have been, people tell me, people always pull me aside, hey your scores are great, okay fine I don’t care. And that works, that’s what works for me. It’s those relationships, getting back to what keeps me going. Get to build these fantastic relationships with these fantastic people. So I hope that, and then a love of reading, a love of literature. Even though I’m teaching math, like last year I had book club, and we did it during lunch, so I would just give up my lunch every single day, and I had 98% attendance. I had maybe two kids that every once in a while would not come, but for the rest of the time they all came. And I would read to them, and there’s this section in Bud Not Buddy, every time I read it I kind of break up and cry a little bit. So I’m hoping that when they get older they’ll say oh, from Mr. Harrison, I really learned to love a good book. And even though I’m the math teacher, it’s a deal breaker for me, if I can’t read to kids I’m not gonna be a teacher.
How are you adjusting to this education arena and what is something you’ve learned about yourself or your students?
Adjusting is definitely an understatement, finding a routine, I feel like is definitely something, I’m someone that thrives on structure and thrives on being busy, and so without those things, someone telling me what to do, or having only a small amount of times to do things has been really difficult, and I’ve definitely learned that about my students as well, like we just kind of threw all our high schoolers into this college-like environment, and the parents are now having to be, I have multiple parents that are like, I’m like helicoptering and trying to get them to do the work, and sitting next to them, and those kinds of things, and they’re like, I don’t know if this is a good thing, and I was like, to be honest, that’s what we do as teachers, I’m there, I’m like hey, you need to do this. They constantly have someone reminding them and pushing them through, at least some of them, to get the stuff done and to turn it in, because they’re capable of doing it, it’s just like there’s no work there.
I’m sure this is what a lot of teachers are learning. This COVID highlights the dramatic inequities of our system, and the system that is supporting our students. I’m learning about myself as a teacher that I need to try to reach students wherever they are, like that’s kind of been my constant thing, but even more so now, and try to build those connections, and also, this is something I’ve really appreciated about COVID is the contact I’ve had more so with families now than I ever have because we have to, because there’s just no way things are going to move, no way anything’s going to happen. If a kid’s not replying to stuff or submitting, I have to build that relationship with the families. I’ve learned about how to build those better than I ever have in the past. I still don’t know if I’m doing it well, but I’m doing it better than I ever have, so I have to give myself credit there.
Poorly, like everyone else. Trying to get better at it everyday, and everyday finding new things that I did wrong, or things that didn’t work. What I’m learning about myself is that my personality is coming through, even digitally. Last weekend I had one of my students, and her parents bought her a great big slide, one of the inflatable ones you put in front of the house for a party or something. She took a picture of it and texted it to me on a Saturday, and the text read, having fun without you. I was like, okay, it’s coming across. Other than that, the real love that you feel for the kids, and it’s real genuine in my heart. People are always like, I don’t understand how you do it, but it’s so easy, but the first thing you need to do is love that kid the second they walk in your door. No matter what baggage they’re bringing, no matter what rules they break, you just love them, and everything else falls into place. And I’m finding out that love will conquer the internet as well, will make it through a Teams meeting. That’s about 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.