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Teacher Voice

A Former Rhode Island Teacher of the Year on Her 'Trailblazing' Teaching Career

Jessica Waters was the 2013 Rhode Island Teacher of the Year. She taught high school science for six years, and is currently completing her 240 hours of training in a principal preparation program. A mom of three, Waters loves hip-hop, cooking, a good latte, fashion and shopping—although not necessarily in that order. She tweets as @jwaters1607. She was interviewed here by Erika Sanzi, a Rhode Island mom and former teacher who writes about education issues.
What drew you to teaching in the first place? I dropped out of high school. When I finally got myself back into school, I pushed myself to become a doctor. Being the first in my family to attend college, I wanted something that, in my mind, was “elite” or “prestigious,” a career that was only for top students whose lives looked nothing like mine. I was picking something that had always seemed “off limits” for kids like me. What happened? Being pre-med, I naturally started taking a lot of science classes and I quickly realized I really liked science. However, I changed my mind about the medical field. I found myself feeling pulled to work with at-risk youth and to help put structures and supports in place for kids like me. Now, 18 years later, I still don’t feel like we are solid enough in how we support kids like me. You’ve said “kids like me” a few times. What do you mean by that?   Dad didn’t finish middle school, mom didn’t graduate high school. Then to add to the parent  mix drug abuse and incarceration. I believe that my mom and dad did value school (they used to say how important it was) but they had no idea how to show or support that. Their experience in school had been so limited, so short, that they really lacked the capacity to help me in that process. My dad was a “hustler,” making a living in a nontraditional way. I didn’t have a window into the world where a dad gets up in the morning, grabs his briefcase, has breakfast, and leaves for work. I couldn’t envision what it looked like for someone to go to college and have a career. People see me as a trailblazer but I caution people in thinking that my footsteps are where we want to put kids. Instead, we need to provide supports and structures so that kids don’t have to walk in my footsteps. Do we want all kids to be trailblazers or do we want to carve out the trail for them? There is a lot of debate about what works in education. What do you see working? I think the most essential thing to make schools work for kids is relationships...strong relationships inside the school building between teacher and teacher, teacher and leader, and teacher and student. It’s about being able to inspire kids so that they want to learn, inspiring them to believe in themselves. When we say kids are lost or have fallen through the cracks, I think it’s because they haven’t connected with an adult or made meaningful relationships. How have you seen this play out in your classroom? The only time I’ve been close to bliss with regard to personalized learning is when I flipped my science classroom. I was literally looking around my classroom and there were two kids watching my video lecture on a computer, four kids working on a lab experiment together, two other kids working on the writing component, and another group of students working on an interactive science website. Everyone was learning together but in a different way and I was able to work one on one with a student, helping him to set his goals for the week. For the first time ever, my kids were doing all the cognitive work and I was just coaching them along the way. I was like, this is it...this is awesome! Imagine if a whole school or a whole district could look like this. Has motherhood impacted your thoughts on teaching at all? Absolutely. I constantly ask myself, would I want this for my kids or what do I want for my kids? And, as the mother of a high schooler, I’m now living the struggles that a high school student and a parent can have at home regarding school work. Teachers can’t assume that a parent doesn’t want to help their child. It may be that they’re trying but it just isn’t working. Some teachers feel under attack. Do you? I have never felt under attack. I tend to zone stuff out, I don’t get wrapped up in that stuff. I guess I focus on what I’m trying to do for kids. I never saw myself as a reformer. I hate these labels that we put on people. What are your thoughts regarding teacher evaluation both broadly and in Rhode Island, where you teach? I think the essence of teacher evaluation isn’t designed to be punitive, nor is it punitive when implemented effectively. It is about is providing feedback to teachers on their practice so that they can grow—this coaching and subsequent growth is essential because we know, without a doubt, that the most important factor in a student’s academic success is the effectiveness of the teacher in front of them. Do you think teacher evaluation is misunderstood by teachers? A person can only understand it based on what they are seeing in their own situation and in their school. If a teacher is being evaluated, not getting feedback, and subsequently being treated punitively, how could they not have a negative impression of teacher evaluation However, when used the right way, teacher evaluation should be a very positive experience. What does that look like? After an evaluation, a teacher should be receiving timely, specific and actionable feedback that leads to growth. Your children attend a traditional public school but you worked in a charter school? What are your thoughts on school choice?   I believe in school choice. I also think that these different types of schools can absolutely coexist and learn from each other. The shared learning could be about human capital, programs or instructional practices. What advice do you have for teachers as they adjust to new standards, new tests, new expectations of their practice? Communicate and collaborate as much as possible. I think in general, listen, listen, listen, talk and then listen again. The truth is sometimes my views have changed after listening and sometimes it further confirms that I want to stand more strongly in my position. Reflect. I used to hate writing reflections in college but I think I now see why we were asked to do it. As a teacher, I found myself reflecting every day on the way home. What went well? What didn’t? What am I going to change tomorrow? This reflective process is not unique to teaching but I do believe it’s essential to teaching. Surround yourself with people who you respect and who get good outcomes with kids. That does not mean they have to be likeminded. We may disagree on an issue but I can still learn a great deal from that person because their heart and soul is on outcomes. Sometimes, I’ve changed my mind about something by surrounding myself with a variety of perspectives as long as they are dedicated to good outcomes for kids. How do you maintain the fire in your belly without letting it burn you out? It consumes me and there are days I struggle.  But I can’t let the fire go out or I’d end up doing something I don’t love. What did you learn during the time you spent with the other 49 Teachers of the Year? We had really complex conversations about all sorts of topics, many of which continue to be  considered “controversial.” We were able to stay civil and listen to one another in what felt like a safe environment. I learned that you can sit with someone else who is totally different than you and have a very productive conversation if you are able to listen in a non-judgmental way.
Photo of Jessica Waters with SLOTUS Dr. Jill Biden, CC-licensed.
Erika Sanzi
Erika Sanzi is a mother of three sons and taught in public schools in Massachusetts, California and Rhode Island. She has served on her local school board in Cumberland, Rhode Island, advocated for fair school funding at the state level, and worked on campaigns of candidates she considers to be champions for kids and true supporters of great schools. She is currently a Fordham senior visiting ...

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