CHRISTEN SMAJSTRLA 

History Teacher | Heights High School | Houston ISD

Charles Butt Scholar Alum, Rice University

As the 2020-21 school year came to an end, ten Charles Butt Scholar alumni in their first years as Texas teachers shared their learnings and reflections with us. The stories, struggles, and triumphs showcased in this Q&A portfolio provide an honest look at what it’s like to be a new teacher.

Q What does teaching and learning look like right now in your classroom?

A Teaching is still hybrid for all of my classes – some students joining virtually and some in-person. The largest number of in-person students I have in a single class is about 10. I use technology to my advantage with digital escape rooms, game-based learning platforms, digital formative assessments, and other interactives. I incorporate small, fun moments into the day, like creating time for in-person students to draw on the board and regularly sending out memes or jokes to my virtual students. Even if they are virtual, I still ensure they feel connected to the class.

Q What was a challenge you faced this school year and how did you overcome it?

A The biggest challenge that I faced this year was the feeling that I needed to be available to be contacted by students at any time of day. Not only did that impact my mental health, that impacted my teaching. I soon figured out that a less stressed-out teacher is better than one that can be contacted at any time of day. I took off notifications for email and TEAMS on my phone and made sure to list my office hours in my Remind name. We are teachers but we are also humans with outside lives.

Q What have you seen over the course of this school year that gives you hope/optimism about Texas public schools?

A Our school not only provided resources for students, but we also provided a family. Everyone was looking out for each other and it was beautiful to see.

Public school educators dropped everything this year to take care of students. We had teachers learning new platforms, using creative virtual backgrounds, and doing literally anything that they could for students. It is beyond amazing.

Students are resilient. Many of them are thriving at home but are looking forward to being back on campus next year. I have many students that are winning band competitions, becoming dance team captains, and just being themselves.

Families are the biggest part of any school. When parents work in collaboration with the school, everyone is better off. Many of the families that I have reached out to through the course of this year have been extremely thankful that someone cares about their child.

Q What did you learn from your teacher preparation program that helped prepare you for this past year, and knowing what you know now, what do you wish you had learned to be better prepared?

A I learned that students need different modes of learning and I have had to adapt to that this year. Some students get long reading assignments, some get them in Spanish, and some do not get them at all. It is about what the student needs.

I wish that I had learned how to encourage students to stay for small group and not feel judged. It is very hard virtually to keep them on the call and I do not want to call them out and have them feel embarrassed.

Q What advice or encouragement do you have for teachers starting their careers in the 2021-22 school year?

A Find your group of people that will be your classroom to vent, your group text to celebrate, and your good morning in the hall. There is nothing more comforting than knowing that you have someone that will be there for you through the thick and the thin.

Q Thinking about the 2020-21 school year as a whole, what was your greatest lesson, either about teaching or yourself as a professional?

A My greatest lesson is to ask for help. I have always struggled with anxiety and worry that people will judge me for asking for support. That is no longer a worry. There are so many great teachers and administrators at Heights High School that will support me on almost anything!

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