Voices from the Classroom, a series presented by NolaVie and WWNO radio, explores local education through conversations with those on the front lines: the teachers. While superintendents, experts, parents, politicians and pundits have weighed in extensively on what’s right and wrong with the educational system in Louisiana, it’s the people behind the desks who must deal, day in and day out, with students, evaluations, testing, behavior, curriculum and, ultimately, what works and what does not. We interviewed five local teachers, who teach in public schools in Orleans Parish, to try to understand what they face, what motivates them, and what the educational standard is today, eight years post-Katrina. Their observations will air daily this week on WWNO radio, and appear in a fuller version online at NolaVie.
Meet Philip Razem, sixth-grade teacher at Martin Behrman Charter School in Algiers Point: The Peace Corps veteran, who taught English to college students in China, has a master’s degree in English. He says he’s one of the youngest teachers at his school, where he’s in his fourth year of teaching. He has become known for incorporating technology and arts into the classroom.
On why he teaches: When I was a senior in high school, I wanted to be John Keating from Dead Poet Society. I wanted to stand there and just rip students’ hearts out of their chests with inspiration. I wanted to look at them and say, ‘you can do anything.’
It started to change when I was in China, because I saw how many students were studying so hard just to get ahead in the world. They just worked and worked. When it came to that test, they did fabulous.
When I came back to America, my thoughts about education changed a great deal. I really wanted to take what we as Americans have and foster it. And that is creativity and critical thinking. It’s what makes America great.
On how the past was different: I don’t remember one time when I was in middle school a teacher saying ‘you need to do well on this test; it’s so important.’ Frankly, I don’t even remember taking many tests that were issued from the state. Sometimes I wish that’s the way it was in New Orleans, but it’s just not.
There’s no part of the Leap test where they stand up and argue their point. I have the most talented student who’s a great artist and will write a great graphic novel. But guess what? He’s not the greatest at figuring out where the comma goes in the sentence. I’m heartbroken sometimes as a teacher, because I see extremely talented students fall through the cracks because they didn’t do well on this test. And I’ve seen a lot of great teachers disappear because their students didn’t do well on the test.
On how the past was not so different: A lot of my teachers at my suburban public school had tenure. They were older, they had a lot of experience in the classroom, and we looked up to them like they were gods. A lot of the teachers at Behrman Charter have a lot of experience. It’s a veteran school; it’s a veteran faculty, which is not something you see a lot of in middle schools in New Orleans any more. I’m 31 years old, and I’m one of the youngest faculty members. I think at a different school, I might be one of the oldest faculty members.
On machines and things: I love using technology. The greatest tool in a teacher’s toolbox is his or her iPhone. I love recording my students doing creative things. Even just taking pictures. I create short little clips and play them back for the students. It’s like teaching the same lesson again, but this time, their eyes are glued to the screen because they can’t believe, ‘oh my gosh, that’s me on the screen.’
I’m teaching a lesson right now about the six-word memoir, and my students have made this iMovie video where they have to condense their whole lives into six words. They come up with things that literally make the faculty cry. It’ll completely shock you how heartfelt these six-word memoirs are.
I wish we could have more. We do have access to laptops and we do have access to tablets, but not for every student. I wish that every child could learn how to type. I know it sounds a little crazy, but in about two years we will move away from the paper model and move to the PARCC test, which is completely on the computer. I teach my students how to write beautiful essays, exactly what test readers would want. But can my students type those essays correctly into the system? That’s something that’s making me a little nervous.
On machines and things in the future: My goal is to keep making these movies and, eventually, that first seventh-grade class I had will graduate from high school and then college and then have children. And they’ll sit in the living room with their children and they’ll say, “Do you want to see what your father looked like when he was in sixth grade? Check this out.”
On his greatest success as a teacher: I have three things that I do at Behrman Charter that I love and hold dear to my heart. One is Chess club — you’ll never understand the look on a child’s face when he finally understands what a checkmate is. They go nuts.
Also, I teach Introduction to Mandarin to first graders. It’s wonderful — and that’s another thing about schools in New Orleans: There’s not a lot of foreign language offered, and I didn’t realize how important foreign language was until I was in a completely different environment where I was forced to speak a foreign language.
The number one greatest success I’ve had in New Orleans is the Martin Behrman debate team. At Tulane University, four times a year we meet with 10, 12, 15 other middle schools and we talk about complicated issues that a middle schooler would never touch in a classroom, because it would never be on a test, ever. They talk about things that I think most adults in America can’t discuss at length. Last year we had a topic on the Electoral College. How many Americans can really tell you exactly what the Electoral College is?
On teaching technique: At Behrman Charter, we have almost complete autonomy in our classrooms. If someone prescribed a lesson for me, it would take out all the personality. And as teachers, we talk about those unplanned, teachable moments.
We have students every day who raise their hand and ask a question that is completely off topic. But we need to address it, because it’s so important. Conflict resolution, world events — my students talk about the conflict in Syria like they are adults, and they compare it to being bullied in middle school. It’s just amazing, these thoughts that come into their minds.
How can you say, okay, we’ve got to move on; we need to learn what a semi colon is. No, no, no, I don’t want to hear about that any more. I want to talk about the semi colon.
It’s hard. It’s incredibly challenging to do everything you want to do, to give the students what you think they need, and then also prepare them for that test.
On teaching to The Test: Sometimes the classroom experience is muddied because teachers are forced, indirectly, to teach for The Test. They realize the consequences of not preparing students for that test. It will not only hurt you as a teacher, because someone up in a corner office is looking at you as a number — what percentage of your students performed basic or above — but also you’re hurting the student because, as you get closer to high school, the selective schools are looking at those Leap scores to see who should get in.
On stress: I don’t think that any teacher loves the month of March or April. I think the most interesting case study would be to test the emotional stability of a New Orleans teacher in March or April compared to the month of October. I am a wreck in the months of March and April. You start to realize that you need more face time with your students. I rent out a room at Algiers Regional Library on Saturdays, and I beg parents to send their students to tutoring so that I can teach them one more time about semi colons.
It’s so much stress compared to now, how I feel in September, when I can spend so much time on arts integration.
So why is he a teacher, really? I love it. I’m a long distance runner. Teaching is something that is in you, in your genetics, and you get high off helping people. It’s stressful, it’s one of the most difficult professions I think we have in this country, especially middle school… and you slowly and surely become addicted to it.
Voices from the Classroom is a joint project of NolaVie and WWNO radio. Send your comments, thoughts and observations about the series and New Orleans teachers to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will publish select responses online at NolaVie.