Sidney Thomas

Baltimore City Public Schools teacher (BCPS), Sidney Thomas is a 2021 finalist for BCPS Teacher of the Year. Courtesy Photo/BCPS

A tweet I saw asking teachers to share one book they would recommend for new teachers jolted me back to my first year of teaching in 2008. My school gave me a copy of The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher by Harry and Rosemary Wong, told me to read it, and then released me into the classroom to figure out how to be an effective teacher.

The book was my only “support” that year. Whenever I asked for additional help to become a better teacher, I was told to go back to that book. Yet, even after rereading it, I still struggled. I had issues keeping students engaged, with regular disruptions. I was swamped with lesson planning and grading. I didn’t know how to meaningfully support students who were struggling academically or emotionally.

I didn’t feel like an effective teacher. I felt like a failure.

By midyear, I was contemplating quitting because I started to regret going into education— something many new teachers have felt under this year’s extreme stress. The doubts and frustration continued until I started to get “real life” teaching experience, asking for other teachers’ help, taking training, and putting the pieces together to make it work better. Things finally started to click, if only in bits and pieces.

I wish someone would have worked with me on so many things in my early years: meaningfully implementing an individualized education plan, making genuine connections with parents, creating non-authoritarian relationships with students, managing lesson planning and grading time, decompressing and maintaining self-care, and much more. I had to figure it all out, because what I learned in college courses or from reading books on pedagogy and classroom management hadn’t fully prepared me for the reality.

Now, 13 years later, people tell me I’m such a good teacher because I’ve built strong relationships with students and their families, and my lessons are culturally responsive and racially equitable and rigorous. But that didn’t happen overnight. I needed strong and encouraging mentors who coached me, modeled equitable practices, and gave me access to the materials I needed to teach students a more inclusive curriculum.

That’s why I decided to become an Opportunity Culture multi-classroom leader, or MCL, leading a small teaching team while continuing to teach part of the day. I wanted to support teachers in ways that I wished that I were supported. During my first year, I was fine-tuning my MCL role. I pushed into my team’s classrooms daily to model great teaching and co-teach, observe and give feedback, and lead planning and data reflection.

My presence wasn’t an uncomfortable “gotcha” or finger pointing; I’m supporting them in getting great results for all of our students.

But just as I was developing in my MCL role and building mutual trust with my team, COVID-19 happened, and we were all were thrust into virtual learning. The pandemic was an immediate wakeup call that, more than ever,
teachers needed support and coaching, and I started to think how to provide that in a virtual classroom setting.

We first worked together developing ways to leverage tech tools, such as Pear Deck, to help teachers teach Wit & Wisdom lessons virtually. We looked at how we could make IEP accommodations, so students with IEPs could have access points to the learning goals covered in class.

We looked at the data from formative and summative assessments, and we streamlined lesson planning to focus on key tasks and learning objectives, to keep lesson planning from extending into personal time after school. I recorded my team’s live Zoom classes, which we watched during team meetings. We reflected on what went well and what could be better, and changed lessons to better meet students’ needs.

Finally, we had candid conversations about how to prioritize professional expectations by selecting the most urgent tasks, and how to accept that there would be glitches in the midst of a lesson— and that was OK because we all were learning.

By looking at ways to meaningfully support my team, I ensured that we all grew, which was evident during recent principal-led teacher lesson observations that showed highly effective teacher actions. Now, did we read some texts to support and improve our teaching practices? Absolutely.

Books and articles are amazing sources of information. But those readings have better outcomes when aligned with in-person leadership to reflect on and shift teacher practice. That’s the support I wish I had, and it’s the support every teacher deserves— pandemic or not.

Sidney Thomas is a social studies multi-classroom leader and Opportunity Culture Fellow, Holabird Academy, Baltimore City Public Schools. Ms. Thomas is a 2021 finalist for BCPS Teacher of the Year.