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This Detroit master teacher doesn’t mind the tough adjustment to a new curriculum. ‘It just works.’

Mary Jane Espina's third grade class at Detroit's Pulaski Elementary School. As a master teacher, she teaches for half of the day and spends the rest coaching other teachers.
Mary Jane Espina's third grade class at Detroit's Pulaski Elementary School. As a master teacher, she teaches for half of the day and spends the rest coaching other teachers.
Mary Jane Espina

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Mary Jane Espina was expecting a mess. Two decades of teaching have taught her a lot — including about how lessons can go wrong. As she prepared for a lesson that would combine third-graders, an English lesson, and watercolor paints, she wondered if it was a recipe for disaster.

She didn’t need to worry. Her students rose to the task of color-coding the components of a written essay, neatly painting introductions, focus statements, and conclusions.

“I was worried that it would be a mess and it wasn’t,” Espina said, recalling one of her favorite lessons of the last year. “They painted so carefully. And that’s a springboard into more lessons — now they can refer back to that.”

The reminder that teachers never stop learning has come in especially handy this year. Espina is a “master teacher,” one of nearly 200 hired for the role last January as part of an effort to reduce teacher vacancies in the district. She spends half her time coaching teachers, and the other half teaching lessons that will be used as models for her colleagues.

That work, already critical to a district that has set its sights on improving test scores, was made even more important by a different shakeup under Superintendent Nikolai Vitti — the brand new math and English curriculum for grades K-8 that the district began using this fall.

After 19 years teaching at the district’s Pulaski Elementary School, Espina is teaching her third-grade class using the new materials laid out in the curriculum. At the same time, she’s helping her colleagues make the same challenging adjustment.

We spoke with her about the new curriculum, her new title, and how she became a teacher in the first place. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

How has your job changed now that you’re a master teacher?

I just feel that I’m able to communicate and work with my colleagues. Before, it was ‘how are you doing?’ Now it seems like we’re able to help each other, and by helping each other we help the students.

It’s just a wonderful feeling knowing that I’m able to take my experience and help a colleague. If they’re struggling, we can debrief, or I can even just listen. A lot of people come to me throughout the day asking for advice. Before I had a classroom and I had to teach all day — and people would still come to me. Now I can step back from my class, and I can give my full attention to my colleagues.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

In third grade, I knew I wanted to be a teacher because I loved my third grade teacher and she was so inspiring to me. She would teach outside the box, and we always did hands-on activities, and she was always making learning fun, and that’s what I wanted to do.

What has it been like for you, as a teacher, transitioning to a new curriculum?

Coming into it, starting on the very first day, I knew it wouldn’t be an easy transition. No new curriculum is an easy transition. But I love the curriculum, the model that they’ve made is like the golden ticket to my lesson

Teachers [who helped shape the curriculum] took every lesson and they made Powerpoint slides as a guide. They’re a visual for the students: they tell the kids what they’re doing and what they’re supposed to be learning. It works with every activity.

The curriculum gives you ideas about what you should say and how long lessons should take. That is such a precious thing to us. If you use that, it really helps drive the lesson.

The learning that has gone on within my classroom is phenomenal.

You’d been teaching for over 20 years before starting with the new curriculum. Did the change feel like an interruption?

If you know that something worked in the past, you can always find it in the new curriculum. For instance, last year, my kids would sit in groups, and each one got a role. There was a person to ask question, a person to answer, a person to clarify.

Fast forward to this curriculum, and they may not have specific roles, but they work in partners and you have an A and B partner. It was hard to change, because I really loved the old curriculum. But the new one just works.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

Some of my friends who were teachers, they told me, ‘don’t smile until Christmas. Just walk into a classroom and set those routines up. Follow through on everything that you do.’

Hold on. You really don’t smile in class between the first day of school and Christmas?

Oh, I smile right away. But I make sure that the students know what’s expected of them. I set those routines. They know me — those first couple of weeks I am stern — but I do start smiling right away.

The kids have seen me laugh, the kids have seen me cry. The class needs to be a safe environment, so the students have to know that we’re human, that we all have feelings, and that we want to help them so they can be the best that they can be.

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