12/03/2014 11:00 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

In Room 201, It Takes Two to Tango


By Heather McCarthy

"What's your job?" I ask my third grade students. "To learn!" they exclaim enthusiastically. "And what's my job?" I follow up. "To teach us!" they reply, matter-of-factly.

My students know that I care and they know that I think they matter. But more importantly, they know that my number one priority is to teach them to master skills, and that their job is to get their brains and bodies ready to learn. They cannot sit passively because their effort matters as much as mine.

Co-teaching with and observing effective teachers while incorporating strategies from Teach Like a Champion into my daily teaching routines have given me the skills I need to teach in my district. I teach close to 30 third graders in an inclusion classroom in a high-poverty district where most students speak languages other than English at home. But instilling in my students the idea that their thinking matters and that true growth and success can only come when both of us put in effort has allowed me to thrive as a teacher.

Yes, various formative and summative tests' data prove that my students are learning math and literacy skills needed to be successful in today's world. But the excitement I see in my students' eyes as they line up outside my classroom door every morning wondering what "entrance question" I will ask them is my personal proof that they "get it." I hear them whisper, "What's she gonna ask?!" and "Oooh snap, that's a hard one," as I hold up the math problem they must solve. They know that from the moment they reach room 201, I will expect 100% from them. In return, I will give them 100% of my own effort.

Like many teachers, I give pre-assessments to gauge my students' understanding before teaching a concept. My students are aware that I do this so that I know what to teach them. They also know that if they have not shown mastery of this concept, I will re-teach it another way so that they understand it better. And they know that I won't do the dance alone; as I re-teach something a different way, they must try to learn it a different way. Even at nine years old, they are aware that we are partners on this educational journey.

"Yet," is a small but powerful word in room 201, because it's common knowledge that if a student answers something incorrectly, they simply haven't mastered it "yet." But with commitment and effort, we change that last "t" to an "s" to acknowledge that "Yes!" we have learned and mastered something. Together.

I am constantly learning and yearning to be the best teacher that I can be, in a district where it sometimes seems impossible to see success. But knowing that the students I teach are cognitively aware that my job is to teach them and their sole job in school is to learn, makes my day easier and a whole lot more fun. I'm confident that it makes my students' days, minds and hearts better, too. Doing the dance together can be a whole lot better than doing it alone. As a former dance teacher, I can attest to this.

As an elementary teacher in an urban, high-poverty school, I am called upon to be a teacher, nurse, therapist, coach, dean, mom and dad throughout nearly every minute of every school day. But despite what else is on our minds that day, my students and I all respect that my job is to teach and their job is to learn. Because it takes two to tango.

Heather McCarthy teaches 3rd grade inclusion in William A Berkowitz Elementary School in Chelsea Public Schools. She is Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.