Cleveland City Schools’ Teachers of the Year for this year offered insights into their daily trials and triumphs with students while speaking to the Kiwanis Club of Cleveland.
Director of Schools Dr. Russell Dyer was the scheduled speaker for the club’s Thursday meeting, but he chose to share the spotlight with the teachers.
“I feel it’s important that the community hears from our teachers and not just from me,” said Dyer.
The Teachers of the Year are Brandi Beard of George R. Stuart Elementary School (for grades pre-K-4), Emily Raper of Cleveland Middle School (grades 5-8) and Linda Lemons of Cleveland High School (grades 9-12).
With hundreds of teachers educating the city’s students daily, Dyer stressed that being named a Teacher of the Year for the district is “a really huge accomplishment” and is indicative of the educators' professionalism.
All three teachers spoke about how they are intentional about building relationships with their students — even those who struggle behaviorally or academically. Each told the story of a specific student they had helped.
Beard, a kindergarten teacher who has been with the district for nine years, shared the story of a boy who had experienced past abuse, was in foster care and acted out in class.
“He had neglect, and there was drug, alcohol and sexual activity in his home ... things that a 5-year-old should have never seen,” Beard said. “I could only imagine where he was coming from.”
The boy and his seven siblings were placed in three different foster homes after being removed from the poor living situation. Beard received a call from his foster mom asking to meet with her to discuss his behavior beforehand.
This student had a three-page behavioral analysis in his school file, and Beard learned the young boy was in three different kinds of therapy for anger, trauma and behavioral problems.
She recalled being anxious about this. She had never had a student like him, and she had 18 other students to teach as well. To her surprise, he arrived on the first day with a card and a hug for her.
However, every negative mentioned in the lengthy file, including physical aggression against her and the other children, surfaced as the class settled into its routines.
“It was hard. I thought, ‘Am I really supposed to be a teacher? Is this really for me?’ I didn’t know if I could handle this day in and day out,” Beard said. “I left school every day just exhausted and, quite frankly, defeated.”
Knowing “something had to give,” she helped start the student on a new behavior plan where he could earn smiley or frowning faces based on his behavior at 10 different times each day. This “gave him a sense of control,” as he was told how he could control his own behavior.
Each morning, he and Beard would talk and set a goal for the number of smiley faces he would earn. He also got to choose rewards for achieving his goals. The rewards started as things like pieces of candy, but he eventually began asking for things like the chance to have lunch with her.
“Nine times out of 10, he chose to be with me during lunch, just our time,” Beard said. “Our bond began to grow, and I began to learn more about [him] and what made him tick.”
Eventually, after months of progress, the number of smilies increased from just two per day to 10. To celebrate this success, he requested the chance to go to the movies with his teacher, which she arranged with the OK of the boy’s foster parents and the principal.
“Did he learn how to read that year? He did. Did he learn addition and subtraction? Absolutely. But I think he taught me more than I taught him that year,” Beard said.
“He changed my priorities when it came to teaching, and he showed me the difference we can make as teachers simply by being there. He knew I was a safe place for him,” she added. “I have a list of academics to teach them, but my No. 1 priority now is to build relationships. My kids are more than their data and more than a name on a class list.”
Raper, a seventh-grade English teacher who has been at CMS for eight years, told the story of a girl who had missed years of school because of her mother’s negligence and was having trouble getting caught up.
“She was pulled from school in second grade to be ‘homeschooled’ by her mother — her mother who was high on drugs almost daily,” Raper said. “The mom moved them to Ohio, and the only interaction that this student had with anyone during the day was watching TV and being locked in a room with her younger sister, who had severe special needs.”
A relative found out about this, took the girls in and moved them back to Cleveland. This began the process of the girl having to get used to interacting with people and attending school again. As a seventh-grader who had not been to school since the second grade, she was “scared to death.”
Raper did what she could to help this student learn and better interact with others. This student was able to move on to the eighth grade after a year, and Raper later received a letter from the student thanking her for how much she cared.
“Middle schoolers are not usually the ones to tell you thank you … but this student did,” Raper said. “The letter reminded me that even if I don’t see or notice the impact that I’m having on a student, I should still push forward. I still work to inspire students, and I still cheer them on — because they need it.”
Raper also said she has a lot of respect for the teachers she had growing up who made teaching look easy. She quipped that it “takes grit and guts and creativity and a lot of energy to spend all day with seventh-graders — and a lot of deodorant.”
She added she knows her some of her students come to school with a lot of past trauma, but she acts as “a cheerleader” and tries to make her classroom “a place of refuge where they can try things without fear of failure.”
Lemons is an 11th-grade English teacher who is now in her 50th year of teaching, having spent 49 and a half of those years at CHS.
“I begin every class that I teach with a speech about choices,” Lemons said. “I want my students to have more choices when they leave my room than when they come in.”
Lemons said she has served under every single principal of CHS except for one, and they all shared one characteristic — ”They trust us.” She said the faith they have had in their teachers has helped them to in turn encourage students.
She told of a senior student she once had who was struggling in class. Walking around to check on students during a literature test, she noticed the student had not tried to answer a single question.
When she commented on this, he said he simply could not do the test. She knew he could, because he had regularly attended and participated in class. Lemons ended up reading the questions to him, and to his surprise, he answered all but three questions correctly.
"He could read, but he had zero confidence. He had already convinced himself there was no use in trying," Lemons said.
However, with her help, he eventually gained the confidence he needed to succeed. He ended up graduating from high school, graduating from college and "becoming a public school teacher in an inner city where he reached students who were just like him or worse." He has also been honored as one of CHS' top alumni.
"He and many, many others are why I am a classroom teacher," Lemons said. "It is not always the academic skills they gain in my class that make a difference, but if they gain confidence, they will be lifelong learners and can do anything."
Dyer also gave the Kiwanians a brief overview of the city schools, including the new Candy’s Creek Cherokee Elementary School opening off Georgetown Road/Highway 60 this fall.
He also highlighted the district’s recent happenings, including the introduction of the new aviation and U.S. Air Force JROTC programs at CHS. He also touched on the BLADE Project, which resulted in laptop computers being distributed to all students at CMS and CHS.