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‘I still love it.’ Why the Detroit district’s top teacher for 2019 still has passion after four decades as an educator.

Imelya Eberhardt-Ellison reacts after she was named 2019 Teacher of the Year for Detroit Public Schools Community District
Imelya Eberhardt-Ellison reacts after she was named 2019 Teacher of the Year for Detroit Public Schools Community District

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.

The rest of the third graders were reading to themselves as Imelya Eberhardt-Ellison sat at the front of the classroom, reading to several students who were seated around her.

“This is really important,” she told the group as she paused. “Now listen to the question they’re going to ask you.”

It was the kind of scene you’d see in any classroom, reflecting a teacher’s effort to provide help to students who are struggling with reading. But there is little ordinary about this teacher. Eberhardt-Ellison, an educator for 40 years, last month was named the top teacher in the Detroit Public Schools Community District during an awards ceremony that honored other district employees as well. She teaches at Bagley Elementary School of Journalism and technology.

The students she was working with, she said, need that extra support.

“Once kids know you’re not going to leave them hanging … they jump right into it,” Eberhardt-Ellison said. “Most kids want to do well. And if they feel it’s attainable, they’ll buy in. When they feel like you don’t care, they shut down.”

She’s a Detroit native whose parents were also teachers. Her four-decade career has spanned different levels of education, from private to preschool to training other teachers. For the last 25 years, she’s taught in the Detroit district. Throughout her career, she has not only taught traditional students, but has also trained teachers.

“One of my professors said to me, ‘Don’t ever do anything for more than five years because you’ll burn out. I’ve tried to do a variety of things within the context of teaching, to keep my skills honed and sharp. These are our kids and we have to be vested in making sure that they succeed.”

Her own daughter has dyslexia and she said there were times when teachers weren’t sure how to teach her.

“I don’t believe in that. I think all children learn. They learn at different rates, at different speeds, but they can learn. You have to figure out how to reach them. That’s your job.”

She once told her principal that if she lost her enthusiasm for teaching, she would leave rather than doing a disservice to students.

“I still love it.”

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment that got you interested in teaching?

I had a job in private day care, working with children. And it was the story of the haves and the have nots. When they learned, it didn’t matter what background they came from. I initially thought, ‘These kids are going to do like this and these kids are going to do like that.’ I was about 18 or 19. I didn’t have a ton of background. What it had to do with was their own curiosity about stuff. That’s what drove them. Watching that kind of stuff made me curious. I wanted to know, OK, if it’s not what I thought, what is it? What is this thing called education? How does learning occur?

What is it like to be able to influence other teachers?

I’m just a teacher like everyone else. I don’t see myself as being here and they’re there. I sometimes understand things at a different level, just because of the experiences I’ve had. So, it’s like sharing with a friend or a colleague, ‘Hey, try this, or do you think if you tried to do it differently, you might get this in the end.’ It’s what we do as educators. We experiment. That’s what we teach kids and that’s what we do ourselves.

How do you get to know your third grade students?

We’re always talking and dialoguing with each other. Initially when they come in, we do surveys. What do you like? Do you like sitting at the desk all the time, or do you like sitting on the floor? Do you like working by yourself? Do you like working in a group? How do you best learn? What do you want from this school year? And they set goals for themselves. A lot of kids came and what they wanted was to learn to read. A lot of them didn’t really like math. I had 23 children who were two or three grade levels below in math. They didn’t like it. Now that we’ve been working with it, they enjoy math. And for many of the kids, it’s become their favorite subject.

Tell us about a favorite lesson.

Every week I find something else. Yesterday’s lesson was a math lesson. The whole crux of the lesson was measuring perimeters. How do you measure shapes that cannot conventionally be measured with a ruler? You can try to bend the ruler around. They came up with all the possibilities. And then finally, one of the children said we can use a string.

When the kids were leaving, they were high-fiving and saying we had fun in math. They were all engaged. They were all doing. I think it was the hands on [that made it successful]. I think it was being able to work with a partner, so it wasn’t threatening. I think it was the novelty of doing things a little differently.

Whether it’s language or whether it’s math, the children like solving. They like talking, elaborating, bouncing off of each other’s ideas, coming up with what they think is going to work, and then testing it out to see.

What’s the most difficult part of teaching?

Kids who come from homes where education is not a priority. Their buy-in is hard to get. They don’t see themselves as learners.

What’s the biggest misconception people have about teaching?

A lot of people think you can just wave a magic wand and (learning is) going to happen. They don’t understand the amount of planning, the amount of preparation, the amount of investment teaching requires for every single student. They get here early. They stay late.

What’s one tool you can’t live without?

It’s definitely not technology (laughing). What do I really need in the classroom? It depends on the lesson. I want the room to be comfortable, not too hot, not too cold. They need to get air in all of these buildings, because the kids get uncomfortable. And when it gets warm, and you have a large class, I’m watching them. They get irritable with each other. They just need whatever tools they need. We make do. We go out and buy. They love the rewards they get for working hard.

I need the commitment from parents. That’s the one thing I can’t live without. I need the buy-in from the parents to be able to help me with their students. I’m able to do what I do because they do what they do.

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