“I can do anything, I can do anything. All I have to do is try. All I have to do is try.” Meah King, English teacher at East High School in Memphis, Tennessee, asks her students to repeat this maxim at the beginning of every class, just as her own elementary school principal had done. She presses them to say it louder, with gusto. “Make me feel it! I don’t believe it! Come out of your heart and say it!”
King recently had an entire banquet room of accomplished teachers chanting along with her as part of a TED-style talk she gave during the second annual convening of Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers in San Diego.
King began teaching at East High School in 2002—five years after she graduated from the school. But the school had changed in challenging ways since her student days there. While the high school had always served economically disadvantaged students, by now 95 percent of East High’s students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Furthermore, the average ACT score had plummeted to an abysmal 16.8. It was going to take more than boundless enthusiasm for King to raise the achievement level of her students.
In 2008, only 35 percent of King’s students scored a progression rate on the state test, and for the first time in her career she suffered a crisis of confidence. “I was frustrated,” King recalls, “wondering if this is my calling.”
Teachers who find themselves struggling must be willing to engage in some painful self-reflection, and that’s exactly what she did. “I looked at my students, then I looked at myself, and that’s something we teachers have to do,” King says. “Then I changed my strategy.”
The first thing King did was to survey her students, asking them what they liked. When the answer came back “music, entertainment, and sports,” she began to connect her teaching with their passions. “It not about teaching the way we want to teach,” King says, “but about teaching the way students learn.”
King is a natural-born entertainer, so she infused her lessons—even on something as seemingly mundane as direct and indirect objects—with clapping and rhythmic chanting. She drew on her students’ passion for music by having them writing poetry that implemented alliteration, assonance, and onomatopoeia.
The result of King’s revamped teaching? In 2010-11, 62 percent of her students scored a progression rate on the state test; the following year, 75 percent did.
And King continues to keep on learning. She says her district’s new teacher evaluation system has helped her identify better teaching strategies. And it gives her a clearer, more precise vantage point on exactly what impact her teaching has on her students.
She admits that she was skeptical about one component: video-recorded classroom observations. But she’s since become an enthusiastic convert. King recalls one observation that took place when she had asked her students to summarize a story they had read. Reviewing the video, she noticed students struggling, and realized her approach either didn’t meet students at the right level or wasn’t tailored to their individual learning styles.
King, an award-winning teacher, was used to getting 5 out of 5 on observation measures. “That day,” she says, “I was an honest 3. Does that make me not a good teacher? No. However, it does show me what I can work on, and what I can do better on, and how my instruction did unfold on that particular day. And I had to go back to the drawing board on that. Because of that video, I was able to be honest with myself.”
At first, King was also hesitant about the use of student surveys. But now finds them to be the most important component of the evaluation process, helping her pinpoint any trouble spots. She asks her students to be extremely honest in their assessments. “I won’t be a better teacher if I don’t know where I am falling short,” she advises them.
The occasional bumps in the road don’t worry her. “If I don’t do a good job today, I just come back and do it again the next day,” she says. Indeed, she views these hurdles as just another opportunity to evolve. “You can’t produce a lifelong learner if you are not a lifelong learner yourself,” she says. “That’s one thing I try to practice: to always learn something new.”