The Teaching Lineage

If there’s anything I learned this summer, it’s that teaching is really, really hard. Maybe you didn’t believe your teachers when they told you they had chosen a difficult, time-consuming, and exhausting career with low pay and only occasional recognition. Maybe you thought they were pulling your leg. Having lived the teaching life for ten weeks, I can tell you for certain that they were telling the truth. Teaching is really difficult.

In Finland, the teaching profession is held in such high regard that all teachers are required to earn a master’s degree and only one out of every ten applicants successfully lands a job as a teacher. In South Korea, they call teachers “nation-builders.” In Mississippi, you’re lucky to even have a math teacher. Yes, some of my students went all of last year without a math teacher. In this teacher-starved region, when a math teacher calls it quits in September, it can mean that his or her class will go without a qualified replacement for the entire school year.

The student on the left went all of last year without a real math teacher, resulting in her first and only B+ (in math).
The student on the left went all of last year without a real math teacher, resulting in her first and only B+ (in math).

Needless to say, I have emerged from this summer with a renewed sense of gratitude for all the teachers I’ve had in my life. Teachers never hear this enough and I can never say this enough, but for all my teachers I have one simple message: thank you. You’ve taught me the fundamental skills I use every day. You’ve fostered a love of learning that adds meaning to my life. You’ve shaped and molded my development as a student and as a person. You’ve guided me through moments of personal upheaval and mentored me on the path to achieving my dreams. You’ve had faith in me when I needed it most.

As I took charge of my own classroom this summer, I started to notice something strange. I had thought, perhaps naively, that being a teacher would mean being my own man. But with each passing day, I realized that my teaching was less genesis and more synthesis, less original thinking and more returning to the ways my teachers had taught me. In other words, when it came to teaching, I was “standing upon the shoulders of giants.” In this post, I would like to share what my teachers have done well and how I tried to incorporate what they taught me into my own classroom this summer.

Elementary School

  • Miss Robertson – thank you for teaching me how to read and for sparking the love of reading I strove to share with my students.
  • Mrs. Mills – thank you for making me run my first mile and for personifying the ideal coach and fitness champion (we ran the mile with our students every Monday).
Mile Monday was one of my favorite days of the week.
Mile Monday was one of my favorite days of the week.
  • Mrs. Brittingham – thank you for designing projects that gave enough leeway for students to experience the joy of discovery and exploration.
  • Mrs. Schmid – thank you for showing that a strict, demanding teacher could be a caring and personally invested one too.
  • Mrs. Ballinger – thank you for focusing so intently on building up vocabulary (this summer, I’ve seen just how important it is).
  • Ms. Faries – thank you for demonstrating the importance of assigning challenging projects and seeing students rise to meet those individualized challenges.

Middle School

  • Ms. Mitchell – thank you for setting incredibly high expectations and logging hours before and after school to make students succeed.
  • Mr. Raymond – thank you for communicating with parents and relatives, setting a clear agenda and following through with it, and leading by example in everything you do.
  • Mme. Maltby – thank you for showing that games can connect with students in ways that day-to-day instruction cannot (a debate game just about saved my class when my students were really bored).
  • Ms. Kenzer – thank you for sharing your contagious sense of civic responsibility with your civics classes and for introducing me to a favorite quote.
I remember passing by Ms. Kenzer's door in the 7th grade hallway and internalizing this message
I was eager to share the quote that once adorned Ms. Kenzer’s classroom door on my own classroom door.
  • Ms. Beith – thank you for introducing me to the world of figurative language, a world I sought to explore with my students.
  • Mr. Lotze – thank you for the time you pulled me aside and urged me to “never do a job half-assed” (I tried to strike a similar tone when confronting students over bad habits this summer).
  • Mrs. Starr – thank you for stressing the importance of revising and for introducing me to the James Michener quote on rewriting I found myself repeating to my students as they were finalizing their debate cases.
  • Mr. Snow – thank you for livening up your PowerPoints with the occasional pop culture reference or image out of left-field just to keep everyone engaged.
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I tried to spice up my PowerPoints with the occasional surprise, too.
  • Ms. Crown-Hodges – thank you for all the enthusiasm you have for public speaking and for introducing me to the practice of saying tongue twisters before speaking (my students LOVED this).
  • Mrs. McKeon – thank you for exemplifying duty, even when you just weren’t feeling it (if I managed to summon up an ounce of your sense of duty this summer, I succeeded).
  • Mrs. Smith – thank you for your willingness to learn something new and coach it when your students needed it most.
  • Mrs. Joyce – thank you for setting up video chats with interesting people to really make the subject matter come alive.
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Our students got to ask Duke Univesity’s Dean Baker their questions about college, financial aid, admissions, and writing. They really connected with him and loved the class we spent with him virtually.

High School

  • Mr. Wilkes – thank you for walking the room, employing dramatic vocal dynamics to keep things interesting, and not being afraid to wake up dozing students (I may or may not have startled a few sleeping kids this summer).
  • Mr. Ulmschneider – thank you for all those rounds of edits over Google Docs (that’s how the students wrote their cases this summer – a great platform for providing feedback and revising).
  • Mr. Brown – thank you for making all my high school debate experiences happen (I would have been a much less effective teacher this summer without Maggie Walker Debate).
The Freedom Project Debate brought back lots of high school memories (photo credit: Chinmay Pandit)
The Freedom Project Debate brought back lots of high school memories (photo credit: Chinmay Pandit)
  • Ms. Parker – thank you for reinforcing the importance of reflection, the reason for this blog.
  • Sr. Jenkins – thank you for showing that a hardass teaching persona can achieve real results.
  • Dr. Spencer – thank you for challenging me to develop my moral sense in a more intentional way (and for making me think about “human potential” in place of “human capital”).
  • Mr. Waller – thank you for encouraging me to give teaching a try. I’m so glad I did.
  • Mrs. Boswell – thank you for teaching logical fallacies (words I’m sure you never thought you’d hear a student say).
Teaching logical fallacies was one of my favorite lessons.
One of my favorite PowerPoint slides from the logical fallacies lesson.
  • Mr. McGuire – thank you for selecting relevant, entertaining videos and responding quickly to emails.
  • Mr. Smith – thank you for beginning each day with a firm handshake at the door (this was an important part of our classroom culture this summer).
  • Ms. Reed – thank you for passing along stellar handouts on media bias that my students actually used (they pulled them out in the debate rounds to challenge their opponents’ sources!).
  • Ms. Burr – thank you for all the planning time you spent picking significant documents and formatting them elegantly (I hope my handouts came close to yours!).
  • Mrs. Germer – thank you for running a student-centered classroom, full of joyful learning, every single day.
  • Mrs. Williams – thank you for your advice at the beginning of this summer: bring out student voices and incorporate Fannie Lou Hamer into the classroom.
  • Mr. Drummond – thank you for your minute-to-minute planning that fostered a sense of urgency, allowing us to make the most out of class time together.
  • Mrs. Taylor – thank you for being a master of the pre-performance pep talk.
  • Mme. Brown and Mr. Sorrentino – thank you for showing that stern teachers can gradually loosen up without losing the focused classroom atmosphere their hard-driving presence initially fosters.


  • Dean Baker – thank you for video conferencing with us and getting our 8th graders (a) inspired to go to college and (b) more prepared to meet the challenges they’ll face along the way.
  • Dr. Eric Mlyn – thank you for getting me to think more deeply about the purposes of higher education and for sparking meaningful discussions on the problems and promise of civic engagement and service work.
At Sunflower, service means creating spaces for students to learn and grow, all the while drawing inspiration from the language and leadership of the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Professor Tony Brown – thank you for recommending TFA founder Wendy Kopp’s memoir, excellent reading before this summer.
  • Drs. Riggsbee and Malone – thank you for sitting down with me before this summer to share teaching strategies (they sure helped).
  • Dr. Feaver – thank you for showing the importance of breaking bread with students outside the classroom and for allowing me to ask guest speakers about their favorite speeches (which our students loved this summer).
  • Dr. Balcells – thank you for asking the kind of killer CFUs I tried to emulate this summer.

Freedom Project

  • Vaish – thank you for fostering an outstanding work environment where I felt valued and motivated every day as a member of a great team.
  • Kate – thank you for sharing, day by day, exactly what the LEAD principles look like and what the Freedom Project is all about.
The LEAD Principles serve as a cohesive philosophy permeating every inch of the Freedom Project.
  • Sabrina – thank you for always having one ear to the wall when I was teaching and always being ready to lend a helping hand.
  • Andrew – thank you for spot-on feedback, especially in the first week when I needed it most.
  • Andy – thank you for challenging me to keep thinking about the big picture, the big issues in Mississippi and the entire country.

Life Teachers

  • Lauren Gilbert – thank you for showing how consequential (and fun) a long-term mentor relationship can be.
  • Marc Johnson – thank you for always asking about “takeaways” (my students now know they’re the first thing I ask them to share after a reading).
  • Bob Gibson – thank you for showing how successful training of the mind and voice in debate translates into success in the world.
  • Delegate Farrell – thank you for showing that dedicated public service can coexist with a hearty laugh and broad smile.
  • Charles Staples – thank you for showing that a little well-timed profanity every once and a while can really go a long way.
  • Susan and James Edwards – thank you for all the faith you’ve had in me this summer and for sharing your teaching experiences over the years.
  • Griffin Unger – thank you for providing loads of individualized advice before I started this summer.
  • Mehul Mehta, Jacob Rosenberg, and Joanna Kuang – thank you for conversations over the past year-and-a-half (yes, starting at Finalist Weekend 2014) that persuaded me to aim for the Freedom Project this summer.
  • Vicki Stocking – thank you for excellent intuition in my Community Summer placement, responding to late-night texts, and never failing to understand me.
  • Tom Allin – thank you for being such a great booster of your home state (I’m so glad I’ve become acquainted with Mississippi).
  • Logan Ferrell – thank you for being such a great debate teacher and role model in high school (I found myself channeling those early mornings at the whiteboard this summer).
  • Mr. Rogers – thank you for recognizing that all the world’s a stage, and all the teachers merely players (also for letting me work on my teaching chops in your classroom this past year).
  • Mom and Dad – thank you for being my first teachers and for sharing your love of learning with me from my first days.

With the kids


Profiles in Teaching


From left: Chinmay, Rachel, Maya, Chandler, Mary Alice, Jenny Kate, Matthew, Buka

Two weeks have passed since I left the Delta, and I can’t stop thinking about the incredible people I met there. In previous blog posts, you’ve encountered stories of our students, but you’ve never been told much about their teachers. Now that I find myself missing these coworkers-turned-friends, allow me to share something new: profiles in teaching. Meet the 2015 teachers of the Sunflower County Freedom Project.

Buka Okoye

Hometown: Clinton, MS
College: University of Mississippi
Taught: 8th grade reading
Why I like him: Buka doesn’t shy away from discussing the big issues. He cares deeply about the State of Mississippi and the state of Mississippi. I loved to hear his hearty laugh and to witness the level of the sportsmanship he put into every lunchtime basketball game.
My favorite thing he said this summer: “Personality isn’t crucial.”
In 25 years, I can see him as: an outspoken, vote-whipping leader of the Senate of Mississippi.
Thank you for: the wide-ranging late-night conversations I will always remember.

Chandler Phillips

Hometown: Lawrenceville, GA
College: Duke University
Taught: 7th and 9th grade rhetoric
Why I like her: Chandler’s emotional IQ is off the charts. She built heartfelt relationships with students this summer, investing enough time with them to really get to know them as people. More than this, she has deep faith: in God and in people. She never gave up on a single student this summer, and fought hard for each of them to enjoy opportunities through the Freedom Project.
My favorite thing she said this summer: “The things that are happening here are happening everywhere.”
In 25 years, I can see her as: a nationally recognized poet, activist, and civil rights leader.
Thank you for: adding a new name to my list of heroes (Ella Baker).

Chinmay Pandit

Hometown: Fort Collins, Colorado
College: Duke University
Taught: 7th grade math
Why I like him: Chinmay is creative. He would write these incredible word problems (“Mr. Pandit LOVES chicken wings…”) that resonated with students’ actual experiences and connected with content from the reading and rhetoric classes. He made math fun, a feat many (myself included) could never hope to accomplish.
My favorite thing he said this summer: “Happy Birthday, Matt!” (at precisely 12:00am on my birthday)
In 25 years, I can see him as: a wildly successful venture capitalist and philanthropist.
Thank you for: bringing out my silly side as a teacher, roommate, and friend.

Jenny Kate Smith
Jenny Kate

Hometown: Tupelo, MS
College: University of Mississippi
Taught: 9th grade math
Why I like her: Jenny Kate is genuine. I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve met who are as kind or considerate as she is. Jenny Kate had this way of connecting with some of the quietest students and making them feel valued and loved. On top of all this, she’s smart as can be and knows how to manage her classroom with ease and a smile.
My favorite thing she said this summer: “They’re showing classic middle school mean girl behavior.”
In 25 years, I can see her as: the beloved elementary school teacher who makes even the most difficult students’ hearts melt.
Thank you for: giving the best hugs at all the right times.

Mary Alice Koon

Mary Alice
Hometown: Cleveland, OH
College: Pomona College
Taught: 8th grade math
Why I like her: Mary Alice is understanding. Maybe it’s the camp counselor in her, maybe it’s just in her nature, but she is practiced in the challenging task of putting herself in someone else’s shoes. She never accepts behavior at face value. Instead, she tries to figure out the root cause.
My favorite thing she said this summer: “I take away a lot of hope from the Freedom Project, because here I see kids working really hard… I love the spark in their eyes when they get something for the first time or when they raise their hand because they know the answer.”
In 25 years, I can see her as: editor of The Oxford American.
Thank you for: always being up for another adventure.

Maya Durvasula

Hometown: Albuquerque, NM
College: Duke University
Taught: 7th grade reading
Why I like her: Maya is driven. In her second week of teaching, Maya instituted daily quizzes, demanding that her 7th graders would complete what many college students neglect: the reading. Students who failed the quizzes had to serve a “Reading Lunch,” where they would complete 50 minutes of silent reading instead of playing outside with their friends. Maya also showed her drive in her own reading habits, devouring books and articles about the Delta long before we arrived there.
My favorite thing she said this summer: “It’s so valuable to be able to put faces to all of the things I might look at from a mostly academic perspective all of the time.”
In 25 years, I can see her as: the next Jeff Sachs.
Thank you for: keeping me sane (with your advice) and stimulated (with a steady stream of ideas and articles).

Rachel Hettleman

Hometown: Baltimore, MD
College: New York University
Taught: 9th grade reading
Why I like her: Rachel just seems to have public service in her blood. Her grandfather was active in the civil rights movement and her mother serves in the Maryland state legislature. Rachel took a gap year to work in New York’s schools with City Year, and in a nonchalant sort of way, she always looks for a new way to serve: painting a College Wall for the Freedom Project, cleaning up spaces, and making vocabulary lists to help students learn better. She’s such a giving person.
My favorite thing she said this summer: “Good morning, Mr. King!” (her greeting, without fail, every single morning this summer).
In 25 years, I can see her as: Chief Design Officer of a teaching supply company (her posters are that good).
Thank you for: unflagging faith in me as a teacher, unbelievable fun with me as a friend.