James Boutin (a 9th-grade Language Arts & 10th-grade World History teacher at ACE) and Evin Shinn (an 8th-grade Language Arts & AVID teacher at Chinook) are the co-founders of this blog. In an effort to get to know each other better, they asked five questions of the other. Below are the responses.
Evin: Name your favorite teacher. What made them so magical?
James: My favorite teacher is my mother. While I had a handful of teachers, particularly in college, who really engaged me, nobody compares to my mother when it comes to my development as a human. She taught me to have courage, to fight for what’s right, and to give back to the world that bore you. She did it not with explicit lessons and lectures, but through admirable modeling and unconditional love. How could I call any other teacher my favorite?
Evin: What inspired you to teach?
James: When I was in the second grade I snuck home extra worksheets from my teacher and gave them to my brother to do. In fourth, I convinced my mom to buy me a white board and some Expo markers that I used to teach the neighborhood kids about the Civil War. I typed up tests about my lectures and administered those as well. In other words, I’ve always known I wanted to be a teacher.
However, since stepping into the classroom, I want to continue with it for some different reasons than when I started.
I love working with and being around people on a daily basis. I love grappling with tough problems. I love the sense of purpose it provides. I love seeing students enjoy thinking. I love my content. What could inspire me to do anything else?
Evin: What’s the biggest challenge facing your students?
James: Obviously every student faces a different set of challenges, so I can’t do this question too much justice. However, one challenge I see coming up over and over again for so many of my students is pessimism. I have an alarming number of students who are in the habit of approaching situations with negative attitudes, especially school. They’ve come to expect frustration, boredom, and negative relationships with peers and teachers. These expectations feed their pessimism and deter their academic and social growth. If I could wave a magic wand and automatically teach them one thing, it would be: “Attitude is a choice. Choosing a positive one will make your life easier.”
Evin: In one word, describe yourself as a teacher.
James: This is difficult. I think I would choose “adaptive.” Because I’ve taught in five schools, I often say I’ve been a first year teacher five different years. And as any first year teacher knows, that’s a difficult task. It’s taught me the value of routine and organization (mostly as a result of not having those things so often), and it’s also taught me to adjust quickly to new environments and varying student needs. I change quickly when things aren’t working, and I work hard to move my work as close to excellence as I can claim without collapsing. For those reasons, a close second would be “determined.”
Evin: Given all the money in the world, what’s the first thing you’d fix in education?
James: I’d like us to radically rethink the words school and education. I’ve come to understand that an education is made up of much more than time spent in school. The understanding one gains of the world and how to interact with it is shaped (in small or large part) by nearly every experience an individual has. The classroom is merely one place we’re deliberate about creating experiences designed to enhance understanding deemed necessary to participate in society. Unfortunately school is often the place where learning is most inauthentic, and subsequently boring. This is partly because the learning can often seem forced, but also because the classroom operates in a system that has a tendency to strangle individuality.
If I had my say in “fixing” education, I would redefine school as an idea rather than a building. And I would redefine education as the collective parts and processes that change us throughout life, rather than the formal curriculum we learn in desks as “pupils.”
Learning is natural. We do it all the time. And to the extent possible, school and formal educational experiences should support that by grounding their work in students’ interests, students’ strengths, and communities’ needs.
James: Why do you teach?
Evin: I teach to inspire a generation. Actually, that not completely true. I teach partially because it’s in my DNA. My grandmother was actually a teacher for the longest time. In fact, she was the first person that taught me how to read. I still remember sitting on her lap, listening to her read me, The Emperor’s New Clothes — now, a pretty creepy story and The Giving Tree — also, creepy, but cute. I teach because all students need to experience the magic, frustration, and wisdom that comes from learning. Learning is what keeps us growing.
James: How did your own education/upbringing influence your current views on education?
Evin: As I said before, my grandmother was a teacher. She taught severe to profound disabled kids in the elementary school setting. She was a wonderful person. In fact, I remember one day when my students went to lunch and I looked at her picture and I started crying. I had no idea what to do. I felt like I was falling apart and my students were being mean to each other. And then, I remembered I remember a quote from the movie You’ve Got Mail (one of my favorites) when the main character asks her deceased mother about what to do. She thinks about it and imagines her saying, “I don’t know what I’d do, but the store display is lovely.” That’s my grandmother to me.
I was always an Honors students raised the Tacoma Public Schools system. I went to JAWS (a highly capable pullout program for the elementary schools) and I was pushed by my single-parent mother to achieve. As a parole officer herself, she knew that as Black male that I would need to work harder than everyone else to achieve the same results and lo-and-behold, that is a lesson that I have held in order to inform my teaching and educational policy: We MUST teach our ‘colored’ students that the world doesn’t care about their sob stories. Life rewards action. We cannot allow poor circumstances guide these children’s lives. That’s real talk.
James: What do you enjoy most about working with students?
Evin: I love how honest they are. And actually, that’s the reason that I get along with them so well. Because I don’t have children of my own (I’m 25 — hello!), I treat them like my family. We will argue and fuss and fight and be angry, but at the end of the day, there’s love. And I think that is a hallmark of my classroom. It’s not about being smart — it’s about working hard and developing character. It’s okay to not know the answer. It’s not okay to not try.
I also think that I have some of the brightest students in the neighborhood. No, they don’t have the highest MAP or MSP scores and no, they may not have the highest grades, but my students work hard. Even my A students have to stay home sometimes to babysit their little brothers or sisters. That’s a skill.
James: What are some of our community’s greatest challenges?
Evin: I think that there are too many parents who are not spending time with their students. Literally, that’s it. Quality time and hanging out with your child and finding out what he or she likes. Unfortunately, because many of our parents are too busy for their children, we end up playing ‘parent.’ Don’t get me wrong. I like caring for children, but too often, students tell me that they don’t care about their parents and it shows in conferences. A kid will talk over their parents. A son will mouth off at his parents. A daughter will roll her eyes her mom. It’s clear that the child took control of that relationship. Parenting isn’t about being friends. It’s about guiding, loving, and caring for your kid. As America’s Supernanny said, “Kids who have to care for themselves end up where? In jail.”
James: What bothers you most about the way our society conducts public education and why?
Evin: On my worst day, I think that society looks at school as a federal babysitting service and yet, they want to be upset when students are ‘graduating’ with less than stellar reading and math scores. Let’s be honest: the teaching profession is seen as a paraprofession. I mean, really. I would say that teachers are to the education field as nurses are to the medical field. But it’s funny — I would say that most people love teachers personally, but harbor some sort of resentment about the way teachers throw their power when it comes to bargaining. It’s important that the public knows what happens behind closed doors from the bargaining room to the board room to the classroom. That is the only way that society is going to see the magic happening classrooms now.