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Voices from the Classroom: Motivating middle schoolers

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 on WWNO radio, and appear in a fuller version online at NolaVie.

SciTech social studies teacher Kyle Walther

SciTech social studies teacher Kyle Walther

Meet Kyle Walther, 29, middle school social studies teacher: A native of Sammamish, Washington, home of Microsoft, Kyle earned an undergraduate degree in history and a graduate degree in secondary education from West Virginia University. He taught for a year at a Florida high school before moving to New Orleans four years ago to teach at SciTech Academy, a ReNew charter school that took over Laurel Elementary in 2010.

On why he teaches:  When I was growing up I always wanted to play shortstop for the Seattle Mariners. When I got to seventh grade, I had this teacher named Eric Hanson. I had never had a teacher like him. He motivated me and he made school competitive, just like sports were. From that point forward I thought it would be really cool if I could do that for somebody else.

On why he came to New Orleans: I just didn’t feel like I was needed in Florida. I kind of felt like I was just a regular teacher and I wasn’t really making as much of a difference as I thought I could make. New Orleans was one of those cities that definitely seemed like I would be utilized. I’d be able to coach and really influence kids more than just in the classroom.

On what works: I created the sports program, along with two others,  essentially from scratch, and that played a huge part in changing the environment and changing kids’ behaviors and attitudes toward school. It gave them something to do and look forward to, and something to hold them accountable for.

Once we had the sports program, we began seeing kids behaving better, and kids wanting to come to school. Attendance obviously improves and they become more confident. It teaches how to lose, how to win gracefully, how to respect others.

On what a sports program can do: More and more girls participate each year. There are lots of statistics that link teenage pregnancy with whether or not girls are playing sports. If girls are participating in sports after school, or doing anything after school, they are less likely to get pregnant.

A lot of kids have never even played in front of a crowd before. I can remember growing up and playing recreational softball or soccer in front of big crowds. For them, the first time they play in front of a crowd of even 20 or 30 people as  a seventh- or eighth-grader, it just makes their day. I’m a huge believer in sports. I honestly don’t think the things that happen at my school would happen without sports.

On what doesn’t work: Failures are those kids you don’t reach. Those are the kids you really remember. It’s the kids you may have worked the entire year for, and you finally start getting to know them, and then they’re gone and you never see them. And you don’t know what happened to them, unless it’s from word of mouth from some kid hearing they’ve done something. That they’re at a certain school and they’re  suspended. I feel like I didn’t do enough to reach that kid in the time I had.

Every year we have half of our class turn over. So if we have classes of 28, he following  year we’ll have 14 of those kids come back and we’ll lose 14 and bring in 14 new kids. By the time I start getting to know the kid, they’re already gone the next year.

To influence one kid you have to have good teachers for essentially eight years. Because I’m only with kids for three years in middle school. Once they get to high school, their cell phones change, they move, it’s really  hard to get in touch with them. You lose track of them. There are kids you grow to love over the course of three years, who you definitely feel like they’re your younger brother or sister who you’re trying to look out for. It’s really frustrating to put so much time in and to lose them after two or three years.

On his past versus the present: Where I grew up in Seattle you went to middle school and then you went to the next high school. You knew the same kids for 10, 12 years. It was really easy going to the next grade. But here, it seems that every few years kids are applying to a new school and being mixed with different kids who don’t know each other. All the work they’ve done to create this social group goes out the window. The peer groups definitely change and it seems like most of the time it’s not for the better. They don’t have the role models they need to help them get to high school or college or accomplish their goals.

In my formative years it was really nice to have kids I’d grown up with. I was around people I was comfortable with. With a lot of kids in new Orleans, you don’t have that comfort level.

scitechOn the teaching process: We have curriculum coordinators who create three to four tests that each take up a quarter of the school year. So long as we cover the information for the given week and from quiz to quiz, we can teach however we want. But it has to tie in with the quiz and the test.

I think it does work. It depends on the teacher modifying the lesson plan to fit his or her personality. I have a very distinct style of teaching; I modeled it after the teacher I had who influenced me — very competitive in the classroom. But when somebody tries to mirror someone else exactly, you do not have a successful classroom.

Subject matters: I teach social studies. Science and social studies are really the two lost subjects in city education. They were valued as much as English or math where I grew up. However in New Orleans, because of how far behind a lot of kids are, they focus on math and English — and rightfully so. But that puts the social studies and science teachers at a disadvantage. When I look at my social studies scores from last year, I can predict a score based on how well students can read. If they aren’t passing ELA,  they’re not going to pass social studies.

On parental involvement:  You don’t see 100 percent parent involvement, but one strength that comes from that is that you have these really self-sufficient kids, who are determined to get high grades, and who call me at all hours of the night. I know many teachers who get phone calls all through the night.

On how to make things better:  If I had a million dollars to spend on my school, it would definitely be to improve the facilities. I think every school should have a gym, a sports field, a place for kids to go after school. Keeping them open on the weekend and after hours and putting somebody in there gives kids a place to be and keeps them from doing things they don’t want to be doing but do just because they have nothing else to do. Every kid deserves a park, deserves to have grass, deserves to have dirt to play on, a place to kick a ball. Some schools here have great facilities, but some have none.

On what makes a great teacher: They’re going to evaluate me on how many kids pass the end-of-the-year test. I think teachers who have a high percentage pass in their classrooms are obviously doing something right, but I don’t think that’s the only component that you can judge a teacher by. Going back to the teacher who influenced me, I cannot tell you what I got from his class, or whether I passed the test, but I know he made a huge difference in my life. And that’s what makes a great teacher.

I’m the oldest teacher, at 29, on my floor. The majority of our teachers are from out of New Orleans – which is really cool, because you get these kids meeting people from all over the world, having experiences they want to have. A lot of them (teachers) will stay, and a lot will stay for longer than they expected.

I thought I would only be here a few years, but you fall in love with the kids. They’re a lot harder to get to and motivate than other kids I’ve taught, but the rewards are so much better. I wouldn’t teach anywhere else.

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 We will publish select responses online at NolaVie.


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