Teaching Across Generations: Consistency is Key
A portrait of Morgan Guess and her experience as an educator.
“I show up because you need somebody to show up for you. I’m doing this, and I get paid to do this, but I’m not just here for a paycheck. I’m going to make sure that you know something and that you’re better than you were when I received you and you’re ready to go to high school and really show yourselves.”
Morgan Guess, 8th grade writing teacher and my younger sister, really stresses to her students the importance of preparing yourself to enter high school. As she says, this is the beginning of the rest of your life when you become the only person who will be accountable for you and your actions. Middle school is the last chance that someone will hold your hand. She says to her students that they can put in the hard work now to get it right and change to prepare for the responsibility of high school or spend years dealing with the consequences of not doing so, digging yourself out of the hole of failing at this stage.
Morgan has only been teaching for two years, and is midway through her third year of teaching in Houston, Texas. But from talking to her, you wouldn’t know it from the amount of wisdom she has to share about teaching and dealing with middle school students from all walks of life and addressing their specific needs. I had the pleasure of getting a glimpse of this in 2021, when I was visiting for winter break. I attended a basketball game and the gym was full of her students from the bleachers to the court to the bench and they all adored her. They expressed their admiration for her every chance they got. Even her colleagues were brimming with glowing remarks about her. It was very clear the care that she had as a teacher in building good relationships with her students, another way Morgan shows up for them.
Morgan’s route to teaching was a bit of an unexpected one. She attended undergraduate at Berea College where she majored in African American studies and Spanish. In fact, Berea was the college that historian and writer Carter G. Woodson graduated from. Woodson, the second black American after W.E.B. Dubois to earn a PhD from Harvard, was one of the first scholars to study the African diaspora and later went on to found the Association for the Study of African American Life and History earning him recognition as the “father of black history”. Berea college was the first integrated, co-educational college in the South and the Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education at the college bears his name. Morgan was following in the legacy of Woodson at the African American studies program in Berea.
After graduating from Berea, during the pandemic Morgan had moved to Houston where her sister Kennedy also lived. While Morgan was studying for her master’s degree in psychology remotely, she decided to look into applying for jobs in California where her school was located for when they resumed in-person classes. She ended up applying to a network of charter schools dedicated to low-income students through out the country and it so happened that they also had a branch located in Houston in which a friend of Kennedy’s was already working.
Though Morgan did not have an official background in education, she worked at the writing resource center at Berea and was a teaching assistant for writing classes. On top of that her studies gave her a general framework that would prepare her for a job in education. She first began working as a teaching assistant for 6th grade in Houston but after three weeks, she ended up subbing as an 8th grade writing teacher full-time. It was at this moment, her baptism by fire, that she realized her passion. She would eventually drop out of her master’s program in psychology to dedicate herself to teaching.
One would think that this sudden jump to teaching in a middle school full-time would be a terrifying jump. Middle school is notorious for being a difficult stage of life for students. As Morgan says, there’s no amount of training of theory that will prepare you for that first day in a classroom setting. It’s one of those things you need to have experience with in order to understand exactly what you need to be doing. The only way to know what it’s like to teach is to teach. After you’ve gotten that experience you can start to integrate advice from other people and develop your own style.
For Morgan, what she learned was that consistency was the key. If she is holding students to a certain standard, that standard is for everyone. There is no bending to the whims and vagaries of the students. If the students know what is expected of them they will meet those expectations. Relationship building is also very important. As a middle school teacher, you are is preparing your students to be autonomous. She tries to prepare them for more responsibility in high school and give them the skills to enter adulthood.
From talking to Morgan the first thing you pick up about her and her teaching style is that she is very strict and stern as a teacher. As she says, in middle school the students are figuring themselves out. They think they’re grown and they think they can talk back to you and disrespect you. Because of her age they believe they can be her friend and get by on her. Setting standards and boundaries with them was key to establishing an environment of respect.
It also helps to have thick skin. Middle school students will throw around their thoughts and opinions on everything from your appearance that day to your teaching style. Letting them get under your skin is a easy path toward losing control of the classroom.
On the other end though, at this age, they may try to act like adults, but at heart they are still children. They want rewards for good work and attention from their teacher. As she emphasizes you aren’t given a grade, you earn a grade. The expectations and standards are not relative. You don’t get rewards for doing what is expected of you. But if you go above and beyond you can earn a reward. Stickers are some of the most frequent rewards Morgan gives out. Having a sticker from Ms. Guess is a badge of honor. A sign that reinforces to them that they are applying themselves. It is also a symbol that they are in the good graces of one of the most strict teachers. They’re at an age where they’re young enough to be molded but old enough to be held accountable.
When dealing with “troubled” children, Morgan addresses their issues on a case by case basis. Every child has their own personality and reasons for why they are acting out. Dealing with them has to be individualized. Once you learn about them and where their behavior is coming from you can figure out how to deal with them. Some kids are just simply attention seekers and it is important to try not to feed into that. Some kids just have a little bit of an attitude and are quick to react to things. Others are dealing with legitimate issues where their needs in their lives are not being met. Knowing the motivations behind their behavior and their individual personalities goes a long way to dealing with disruptive classroom behaviors.
When it comes to public education and assessing students and what they have learned, Morgan believes the overall approach today is too data-driven. It feels like it is being incentivized for teachers to teach to a standardized test, when practically, many students have serious needs when it comes to reading and writing. She believes that focusing on providing the students with skills is disrupted by the cycle of standardized testing.
This approach can be reductive as well, as students are often seen as a set of data points. There are many ways to test knowledge outside of multiple choice questions. The type of learning necessary to pass these kinds of tests can be repetitive and robotic. There should be multiple modes of assessment or ways students can demonstrate they have learned and internalized what they need to learn.
Testing is also too pass or fail oriented. There isn’t much attention paid to tracking the growth of individual students. A leap from a 40/100 to a 60/100 is a big jump and the students knowing that they have made such a jump can go a long way toward reinforcing their confidence in learning and helping them improve in the long run. But a pass or fail mode, the message that they have taken is that they have failed, yet again. They internalize that the effort that they have put in is not “good enough”, even if they are fully applying themselves. A testing method that accounts for measuring growth could be very constructive.
Morgan pours in a lot of her own resources into her classes. She buys decorations for the classroom, and sometimes she buys her students a small breakfast like donuts or cereal in the morning as she knows some of her students arrive to school without eating. Sometimes as a reward she buys her students lunch. The teachers at her school also sponsor students out of pocket, who cannot afford their end of the year trip.
In terms of classroom supplies, Morgan relies on donations from friends and family to keep her classroom fully stocked. She always keeps pencils, notebooks, and other supplies on hand, so students cannot use this as an excuse to not be able to complete their work. In extreme cases students will come to school without a backpack or anything for their school day. Students showing up to class without pencils has been such an issue that she has made it compulsory to have one and not coming to class with one will negatively impact their grade.
Morgan finds teaching a very rewarding experience. It is always fulfilling seeing the fruits of your labor and seeing your students succeed. She says that behind every great person is a favorite teacher. She believes that every one of her kids can go on to accomplish anything. There is endless potential if they apply themselves. If she invests herself in her students for them to be able to succeed, she can someday be that teacher for somebody.
Day to day though teaching is exhausting. It takes a lot of energy and the feedback for your work isn’t always immediate. You may not see it until the end of the year sometimes. It is compounded by effects from schooling during the pandemic. The level of preparedness of the students has declined. Because students were passed easily during the pandemic there has been less of a willingness to learn. Some students have taken a perfunctory attitude toward school.
Burnout is an issue with teachers. Breaks are necessary in order to deal with the exhausting work. In middle school the children are aware when they get under your skin and if you let them know they will seize upon that. It is easy to take their comments personally, or to take negativity from the difficulties of teaching them home with you after the day has ended.
Despite this though, Morgan has begun to receive positive feedback on her students that have gone on to high school. The principal of the high school that her school feeds into has commented that many of the students that have moved on are excelling in writing. He made it known that the writing teacher was doing a great job preparing them.
Morgan’s advice to parents for positively contributing to their child’s education is to simply be involved. There needs to be an interest in their child’s education such as what classes they are doing well in, and what classes they are having difficulty with. An awareness of these things can transfer over to the child’s performance in the classroom. Children need to be “seen” by their parents in this way. Sometimes there is not an interest from parents and the students do not get the attention they want from their parents in this regard. Students may experience consequences in school but these cannot be held up if there isn’t a level of expectations in the home environment.
From her experience so far in teaching, Morgan has realized that students don’t get consistency from their teachers throughout their academic careers. There are fewer people going into teaching today, and as a result teachers are routinely overburdened with large class sizes. Teachers quitting is an issue that has affected schools across the country and isn’t simply one school district’s problem. As a result the students feel that they themselves don’t need to show up or put in effort because that is the message they are receiving. Morgan communicates her care for her students through her consistency. She shows up for them everyday and puts in effort to demonstrate through actions that she will not quit on them.