How I Teach

Lessons from the school store: How this special education teacher sets up students for an independent future

Wendi Sussman, a teacher at STRIVE Prep - Federal in Denver, with an eighth-grade student during a field trip to the Air Force Academy.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Fridays are a big day for the middle school students in Wendi Sussman’s class at STRIVE Prep – Federal in Denver. That’s when they operate the school store — an endeavor they start planning as soon as the school year starts.

For Sussman, a special education teacher, the store is a chance for students to practice all kinds of life skills, from making change to talking with customers.

Sussman, who was a finalist for the 2018 Colorado Teacher of the Year award, talked to Chalkbeat about how her students decide what to sell at the store, what fueled her interest in special education, and why there’s no stigma when lessons are repeated in her classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I grew up with a sister who has cerebral palsy, so my passion to work with individuals with disabilities has been developing since I was young. I saw firsthand how the school system let down families with children who have disabilities. I spent time in high school and college working and volunteering with this population, and started understanding the value they bring to our society. I began teaching as a way to work with people with disabilities in the early stages of their lives.

After college, I joined Teach for America as a special education teacher and was placed at a college prep charter school. Working at this type of school showed me the importance of giving all students options in their lives after completing their K-12 education, especially those with high needs. I continue teaching so that I can ensure my students have the options they deserve. This is my fifth year teaching in a multi-intensive center program, which serves students with intellectual disabilities as well as other impairments. I could not be happier.

What does your classroom look like?
I want to say that my classroom is clean, neat, and organized and that all staff and students know where everything is and where it belongs. While this is true to some extent, my classroom looks less than perfect due to the joint ownership between staff and students. We set up together, we clean together, and we organize together, which means everything has a place and it’s not always perfect.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
I couldn’t teach without my co-teacher and educational assistants. Running a successful center program takes a team. In a classroom of 14 students with individualized and intensive needs, it is not possible to provide the instruction to all students all the time. While I set the vision and do half of the instructional planning, it is the staff I work alongside who ensure the implementation is successful on a daily basis.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? 
Teaching life skills requires skills to transfer from the school setting to the real world. Our student-run school store allows for these connections to be made all year long. Starting in August, students brainstorm ways that we can make money for community trips and life skills lessons throughout the year.

My number one goal for the students in my classroom is to give them authentic practice that sets them up with the skills they need to have options in their lives and to have an independent future. For one student who is visually impaired and does not read or write, this store provides time to practice counting money, interact with customers, and organize merchandise. Another group of students working on social skills and appropriate interactions with adults are able to recruit customers around the school and let them know the store is open. Students with more advanced money skills work on giving correct change to customers and use calculator skills that allow them to run the store with minimal adult support.

While the actual store only happens once a week, the students are invested in the process throughout the year to ensure our Fridays are successful. Preparation includes selecting merchandise, setting prices, and advertising for the store. This year, the class created a survey and graphed the results to determine what would be most popular. Using survey results, students chose to add potato chips to the store’s inventory. The class went to a local store to determine the price of chips in bulk and then set a price for the chips at the classroom store. To raise school-wide excitement, the students prepared announcements and made posters to put around the school. Each Monday, we count our money using both mental math and calculator skills and set aside money to fund upcoming life skills lessons.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
For students with intellectual disabilities, it can take a large amount of repetition before they are able to complete a skill on their own. When teaching and reviewing students work, I look for progress towards a complete understanding of a topic and continue to teach the content until this mastery has been reached. I believe and want my students to believe that anyone can learn anything. With this message in my classroom, there is no stigma to repetitive teaching and learning.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
My students want to learn. More often than not, if a student is talking or off task, it is because the work I have provided for the student is not meeting their needs. In the moment when a student is off task, I take a look at their work and see what accommodations it is lacking and make immediate changes. If I notice a pattern in off-task behavior, I think about how I can invest the student in their own goals. I ensure that the work they are provided is scaffolded appropriately to help them reach their goal. When a student feels confident about what they can do, there is very little wasted time in the classroom.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
With our center program model, I teach students for three years, and they are in my class for large parts of the day. This is very different than a typical middle school teacher and something I love about my job. I eat breakfast and lunch alongside my students and make time outside of instruction each day to get to know them. I open up about my family, my hobbies, and what I cook for dinner each night. Students take interest in who I am outside of work, and they begin to open up about themselves as well.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I recently attended a meeting led by my co-teacher focusing on updating a behavior plan for one of our students. During this meeting, the student’s parents helped structure the student’s day to keep him focused during times they knew he would have trouble being alert and gave input on ways to help enforce the updated behavior plan. This was one of the first times I saw both the family and the school creating a plan together. I reflect on this meeting often, because it is exactly what I want my meetings with parents to look like.

Rather than coming to this meeting with a behavior plan already made, she came with ideas, trends, and questions to initiate partnership, rather than bringing a plan for parents to review and approve. This meeting reminds me what is possible with home and school collaboration and gives me a goal to work towards to create team work in future meetings.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
Any thriller … “Everything You Want Me To Be” by Mindy Mejia, “Behind Her Eyes” by Sarah Pinborough.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Focus on teacher actions. In my first years of teaching, I would catch myself complaining about a hard day too often, almost always putting the blame on students and their “terrible behavior.” My perspective changed when a co-worker reminded me that while I can’t force a child to make good choices, I can control my own actions. I continue to have hard days, but I now can reflect on situations in my classroom and ask myself what teacher actions caused a student to react this way and what can be done differently next time. Venting to coworkers or friends is important and needs to happen at times, but it doesn’t change the frustrating situations that can happen every day.

How I Teach

This Memphis teacher went viral for holding ‘class’ on Facebook Live during a snow day

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Candous Brown teaches one of her 12th-grade English classes at Raleigh-Egypt High School. Brown has been teaching in Memphis for 10 years.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

When a week of snow days brought Candous Brown’s 12th-grade English class to a wintry halt, her students convinced her to take her lesson live on Facebook.

So wearing pajamas and with occasional photobombs by her 10-year-old son, Brown sat down at her laptop and convened an impromptu class with about 40 students from Raleigh-Egypt High School in Memphis. Some participants were actually previous students who decided to drop in.

“I’m so proud of y’all for actually wanting to do this,” she said at the outset, complimenting her students for their resourcefulness, ingenuity, and good use of technology.

The 33-year-old teacher has a knack for engaging her students where they are. That means frequently tapping into their love of music to grow their passion for literature.

“Why wouldn’t we focus on that?” she asks rhetorically.

During Black History Month, for instance, Brown pairs excerpts of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1964 book “Why We Can’t Wait” with freedom songs from the documentary “Soundtrack for a Revolution.”

“I want them to know how music was utilized during the civil rights movement,” she said. “ In many instances, it was the thing that kept people motivated and unified.”

Chalkbeat spoke recently with Brown about teaching on Facebook Live and how she builds relationships with her students every day. (Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity.).

Why did you become a teacher?

I have always enjoyed literature and reading so it fit that I would be an English teacher.  As a student, my teachers would use me as a peer tutor.  I assisted classmates with their assignments and they would tell me I’d make a great teacher.  Of course, I would reject the idea; but looking back on it, they were leading me in the right direction.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

I love teaching anything Shakespeare. But more recently, my favorite lesson has been to teach “The Hero’s Journey.” We were reading Beowulf and I wanted the students to trace Beowulf’s journey into the hero that we know him to be in today’s culture. When I first start the unit, I have them think of heros within their own lives. Or times when they felt like they were the hero in a situation. I want them to be able to connect this hero’s journey to themselves.  We read the text, participated in class discussion, did an analytical comparison of the movie and the text.  The students loved it.

Recently, you received national attention for holding class via Facebook Live during a snow day. Why was it important to make instructional time happen during that long break? How do you instill excitement for learning in your students?

That was actually my very first time going live. I was so nervous. I didn’t want to say something foolish and have the entire virtual world see my flub. I got up that morning, planned for some anticipated misconceptions, and went for it.

My students were the ones who set everything up. They asked if I’d be willing to do the lesson and, of course, I couldn’t say no when they were willing to do the work. I told them about my apprehensions and then one student used a phrase that I tell them when they are afraid to try something new: “First time for everything.” At that moment, I knew I had to do it. It was important to make it happen because they wanted it to happen. I always tell them that they cannot wait to be within the confines of a school to learn.

It pleased my soul that they were still attempting to do the work without me and that they trusted me enough to reach out. I think when they see me get excited or passionate about certain topics, it resonates with them.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?

Students tend to shut down when they don’t understand a lesson. Then, they state the infamous sentence: “I don’t get it.” I force them to think about the lesson and target the source of confusion. They have to be able to explain the problem to me before I help them. More often than not, their own explanation of the misconception helps them figure out the issue on their own. Also, they know that I am a last resort.  They will ask a peer or neighbor before they ask me because they know I will make them explain everything they know before I will help. It forces them to explore their own understanding of the concept.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?

I usually don’t have to say or do much. My facial expressions do the talking for me.  Once the kids see my face, they tell each other to get it together before I start fussing.  Apparently, the last thing they want to hear from me is fussing.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Brown says her facial expressions can do the talking for her when her students get off track.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

At the beginning of the school term, my students complete an “Interest Survey.” I participate with them and allow them to ask me questions. I figure if I’m asking them questions about their lives outside of the classroom, they should be allowed to ask the same of me, within reason. When the surveys are done, I file them. No one will see their answers but me. When appropriate, I incorporate things I learn about them into the lessons to make them more relatable. In that way, they know that I am paying attention and it opens the floor to them so that they know I am trustworthy and truly have their best interest at heart. I never demean them for the things they reveal and I don’t shy away from tough conversations. My door stays open to them unless I’m grading or planning.

What’s the best advice you ever received as a teacher?

To remember why I’m in the classroom. Sometimes, the classroom can be daunting and overwhelming. I have my students, I’m the single mother of a 10-year-old son and, on top of that, I’m working toward a master’s degree. I could easily get discouraged. But if I remember why I’m there, it becomes manageable. I am there to serve my students. I am there to lead my students. Those two things are never lost upon me.

How I Teach

This teacher uses Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois to tie the past to the present for his students

PHOTO: Kyle Taubken
Daniel Warner says teaching at Memphis' historic East High School has deepened his love for history and the questions it raises.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

History teacher Daniel Warner works to make the past come alive in his Memphis classroom.

Historic documents and mementos line the walls of his U.S. History classroom at East High School to remind his students that what happened yesterday matters today.

One poster reads “What does it mean to be American?” and Warner zeroes in on two African Americans from the 19th and 20th centuries to address that question with his students.

Booker T. Washington believed improving and educating oneself — at the expense of political action — was the right path. W.E.B. DuBois disagreed. He believed political action was at the heart of what would improve the lives of African Americans.

Warner said the two ideologies are “extraordinarily applicable to the questions that still face my students today.”

He also teaches an Advanced Placement history course at East High, an iconic Midtown school that’s undergoing major changes to revamp its image and recruit more students.

Chalkbeat spoke with Warner, 26, about why he became a teacher, how he keeps the attention of his students, and how he brings historical characters to life.  (The questions and answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.).

Why did you become a teacher?

I hadn’t considered teaching until my senior year of college. In October of that year, I heard about the Memphis Teacher Residency and knew that’s what I wanted to give the next few years of my life to. I became a teacher more for cultivating learners and thinkers than for the essay grading and lesson planning. But I have come to enjoy the job in its entirety. And I have really developed a love for American history and the questions it asks.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?  

I love teaching on the dispute between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois because I find it to be extraordinarily applicable to the questions that still face my students and our city today.

Though the NAACP, the organization DuBois helped found, had a strong presence throughout the 20th century in Memphis, Washington’s ideas seem, in my experience, to have had a more lasting impact on the politics of black Memphians. There is a long history of black conservatism (a la Booker T. Washington) in this part of the country, a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality — that no matter your situation, you can overcome, and you have no one to blame but yourself for the choices you make. 

"Each year, students walk away empowered to connect their stories with the ones of those who have gone before them. History class becomes worth their time."

That perspective, held by many of my students, has taught me much about resilience and perseverance. I hope I caused them to question, why we must also work to make the systems and structures fair and equitable, and why it is good and right to demand that of our representatives. There’s always a heated back and forth in the final debate in which half the class represents DuBois’ perspective and half the class represents Washington’s perspective. 

I spend a full week on this mini-unit. I start with the terrifying context of the Jim Crow South, the political violence during and after Reconstruction (e.g. the massacre that happened here in Memphis in 1866), and the disenfranchisement of African American voters. We read some of Washington’s Atlanta Exposition Address in which he forgoes challenging segregation as he looks for employment opportunities for black workers in the New South. We then read excerpts of DuBois’ Talented Tenth speech and Souls of Black Folk in which he addresses Washington’s ideas. At the end of the week, we have a rigorous classroom debate in which students have to quote from the primary sources to defend their positions.

Each year, students walk away empowered to connect their stories with the ones of those who have gone before them. History class becomes worth their time.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?

We have a clear set of expectations in my classroom. I tell my students at the beginning of the year, “When I talk, you listen, and when you talk, I’ll listen.” I think that sets a tone of respect for one another that is foundational to a good learning environment.

I also try to use humor to keep the energy up and keep the mood light when appropriate. The teacher has to keep it upbeat when it’s the third day in a row on the issues of 19th-century farmers.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

I try to ask students what kinds of things they like. For example, I have a student right now who every teacher is having a hard time reaching. He’s not a bad kid at all, just real quiet and doesn’t do any of his work. I walked over to him the other day and noticed he was trying to learn Japanese on his laptop. I don’t know how I’m going to do it yet, but my goal is to tie in what we’re learning to the Japanese culture that fascinates him. Figuring out how to engage each unique child is a huge part of why I find education to be a compelling profession. And oftentimes I find that if I show a student I am interested in him and his hobbies, he will show an interest in class.

I also take my students seriously. When a student comes in crying about their cell phone being taken away or takes the risk of sharing their perspective in class, I never want to make them feel they are out of place for feeling what they feel or thinking what they think. I heard James Baldwin say that Malcolm X  was so adored by his followers and stirred them to action because he made them “feel as though they truly exist.” Looking someone in the eyes and listening is one of the quintessential human acts. I try to take a swing at that as often as possible. Teenagers appreciate it.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I am reading a lot! Let’s see:

  • We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates;
  • One Nation, Under God, Kevin Kruse (examining the ways libertarianism got wrapped up in the package deal of what it now means to be evangelical Christian in response to the New Deal);
  • Just finished Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (fantastic characters in a short novella);
  • Stamped from the Beginning, Ibram Kendi;
  • A collection of essays by Wendell Berry called What Are People For?;
  • Brother To A Dragonfly, Will Campbell (absolutely loving this one right now; Will Campbell is one of the most fascinating Southern Christians ever)
  • Awaiting the King, James K.A. Smith.