Education

Q&A with Muscogee County School District’s 2017 Teacher of the Year

Crowns were part of the table centerpieces at the Muscogee Educational Excellence Foundation’s annual gala Thursday night in the Columbus Convention & Trade Center to symbolize the event’s theme: Teachers are our community’s crown jewels.

After MEEF announced Early College Academy of Columbus social studies teacher Shane Larkin is the Muscogee County School District’s 2017 Teacher of the Year, he ensured many of those crowns ended up the next day on the heads of his students to emphasize this message: “They’re what make the crown jewels,” he said. “The teachers need the students to make that happen.”

Early College junior Jaquavia Davis, 16, got that message.

“It feels like we were a part of him winning,” she said.

Jaquavia described Larkin as “an extraordinary teacher. He’s outstanding.”

Larkin trusts his students, she said, sometimes even letting them grade their own papers.

“He lets you go off onto life and then watch over you as you’re doing it on your own,” Jaquavia said.

Larkin also was her teacher in seventh grade at Arnold Magnet Academy. He connects with his students, Jaquavia said, by making his world history class relevant to their lives.

“He lets us express our beliefs,” she said.

Early College sophomore Herman Hatcher III, 16, is in Larkin’s U.S. history class, where Larkin has motivated him to earn his first A average in social studies.

“The way he teaches and how he communicates, it just clicks in,” Herman said. “I’m able to actually understand. We just don’t work in the book. He tells you and gives you examples, and he adds his own twist to it.”

Such as sneaking into the computerized review game Kahoot as a player against his students.

“He makes learning fun,” Herman said.

But he balances that fun with getting the job done. Early College principal Susan Willard said Larkin is “the epitome of professionalism. He’s always prepared … Shane Larkin does the best lesson plans I’ve ever seen.”

And he changes those lesson plans when the test results indicate he should.

“He’s always assessing,” Willard said. “He not only assesses the kids, but he assesses himself. He’s always raising the bar. ‘Oh, they didn’t get this, so I need to do something differently.’ He’s always looking at what he can do better to get his kids what they need.”

Despite getting only about two hours of sleep the previous night, Larkin was back in his Early College classroom Friday morning and took time for a Q&A with the Ledger-Enquirer during his planning period. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

As the Teacher of the Year for the district, you are considered a spokesman for the profession. What do you want to advocate?

“The overall theme is bridging the gap between the community and the schools. It’s so important. I think that’s why MEEF is so valuable. There’s a lot of lack of understanding, and so if you can bridge that gap, a lot of those issues will go away. … Most people base their knowledge of schools off the experience they had, even some of them 50 years ago. We know schools are so different from that. … There’s a lot of misunderstanding about public education out there. … It blows my mind when people say schools are failing. If people really knew what’s really going on in schools, it would be a whole different perspective.”

So how should we bridge that gap?

“I would love to see more community members come into the schools, from our school board members to any members of the community that want to come in. I think most teachers would be very welcoming to have them come and sit in their rooms. … I was in the Army for a long time (10 years), and I work much harder as a teacher than at times I did as a soldier. That’s another piece of the community I want to see get involved. Soldiers and veterans have so much to offer the community. … I want them to realize soldiers possess so many intangibles I didn’t realize work so good in classrooms. … Leadership, how to deal with personnel, how to make decisions.”

What other skills did your military training give you to be an teacher?

“Professionalism, being at work on time, how to talk to people. The biggest thing is the team concept. The team concept is so important, realizing what goes on in schools is not about you; it’s about the big picture. First and foremost, it’s about the kids sitting in these seats. … I’m about results and making sure these kids are set up for success. We’ve got one shot at it. This is not a laboratory.”

Maybe you could speak to some veteran groups and motivate more to be teachers?

“I would love to get veterans involved in this. Some of them, I don’t think they have the confidence they could do it. … But most of them already possess the skills needed to be successful in the classroom.”

You mentioned the perception of education failing can be pervasive. What is working well in this district that people might not know about?

“I think a lot of (superintendent) Dr. (David) Lewis’ vision, building lifelong learners, making sure that’s important … creating opportunities … constantly evolving to do better, if it’s vocational or the fine arts academy, finding ways to reach students effectively. The most damaging thing – it’s probably the thing that angers me the most when I see it in newspapers and hear people say it – is ‘failing’ schools. What that does, that destroys, maybe not the school itself, but the students, parents, all stakeholders involved. That’s hard to take when you say, ‘Your school is failing.’ Well, they’re failing one criteria, a test given by the state. That doesn’t mean those schools aren’t doing amazing things.”

Early College Academy has been an answer to some of that. It’s been an amazing success, with a 100-percent graduation rate, a 5-star climate rating. Explain the concept, and what are y’all doing so well here?

“It was designed to try to seek first-time (in their family) college graduates. Most of our (160) students live in poverty or have been in poverty, and they don’t have some of the tools others have. … Their freshman and sophomore year, they do the normal coursework. We’re building them up. We have tutoring and things to get them to qualify for Columbus State University or Columbus Tech. … The next year, they start college. The juniors and seniors, after first period, they’re gone (to their college classes), and they’re not back until after noon. … Some of them learn hard at first. They don’t do well like they normally would here. But then they figure it out. Several of our students will have 30 hours of college credit, so they will graduate high school as sophomores in college. It works, and it gives these kids an opportunity.”

That’s powerful because it’s life-changing?

“Absolutely. I never realized that until I experienced it. If you’re from extreme poverty and many other things, crime – we’ve had homeless students – it’s a transformative power. It can be in one generation.”

And you embody that power. Do you share your background story with your students?

“Somewhat about it. They know I grew up in a huge household … and a pretty dysfunctional family. They don’t know all of it.”

Do they know you also are the first in your family to graduate from college?

“Yeah, I’ve told that to them to show them that education can change you like that. … Teachers can’t look at students from an ivory tower. You have to have empathy. You have to understand what students are going through. Some of them have everything needed to be successful, but the student sitting beside them may not have some place to sleep that night.”

What concerns you most about education now?

“Lack of knowledge from a lot of people who are making legislative decision that can impact education. Sometimes they have the right thoughts, but they don’t understand the pedagogy, the pieces needed to do this, not truly understanding education, from how the testing is set up to even how classes have been at times removed. … To minimize the arts, … you’re limiting options when you do that. … It’s not throwing money at it, what people think, it’s creating more options. … How is computers not a core subject?”

You mentioned state testing. What would be your ideal accountability system, how to measure the performance of public schools and teachers?

“I think school-based. Put it in the hands of the people who understand what’s going on. I wouldn’t mind even stakeholders in the community coming in. … I know there has to be some type of measures, but I know when we went to school the teachers controlled much of that. What better way to judge a student’s progress than by the teacher who observes them, then by the local administrators in the building. I see what high-stakes testing does to students, and it stresses them out. … I don’t mind our students at this grade level. They can handle it. But it’s what it does to third-graders, first-graders, making kindergarten so academic. . … Let kids be kids in elementary. Let them enjoy learning, to love learning.”

You use a lot of test data to tweak the way you approach a student or group of students based on your own assessments, right?

“That is useful, but you’ve got to know how to use it. I think we messed it up, around 2000, with the PISA test, the Program for International Student Assessment. They used that as a weapon to scare people, to get legislative things passed. It probably wasn’t in the best interest of our schools. They were comparing us to places all over the world on an aggregate level, but you can’t do that in the United States, at that time probably 310 million people and with diversity greater than any place on the planet.”

In your Teacher of the Year application, you told a compelling story about how being deployed with the U.S. Army in Kosovo and teaching English to Serbs led you to choose education as your career. How should we attract and retain more teachers who don’t have such a dramatic opportunity as you did?

“I think MEEF does a good job of that. To me, that’s marketing. They’re showing what teaching is and how it can be rewarding. … That’s a great recruitment tool, but I think we’ve got talk at universities, at high schools. I even ask these students sometimes, and I get shocking answers: ‘I can’t be a teacher because of the money and all that.’ That’s a teachable moment. … I talk about quality of life. .. If I want to take the entire summer off, I can. … Teaching is the easiest and hardest job you ever do. When you get in front of students, I don’t care what day you’re having, that goes away instantly. … They make you laugh. They make you mad at times, but most of them make you laugh. They make you say, ‘I never thought of something like that’ or ‘I never looked at it that way.’ You learn so much from students. … You feel success quick as a teacher. There are a lot of jobs where you may have to work for years to truly start feeling like you are an important piece of that organization or community. You can be 22 years old (as a teacher) and be one of the most important pieces in the building.”

ABOUT SHANE LARKIN

Age: 41

Job: Teaches U.S. history, world history, world studies and Advanced Placement Human Geography at Early College Academy of Columbus.

Experience: Ninth year teaching. Has taught at Early College Academy of Columbus since 2014 and from 2008-14 at Arnold Magnet Academy. Served in the U.S. Army for 10 years and left as a staff sergeant and infantry squad leader. Also worked for the U.S. Postal Service.

Education: Earned two bachelor’s degrees, a master’s degree and a specialist’s degree from Columbus State University.

Hometown: Shinglehouse, Pa.

Family: Wife, Dana, assistant dean of students at Columbus State Universiy; daughter Noelle, a sixth-grader at Richards Middle School; daughter Hailee, a third-grader at Clubview Elementary School.

Recommended book: “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media” (1988) by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky. “That’s a changing perspective,” Larkin said. “You will look at the world in so many different ways.”

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