By Institute for Learning

Here we are mid-October and the excitement and nerves that come with a fresh school year have given way to the joy that grows out of learning and the comfort from predictable classroom routines.

As teachers move further into the year, we wanted to create space to share some of their stories. We reached out to educators and posed the following to questions to get their thoughts.

    • What led you to education?
    • What goals do you have for the work you do?
    • How does your work reflect you?

The following are excerpts from several responses. We invite you to read, pause, celebrate, and reflect on their stories.

“We are a family who have each other’s back…”

Mara McGrady
3rd Grade Teacher
Baldwin-Whitehall School District
Pittsburgh, PA
6 years in education

Besides the joy of teaching curriculum, I also teach takeaways that mean a lot to me. On the first day of school and throughout the school year – I tell my students that we are a family in this classroom. We are a family who have each other’s back and respect one another. I am a teacher who is BIG on KINDNESS. I constantly teach what it means to be kind and the power behind it.

I often leave my students with this message in hopes that it will stick with them, “Years from now when you get older and I run into you somewhere – I will not remember what score you got on your Math or ELA test, but what I will remember is if you were the kind kid, the kind student who constantly went out of their way to help and include others!” 

Overall, I want to give my students a meaningful learning experience. I also want to give them a safe place here at school, where they feel included and cared for. My mission is to lead my students to all paths of success. 

 “It was a political decision, a social justice decision, one rooted in my desire to make a difference in the lives of all students…”

Viola Paris
Algebraic Reasoning Interventionist
Syracuse City School District
Syracuse, NY
35 years in education

To fully make sense of why I decided to become a teacher, I felt it necessary to reflect on my experiences growing up on a tiny Caribbean Island colonized by the British and my experiences as an immigrant in the United States. I believe that [my elementary teachers] molding paved the path to my eventually making that decision. They made me very aware of injustice and colonization and one’s role in addressing those issues. Without explicitly saying it, my teachers made me aware of what it meant to function in dual worlds. I was listening to Anancy Stories at night, but reciting poems written by English Romantic Poets in school. I can still recite William Wordsworth “The Daffodils” but had never seen a daffodil until I migrated to the United States. I was solving Math problems using the currency used in England and expected to know the value of a Florin and Guinea, coins I had never seen! There was no need to explicitly state that education was the key out of poverty. I was very aware of this.

There are religious folks who can cite the dates of specific religious experiences. I vividly remember the day and circumstances that crystalized my decision to become a teacher. It was a political decision, a social justice decision, one rooted in my desire to make a difference in the lives of all students, but specifically the lives of Black and Brown children referenced in the “Achievement Gap.” It was a decision made because I still believe that education can change the trajectory of the lives of our students, and I felt called to take up the mantle and make my contribution.

“…to help students see that they can accomplish things that they might not have ever thought they could achieve.”

Orla Andrews
Quantitative Reasoning Interventionalist
Syracuse City School District
Syracuse, NY
7 years in education

I never thought I would get into the field of education. When I graduated, I began working for a non-profit organization that ended up placing me in an elementary school. I was so out of my element, having never worked at a school before, but I absolutely loved working with the students. It just so happened that I was hired to teach small group mathematic instruction and I felt an instant “a-ha” moment; I had found my purpose and that this job would be fulfilling.

I worked my way through graduate school for education while teaching full-time and have not looked back since. I had to reteach myself a lot of math and have had amazing educators mentor me along the way. I take this realization into the classroom to help students have “a-ha” moments too—not to realize that they can be mathematics teachers—but rather to help students see that they can accomplish things that they might not have ever thought they could achieve.

“It is particularly important that our children learn how to live in both worlds (Native and White).”

Oyate Burnette
1st Grade Teacher
Rosebud Elementary
Todd County School District
Rosebud, SD
15 years in education

I am Lakota. I remember the days of grade school and all the learning trials I had. School was tough for me. It was like the teacher was speaking alien to me. I had no clue what they were saying or what they wanted me to do. I was expected to learn their way, and they did not care how I felt about school. So, my goal as a teacher is to bring Lakota teachings and indigenize curriculum to help students love school.

For years, Lakota teachers were treated as if they did not know anything when it came to “Best Practice.” So, it is my goal to develop “Best Practices” and prove that they work for our Lakota students.

Another goal I have every year is to send our Lakota children on to the next grade with good self-esteem and confidence. It is particularly important that our children learn how to live in both worlds (Native and White). Our Lakota children need extra time to develop these skills in dual worlds. We have white teachers having expectations of learning as a white child, which is impossible. It helps to have Native teachers to help these students to the middle where they can start making their way in this world. If I can send confident students on to the next grade, they are able to continue making connections to both their worlds even when their teacher is not Lakota. We are still struggling with a Western/colonial style of teaching.

“…mistakes are a part of learning…”

Melanie Niehus
Math Educator & Content Lead
Todd County Middle School 
Mission, SD
30 years in education

My goal for this year is to have my students understand that mistakes are a part of learning but that this a positive in life. From these experiences I want all my students to develop goals throughout the year and then reflect on their goals throughout the year. Reflections in math (or any class) and in life are very important as we need to remember that as a person, we are all important and can move forward through the hard times and good times.

I hope to also bring joy in learning math to each of my students in their way of seeing the problems and being able to share their solutions and ways of solving the problems with others.

Tell Us Your Story

We’d love to hear from you! Share you story with us here and we may reach out about including it in an upcoming article.