How I Teach

Prayers, precision and push-ups: A special ed teacher puts his unusual background to work in the classroom

Caleb Asomugha embraces his students while on a field trip.

Caleb Asomugha’s professional life has taken many turns. He spent time exploring his faith in seminary, is a member of the Army Reserve and ran his own fitness business as a personal trainer.

Asomugha’s latest venture: Teaching special education at Academy for Young Writers in East New York, where he is halfway through his first year. Now, he uses prayerful patience and military precision to execute classroom lessons — and he isn’t afraid to hit the floor for push-ups with students who need to get their energy out.

“That just helps them refocus,” Asomugha said. “Kids like to move. They get bored sitting in one place.”

Asomugha made his way to the classroom through New York City Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification pathway for new graduates and career-changers, and has been mentored through NYC Men Teach, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s initiative to draw more men of color into the education profession. Asomugha and a fellow teacher recently landed a grant through NYC Men Teach to create an honors program that will expose students to different career options and link them with young professionals for mentoring.

Asomugha co-teaches math, science and band, along with an “enrichment” class designed to help students work on reading and math skills — all in an integrated sixth-grade classroom.

Here’s how he works with his teaching partners to meet the needs of his students with disabilities, and how Asomugha draws on his varied life experiences while in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I was a personal trainer doing pretty well, and I just felt that I was not doing enough in life to give back and to leave an impact. So I decided to get into teaching in order to fulfill those inner desires to inspire kids, specifically from low-income communities, to be able to achieve greater in life.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

We put a stack of 50 note cards on different students’ desks. We told them they had 10 minutes to build a structure that reaches 16 inches high, and they were only able to use a certain amount of tape. [The structure had to] support the weight of a teddy bear for 10 seconds.

The students, they quickly were doing their thing. And a lot of their structures, when we went around and tested it, were not able to maintain the weight. So after that, we had the students investigate. We had websites pre-loaded for them to research different structures and what contributes to their strength.

After their investigations, they had an opportunity to refine their design. We retested it and I would say about 90 percent of their structures supported the object for the time limit. Afterwards, we had the students reflect on what they did and we reviewed vocabulary.

I got that idea from a professional development seminar from Urban Advantage, a program that helps teachers strengthen their science instruction.

You have to collaborate with four different teachers to plan your lessons. What’s that like?

I have the opportunity to share a trusted relationship with each of these teachers that gives me the liberty to either offer insight on their teaching practice or have them offer suggestions to mine. However, this does not come without its challenges, [such as] making the time to meet with four different teachers throughout an already busy week.

My role specifically is to modify content for students with learning disabilities or who need information broken down a little more. In these instances, I sometimes prepare a breakout location within the classroom or in a separate classroom where students who need further assistance (not just students with specific learning disabilities) can come and receive a slower paced, more detailed lesson that may include visual cues, manipulatives [like blocks or other props] and activities. Also, because I am a traveling teacher, which means I travel to most classes with my students, I have a better sense of what lessons will engage the students best.

What’s your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?

From my experience, students usually lose focus with the lesson when they are either fidgety, tired or bored. In these cases, my go-to trick to re-engage that student is to take them outside and give them an opportunity to get their blood flowing. Sometimes it’s a water break and other times I’ll do a light exercise with them if they choose — push-ups, jumping jacks.

However, if it is the rare case that the entire class is off, then I will give them a quick brain break. In this 3-5 minute period, I will have them either do a fun class activity, a breathing exercise or a quick game. This time is also really critical for me to take a mental assessment of why the students are disengaged. Sometimes, I will have to add quick tweaks to the lesson or modify the length of the student work. In most cases, each of these strategies work.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? 

One way that I am able to build relationships with them is with my boxing club. A lot of my male students are in that boxing club. We have forged a great relationship and obviously that carries into the classroom.

In any after-school club, a lot of teachers and facilitators will find the students are a little more relaxed and a little more able to be open with their coaches … I have some of the richest conversations with kids after school, just because it’s their time to be competitive, their time to engage in teamwork — and they look to me for advice as a coach, and not just a teacher. It just opens up the levels of trust.

I also take advantage during lunch, as much as possible, to go down with the kids and talk about how they’re doing. I’ll ask a student, “What’s going on? How was school today? What’s on your mind?” A student will tell me either they’re good, or this-or-that is bothering them, and what should they do about it. That’s such a vital opportunity for me, because that can be a time where I can add an intervention right on the spot, before it escalates into something more serious.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

My cell phone, because I’m always in contact with parents. I have a lot of my parents’ cell phone numbers programmed in my phone — and vice versa, they have mine. Much of my success thus far has been because of parent engagement. I try as much as possible to stay in contact with my students’ parents.

Can you think of a time when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach?

I have tons of those, but there is one from recently. There was one student who we had been having a lot of trouble with. This student not only was being very disruptive in class, but the student would often come to class late. We tried a lot of times to get in touch with the parents, but it turned out that both parents worked a ton and they weren’t able to come up to the school for a parent conference.

Me and another teacher decided to go on a home visit, and that was a really great time because we were able to sit with the parents and the student, and get down to the root of why the student’s behavior is the way it is. We were able to, all together, set goals for the student — goals for which the student was able to add input.

After that meeting, that student’s behavior has become a ton better.

Most of the success I’ve experienced as a first-year teacher is because of parent engagement. That has been my go-to as a teacher.

How I Teach

From bikes to blue hair: how one Denver kindergarten teacher shares his passion with students

Andres Pazo, a kindergarten teacher at Denver's Maxwell Elementary, with his class.

How do teachers captivate their students? 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 this series here.

Andres Pazo, a kindergarten teacher in an ESL Spanish class at Denver’s Maxwell Elementary School, doesn’t do things halfway. Before Denver Broncos home games, he’ll come to school with his face and hair painted orange and navy. For holidays or school book fairs, he wears full themed costumes. A passionate cyclist, he dresses in professional cycling gear to teach bike safety to children.

Pazo, who colleagues say has a smile for everyone he meets, received one of Denver Public Schools’ four Leadership Lamp awards last summer.

He talked with Chalkbeat about the teachers who inspired him to enter the field, why he uses secret codes to get his students’ attention, and how he gets to know students before school starts.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I’m from Caracas, Venezuela, and decided to become a teacher during my last year in my country. For all the universities that I applied to, I put elementary education as my first choice, and I got accepted.

During high school, I had some teachers that impacted my life — I think because they taught with their hearts and reached mine. Hector Zamora was my geography teacher in college. He didn’t care about scores. He just wanted us to know, love, and feel geography. Also, I can add Evelia Mujica, my eighth grade biology teacher. She was super-strict and funny, but in the end, I think she just wanted us to love and really know about biology. These two still inspire me every single day to be a good teacher.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is a room where my students feel safe and loved, and where they try hard all year long. It’s also messy, and you can see many masks and hats that I use to engage my students in lessons, and, of course, their projects throughout the year.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _____. Why?
Motivation. It is what keeps me thinking of activities, projects, lessons, and ideas so my students enjoy anything that they need to learn.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
My favorite lesson to teach is a writing unit at the end of the year, called “All About.” I always bring in things that I love — like my bikes — and write about them. I let students write about any small moment: about something that they love, the food their parents make, a family trip, a family visiting them, a good or sad day … anything they would like to share. They usually bring in their favorite toys.

The students’ writing is amazing because they apply everything they’ve been learning. They try so hard to write everything about their toys. You can hear them sharing their stories with others, and their pictures are incredible. Writing is a good indicator of how much they have grown during the school year.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I sit with him or her after the lesson is taught and work on the skill that needs to be mastered.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I use a lot of “secret codes” with my students. For example, when I say “mustache code,” they put a finger across their upper lips. They can be working, reading, or playing, and when I say it, I have 100 percent of students’ attention right away.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
It starts before the first day of class. I usually write letters to them or do home visits. I take the first two weeks of school to get to know them and what they like to do. I take time to welcome them so they can feel safe and confident in the classroom.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
When I was working at Denver Center for International Studies at Ford, we started a home visiting program. We first thought parents didn’t have time for us or that they didn’t want to take the time. But, once we started making the calls and found that parents wanted us to come, we understood that parents didn’t know about the program. After that, some parents became more involved in their kids’ education and with the school.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
A lot of mountain bike reviews about bicycles, parts, or trails to ride.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Never change my personality.

How I Teach

Tupac, Shakespeare, and ‘Stranger Things’: How a top Tennessee teacher relates to her students

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Katherine Watkins was one of 45 educators — and one of two Tennessee teachers — honored nationally in 2017 by the the Milken Family Foundation.

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.

When Katherine Watkins found out she would receive a prestigious national teaching award, her students at Millington Central High wrapped her into a huge bear hug.

“We relate to her because she relates to us,” one of her students said when asked why they enjoyed her class. Watkins was honored as a Milken Educator Award last November in front of her students, colleagues and Tennessee’s top education official.

Watkins was one of 45 educators — and one of two Tennessee teachers — honored nationally in 2017 by the Milken Family Foundation.

We asked Watkins about how she strives for relatability in her classrooms, where she teaches literature, English and coordinates the school’s yearbooks. Millington Central High is racially diverse and made up of about thousand students, one-third of which are described as economically disadvantaged.

Read in her own words how she uses pop culture to build classroom rapport and how she learned not to get flustered when her students got off track. (This Q&A has been edited and condensed.)

What does your classroom look like?

My classroom is full of books, images, and objects I’ve collected from my travels. These include a handmade Venetian mask I brought back from Italy, pictures I took while standing in front of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and a twelve-volume, leather-bound edition of the complete works of William Shakespeare that was published in London in 1786

Some people might say I’ve lost my mind to keep such precious relics within reach of teenagers, but I interpret the “value” of these treasures somewhat differently. I want desperately for my students to know and care about the world that exists beyond their immediate reality, and sometimes the best way to achieve that is through tactile experience. I’m trying to cultivate independent thinkers who have the confidence to test limits, ask tough questions, and arrive at their own conclusions. That can’t happen without direct confrontation with the unfamiliar, and until I can afford to actually take them to the places we read about in the literature we study, my souvenirs will have to suffice.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

I could not teach without my close-knit group of teacher friends. This is only my third year at my current school, but everyone was so warm and welcoming when I arrived that it really felt like coming home. We even have a group chat we use every day to share funny memes, vent about our frustrations, offer words of encouragement, and talk through ideas. Feeling like you can be yourself around friends in a judgment-free zone makes all the difference when it comes to a high-stress job like teaching.  Without that kind of solidarity, I know I wouldn’t be nearly as resilient or effective in the classroom.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?

I used to get visibly flustered if students were talking or off task during the lesson. It took me a couple years in the classroom to realize that getting upset is the least effective way to deal with this problem. Many students misbehave because they crave attention, so getting upset is the same as relinquishing control. Nowadays, I vary my approach depending on the severity and intent of the disruption, but regardless of the situation, I never lose my cool.

I have the most success defusing behavioral disruptions through the use of nonverbal cues, which can be as simple as changing my position in the room. For example, if a cluster of students is off task while I’m addressing the whole group, I continue lecturing and simply move to where the problem is occurring and the behavior stops. I’ve also become a sort of Jedi master at the don’t-you-even-think-about-it stare of disapproval. The right look delivered at the right moment can work wonders for classroom management. 

PHOTO: Katherine Watkins
Watkins said she starts each year by giving her kids a questionnaire that asks about their interests, hobbies, attitudes, and past experiences.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

Before my first day at Millington Central High, I had little idea what to expect of my new school and its students. I had driven through Millington a time or two on my way to other destinations, but that was the extent of my familiarity with this community. During my initial interview, I was briefed on school demographics: Millington is ethnically diverse with a high percentage of economic disadvantage, a large SPED population, and nearly a quarter of students coming from single-parent households. It would be a lie to say I never questioned whether the school would be the right fit for me. I worried about my ability to make a connection. Would my students accept me? Would I be able to make a difference in their lives?

I always start each year by giving my kids a questionnaire that asks about their interests, hobbies, attitudes, and past experiences. I use this information to get to know students and begin establishing a rapport. Left to my own devices, for example, I would never be motivated to keep up with pop culture trends, but if a large number of my students are listening to a particular artist or watching a specific TV show (Stranger Things anybody?), I make a point of consuming the same media so I can connect with them over more than just academic content. This extra effort on my part—cultural research, if you will—has worked wonders with the kids at Millington. The look of shock on their faces when they realize I can quote lines from Hamlet as readily as the lyrics to any 2Pac song is priceless.

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

Knowing what’s going on in a student’s home life is a crucial part of being a good teacher, and I always try to consider the bigger picture when difficult situations arise. I have had students come forward with stories of abuse, students who have experienced the death of a parent, and students who are basically raising their younger siblings because Mom works three jobs and Dad isn’t around. A student who arrives to school late and sleeps through first period could just be lazy, but it would be callous and irresponsible to punish the child without first having a conversation to find out what’s causing the behavior. We can’t forget that kids are human beings too, some of whom are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. Teaching has made me realize that you can never really know what someone else is going through until you make the effort to understand. This is why it’s so important to reserve judgment and approach students with patience and compassion.