This month we are excited to feature Julia Marthia, an English teacher who works at Nichols School, an independent school in Buffalo, New York. This New York state native is a former colleague, who worked at Kilmer Middle School in Fairfax County for many years. There she built a reputation as a creative, engaging teacher, who was recognized by her colleagues as Kilmer's Teacher of the Year in 2006. She was also received the Al and Winnie Hodgson Award for Teaching Excellence (for her recognition and appreciation of student diversity inside and outside of the classroom). One of Julia's strengths is building relationships with students through story telling. We are excited to share part of her education journey with you in this month's Take10.
Job: English Teacher and Learning Specialist (advocating for special education students and organizing professional development)
Where: Nichols School
Number of Years in Education: 15
1. Why education?
The easy answer is that I've never been able to imagine myself doing anything else. Ever.
2. What is your education mantra?
I have so many. "Do what's best for the student(s)." is the one that I probably use in all aspects of my job. When a student is struggling to make progress, I remember the advice of my graduate school professors: "Often, the quickest way to gain ground is to take a step back. Simplify."
3. What is your daily school routine?
My daily schedule is pretty hectic. My school has a rotating-double-drop schedule, so classes meet at different times every day and, once a rotation, double and drop. It's a schedule change that has definitely proven to be what's best for students, but it makes planning tricky. In addition, I attend all grade level meetings, coordinate CSE meetings with our local public school, cover for colleagues (we don't hire substitutes unless there is an extended absence), etc. Needless to say, my planner is my lifeline! Each day, I spend the few moments before students arrive reviewing my schedule for the day and recording the daily agenda for each of my classes on the whiteboard. Then, I make it a priority to stand in the hall and greet students and co-workers. It allows for personal connection and helps me gauge who may need help/attention that day...and everyone's day is a little better when it starts with a smile and a friendly hello.
4. What is your favorite lesson of all time?
I have used Sandra Cisneros' vignette "My Name" as an inspiration for student writing for many years. Though I have used it with many grade levels, much of the lesson stays the same. We begin by pulling apart the piece: we listen to Mexican records that "sound like sobbing," we act out Esperanza's grandmother "sitting her sadness on an elbow," we explore pronunciation, we discuss the difference between throwing someone over your shoulder "like a chandelier" versus a "sack of potatoes," and we debate why the number 9 equates to "a muddy color." Cisneros' descriptions are so vivid that students can't help but engage, and they leave class itching to tell their own story. No other personal narrative assignment has reached a wider range of students or resulted in more experimentation with figurative language than this one.
5. If you could change one thing about schools what would it be and why?
My work in an independent school has highlighted the benefits, to both students and teachers, of small class size. Too many schools, including the one my children attend, and (increasingly) the one I currently work in, are increasing class size to balance the budget. This practice is definitely not in the best interest of students.
6. What three words would you use to describe your day as an educator (or three words to describe our profession as a whole)?
ENGAGING, REWARDING, CHALLENGING. Some days it's more of one of these than the others, but most days it's a combination of the three.
7. What’s one education hack you can offer to our readers?
I just got a classroom of my own for the first time in seven years, so I have been focused on creating a comfortable environment that promotes learning. For me, that means flexible seating to meet the needs of student learning styles and a variety of classroom activities. It also means softer lighting. Table lamps, torchieres, and uplights near the ceiling have replaced overhead fluorescents. It has made an incredible difference in the behavior and tone of discussion in the classes I'm looping with from last year. Nothing new, I know, but an easy change that makes a big difference in my classroom every day.
8. What is one piece of advice that you would give to new educators?
Don't be too hard on yourself. It's so much easier said than done, even when you've been teaching for years, but it's important. Some lesson plans work better in your head, and mistakes are a part of growth. Tomorrow is a new day with new opportunities for success.
9. What do you hope students and colleagues will say about you one day at your retirement party?
That I was a passionate, dedicated educator who worked hard with and for them, that I looked for creative solutions to every challenge, and that all those stories I told were actually entertaining.
10. What are you reading, watching, or listening to these days?
The graphic novel version of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson and Educated by Tara Westover were my favorite reads of the summer, but I also enjoyed revisiting YA books like My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George, When My Name was Keoko by Linda Sue Park in preparation for teaching 6th grade. When we have time for it, my husband and I enjoy watching (and re-watching) episodes of Murdoch Mysteries, and I am (impatiently) awaiting the release of the second season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
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