In Their Own Words

Talks and articles by Alma Exley Scholars

Teaching Is Learning, Says ‘Ivy’ Horan

Isabella “Ivy” Horan, our newest Alma Exley Scholar, has broken into print with an essay published today (10/16/2019) on the editorial page of the Hartford Courant. In the essay, Ivy shares 10 lessons that she has learned from her young students while preparing for a career in education. She’s student-teaching in East Hartford while pursuing her master’s degree from UConn, and some lucky school district is going to be happy to welcome her to its faculty next year. — Woody Exley

Ten lessons I learned from my students

By Isabella Horan

As a graduate student in education who is placed in an internship in East Hartford, I am preparing for a career teaching such things as reading and math.

But teaching goes both ways, and in many instances, my students have taught me far more than I have taught them.

Ivy Horan

Here are 10 lessons I learned from my students that can be applied to the classroom — or to life in general.

Positive relationships are imperative. Students will not learn from you if you do not show them that you are there to support them. It is necessary to build a strong classroom community in which students can make mistakes, grow and feel comfortable with one another.

Laugh. At the start of my student teaching, I prepared detailed, pristine lesson plans. When some of my plans derailed within five minutes because a student made a funny noise or accidentally burped and the whole class burst out laughing, I learned to join in and laugh, too.

Be honest. My students have varying backgrounds; some of neglect, some of love and some in between. When life is hard, my students are real about it. They talk to me, and we work through it together. That’s what a classroom family is for.

Context matters. I have had students who sometimes come into school after only one or two hours of sleep. When these students doze off during a lesson, I check in with them instead of assuming they just don’t care. We need to be understanding, and we will be appreciated in return.

Have fun. Whenever I ask for class expectations at the start of the year, every student says: “Have fun.” Learning has to be fun! We need to sell education to our students. They need to invest in it to become lifelong learners. To my little friends who remind me we need to have more fun, thank you for your willingness to play new games and dance with me across the room.

Be yourself. Kids are real with us; sometimes a little too real — like when they say you “look funny” if you put on less makeup one day. It is hard to be vulnerable with others but it is important in teaching. I let my students know what I am learning in school. I tell them I can relate to some of their stories. I tell them I still have trouble with math, too. When students see you as a real person, they start to recognize you as a role model.

Coffee. I call it my “teacher juice” and my students do, too. When my students run into the room full of energy in the morning and I look like I am still waking up, they are sure to remind me to take a sip.

Appreciate cultural capital. I have learned more about cultures, languages, and experiences from my students than I ever expected. We need to show students how to learn from and work with others who have different backgrounds than we do. This is a necessary skill in the classroom and throughout life. We need to start it young. I can teach them about me, and they can teach me about them.

Things don’t always go as planned. You can plan what you are going to accomplish in each subject each day. But sometimes students need more processing, learning and practice. We need to respect that. I thank my students who are vocal about needing more time on a certain topic.

Try your best. We tell our students to stay positive and remember that they are learning. We don’t apply this point of view to our own lives enough. During student teaching, I made a mistake during one of my first solo lessons. As I became frazzled, one of my students said, “Ms. H, it’s OK to make a mistake. You are trying your best!” I will never forget that. It’s true. I’m not just a teacher; I’m a learner, too.


Commissioner Cardona’s Approach to Education

Editor’s note: Upon taking office in August, Miguel Cardona, the state’s first Latino commissioner of education, sat down for an interview with CT Mirror, which was also published in CTLatinoNews, another online publication. He spoke about the challenge of entering kindergarten in Meriden having spoken only Spanish at home, and he expressed his views on topics from bilingual education to teacher evaluation. Click here to read the interview.

Teaching At The Wrong End of The School-To-Prison Pipeline

Theodore Martinez, whom we honored in 2018, is an adjunct professor at Asnuntuck Community College, teaching psychology at a state prison. As guest speaker at the reception honoring Isabella “Ivy” Horan on May 9, 2019, he presented the following reflections his experience and the impact of teachers of color.

It’s an honor for me to be here tonight and to pass the torch to tonight’s recipient. Congratulations, Isabella, on this honor, and welcome to the Alma Exley family.

I must admit, I am very impressed in hearing of all of Isabella’s accomplishments. Addressing educational equity is not an easy feat, but incredibly important. As teachers of color, it often falls on us to be the voice of experience for our students. I’m happy to learn she has already found her voice and is already advocating for change.

Theodore Martinez

This year, I began working as an adjunct at Asnuntuck Community College, teaching an Introduction to Psychology course. I mention this because the students I work with are in a situation many of us are trying to prevent. These students have found themselves on the wrong end of the fabled school-to-prison pipeline. Asnuntuck has partnered with four of the correctional institutions in Connecticut to offer college courses, leading to degrees, for students housed in these facilities in an effort to reduce recidivism. This program is under the Second-Chance Pell Program, a national initiative, and I’m proud to say Asnuntuck is one of the largest programs in the country.

Every Monday night, I sit in classroom with 15 students. Of those 15 students, 12 are minorities. This is a trend that many of my colleagues experience. And while the thought of so many minority students pursuing a college degree fills me with pride, their overrepresentation in this particular class, in this particular setting troubles me.

These students are hardworking and dedicated. They’re committed to their success, and on multiple times we’ve reflected on their actions leading to their incarceration. Each time we do, at least one acknowledges if he had known better, he would do better. If he had someone who rooted for him, he might not have ended up here.

When I leave the prison on Monday night, and enter my classroom of third graders on Tuesday morning, I’m hit with the same thought: What can I do to make sure these students don’t end up in my Monday night class? How can I help them?

Like the adults I teach, my classroom of third graders consists primarily of minority students. Of the five students who receive special education support, three are minorities. All of the behavior plans that have been established are for minority students.

This is seen nationally. Research tells us there is an overrepresentation of minority students in special education. We know there’s a problem. The question that evades so many of us is “How do we fix it?”

The first step is why we’re all here. The same research that tells us there’s a problem also tells us that we desperately need more teachers of color. Students of color perform better when they see someone who looks like them. They achieve more when they have someone who speaks like them; who understands them. I’m sure of my fellow recipients currently working in the field can share their own personal stories regarding the truth in this statement. 

I always think of one particular student. This student had been identified as a “problem” child by my colleagues and as such was written off by many of them. They labeled him as disrespectful, disruptive and argumentative. Over time, I was able to build a relationship with him. He confided in me, telling me that because we looked alike, he felt better. He began sharing a home-life I couldn’t relate to. This student was disruptive in class because he hated silence. He lived in a rough part of Hartford and had been home alone when someone broke into the house. Silence unsettled him. He was acting out because he didn’t have strategies to manage. Because I stopped and asked why, we were able to work together and help him succeed.

Every day a student like him enters your classroom carrying something unseen. And every day it falls on their teacher to be their one constant. The job is tiring. You build these powerful relationships with students and worry about them at night. Stress comes from trying to plan the perfect lesson that integrates cultural understanding, supports their social/emotional growth and development, and still hits the academic standards.

Teachers are required to wear many hats: educator, surrogate parent, therapist, guide, nurse. Teaching is a lot. But at the end of the day, there’s nothing else I’d rather do.

Nothing matches the feeling you get from working with students, pushing them to continually grow in their learning. Seeing their faces glow when experiencing something new is priceless. Establishing those bonds, working to be that one teacher a student remembers, is fulfilling. At the end of the day, a student won’t remember what you taught them, but they will remember how you made them feel.

Isabella, congratulations on becoming the 2019 recipient. Welcome to the Alma Exley scholarship family, and welcome to the fight to change education for the better.