When we went down to do some professional development and student workshops in Clinton, North Carolina, we met some amazing people. One of the standouts is an educator named Tonya Hannah. Tonya has taught U.S. History and Social Studies in middle and high school. As soon as we met her, we knew we wanted to interview her and share her insights with the world. Enjoy!
1. What has been the most effective technique you’ve used in the classroom?
The most effective technique I’ve used in my classroom is a survey that I give my students the first day of class. I ask them to tell me about themselves, what they like and dislike about school and teachers. I ask them what their favorite subject is and why? And then I ask them to describe their outfit.
Here’s the rational behind the questions: Students tell you what they want you to know about themselves, usually the positive things, what they think they do best or are good at. This is a discussion point and something that can be integrated in the first lesson and collaborative learning project. The more they write, the more I learn. My mentor told me a long time ago, “children don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Knowing this information I can make relevant connections between content and “real life” application.
When students write about their favorite subject and teacher they are telling you how they learn. “I like Mrs. So and So because she tells funny stories,” what they are saying is I am an auditory learner. I ask them to describe their outfit because I allow them one fashion show. The students walk down the catwalk (aisle in the classroom) while I read their description of their outfit, this stops any further catwalks to the pencil sharpener and other unnecessary strolls across the room to be seen. (Hey, it works for me).
Another one of my favorite strategies is the use of signals. The signals range from students asking permission to use the restroom to letting me know when I am speaking too fast. My favorite signal is when students blinking their eyes. Most students do not like to admit they do not understand a concept. So as I am reviewing or facilitating instruction I continually walk my classroom and scan my students faces. If a student begins blinking fast this means “stop, you lost me.” No, they are not flirting, its our classroom version of S.O.S. When I see them blinking, I stop and go back and review my statements or ask another student to repeat what they heard, in their own terms. I will then do thumbs up, if they understand and can explain the concept to someone else, thumbs to the side, if they kind of got it, and thumbs down, if they don’t understand and want to go over it again. There are too many to list, but each signal is geared to helping students save face in front of their peers. I will say that as teacher, we must create the atmosphere where students feel free to explore, express, take risks and take part in the learning process.
2. Have you ever had one of those “a-ha!” moments? Some kind of breakthrough?
Yes! I thought that lesson plans were just a tedious task that teacher had to do in order to check the box. As a new teacher all I knew was that I had to use the standard course of study and my curriculum map/pacing guide and fill in the boxes on a lesson plan template, make a copy and turn it in. One day, I realized that the lesson plan is actually the classroom GPS, it stated where we are, where we want to go, how we plan to get there, what we are going to use to get to our destination. So just in case I’m out, the next driver can pick up where I left out and keep the class motoring along. This is when lesson planning became relevant for me.
3. What keeps you motivated?
Students and laughter. I laugh everyday, sometimes with the students and sometimes at myself. Students keep me motivated; everyday is a new day with new challenges and opportunities. Our students are ever changing bundles of energy! Students carry a light in them of hope and aspirations for the future. Students are all unique and have a gift in them to give to the world. I begin everyday with the thought of what can I do for someone today. How can I be a blessing, how can I pass on a legacy of excellence, a love for education? The purpose in my heart is not to be the one to hinder a dream or goal. What keeps me motivated? Knowing that the student I am helping right now, may be the next Bill Gates, Oprah, or even the President of the United States. We never know.