Michelle Haller knew she was taking on a daunting task: Start three months into the school year teaching teens who had seen three English teachers come and go.
Get them to learn grammar and analyze dense texts.
And prepare them for tests no one had yet seen, knowing her career would be rated partly on their performance.
So why take the Ashley Park job?
“Every day is going to be potentially life-changing,” the 30-year-old teacher said, “for my students and for me.”
Haller, an eighth-grade teacher, got a degree in fine arts from Tufts University in Massachusetts, then taught at the American School in South Korea. Back in the States, she taught in Union County Schools.
But she wanted to make a difference in students’ lives, so she started teaching students of poverty, first at Sedgefield Middle in south Charlotte, then Ashley Park.
One day shortly after Christmas break, her class was so rowdy that she snapped. “I’m done,” she said. “You guys don’t want to learn? I don’t want to teach.”
But she didn’t quit. She sat at her desk and wrote down her thoughts on why she had lost control.
Haller kept trying. She designed lessons with small-group activities to grab students’ interest. She introduced them to Greek and Latin roots to build vocabulary.
She figured out strategies for disruptions. In February, when she was trying to get students to answer questions about the autobiography of Frederick Douglass and a densely worded letter by President Teddy Roosevelt, one boy kept chattering.
“I will give you a lollipop if you cannot talk for 15 minutes straight,” Haller said. It worked.
And she cultivated patience. In April, working on literary tone and mood, she had students select a strip of paper with a word – gloomy, peaceful, hopeful – and write a paragraph reflecting that tone.
One boy tossed markers, ate Cheetos and insisted he didn’t need to write because he would “make it up in my head.”
“You have five minutes to write this or you’re going to spend next weekend’s mornings with me,” Haller replied cheerfully.
He wrote, crumpled up his paper and argued about handing it over. Finally, he smoothed it out and handed it in – a small victory.
Haller doesn’t know how her students fared on the state exam, which turned out to be significantly different from the Discovery Education tests Project LIFT had used to prepare students.
But she does know this: As this class moves up to high school, she’ll come back to Ashley Park.
“I think next year will be smoother,” she said. “The students have a harder time investing themselves if they don’t have a teacher who’s invested in them from day one.”