How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Lisa Bejarano, a math teacher at Aspen Valley High School in the Colorado Springs-based Academy School District, was frustrated when one of her students wouldn’t stop playing with his phone in class. She finally called his mom about the annoying behavior.

What Bejarano learned during that phone call made her realize how important it is to understand what’s going on with students outside of school.

She talked to Chalkbeat about what she did after talking with the boy’s mother, why she doesn’t have a desk and how she challenges students with perfect scores.

Bejarano received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching in 2016 and is one of 20 educators selected for the state’s new Commissioners Teacher Cabinet. The group will provide input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education on the impact of education policies in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I became a teacher because connecting with and learning from other people is everything. I worked as an engineer for five years and while I enjoyed the work, it just wasn’t as satisfying. As a teacher, I am challenged every day. It never gets easier. I learn so much about math and humanity.

What does your classroom look like?
It is usually a mess. I don’t have a desk because I wanted students to dominate the space. Whiteboards on every available surface. Desks in groups of three.

I have one side of the room dedicated to student tools (paper, compasses, rulers, protractors, calculators, etc.) so that they can freely select and use anything they think they may need when working on a task. Students get better at Math Practice standard 5 — Use appropriate tools strategically — when they can practice selecting from a wide variety of tools throughout the school year. They also sometimes surprise me with their creative use of a tool that I would not have considered.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
Students. Because I teach people, not content.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
Almost every lesson I teach is my favorite lesson at the time that I teach it. I won’t teach a lesson that I am not excited to teach. I particularly enjoy facilitating multi-day tasks with a low bar for entry so that it is accessible to all students and students are free to be creative in their approach to problem-solving.

Usually, I find ideas through other teachers on Twitter or through their blogs. I also find great tasks from the Math Assessment Project and Illustrative Mathematics, then adapt them to fit my style and my students’ needs. I also enjoy creating or adapting activities from Desmos — a collection of digital math tools.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I respond to all students through two-round assessments. In the first round, students give the assessment their best effort. Then I write feedback on a few select questions that attempts to move their learning forward even if their work on the quiz is flawless.

In the second round, students must respond to my feedback using a different color. Then I grade their demonstration of knowledge on each learning target using a four-point rubric. If a student has shown that he or she does not understand a skill, I mark this skill as “missing” or “incomplete” and they must schedule a time to work on this skill and reassess when they are ready. When students get their quiz back, they track their progress.

This process is valuable because it prevents test anxiety. Also, students see me as their partner in learning. They believe that I want them to be successful and that I believe in their ability to achieve at high levels. The process also helps students develop a growth mindset and helps me get a better picture of their understandings and misconceptions, which better informs my teaching.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
Students usually get off task if there is something major going on in their lives or if they are confused about the lesson. I address this by both talking to the student and planning a better lesson next time.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
Beginning with the first day of school, I work at building a unique relationship with each student. I make sure to find reasons to genuinely value each of them. This starts with weekly “How is it going?” type questions on their warm-up sheets and continues by using their mistakes on “Find the flub Friday” and through feedback quizzes. I also share a lot of myself with them. When we understand each other, my classes are more productive.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

In my second year of teaching, I had a student who frequently played with his phone during class — let’s call him Larry. I tried everything a new teacher could think of: threatening him, punishing him and confiscating his phone, which was met with extreme outbursts. After many failed attempts, I contacted his mother. She told me that it has been only herself and Larry living together since he was born and that they have a very close relationship. She then told me that she was recently diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and that she had been undergoing surgeries and most likely was not going to live much longer.

By understanding what Larry had going on at home, I was able to support him and advocate for him at school. I created an environment where Larry looked forward to coming to school as a refuge from his stress at home. I set up supports for him through the school’s staff and was able to connect him and his mother to resources to help through this difficult time.

I learned that my students are never just widgets in a system; they are each unique individuals with their own lives and experiences. I think about this any time I get wrapped up in classroom management or trying to follow a pacing guide. I need to make my students feel safe. I need to get to know them. I need to communicate with their families to get the whole picture. I have to ask them how they are doing and then genuinely listen to their responses.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I just finished “Lab Girl” by Hope Jahren and just started “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou