E4E Teachers Talk Back: Grant Walker
Grant Walker teaches middle school reading in Brooklyn and is an E4E – NY member.
What inspired you to become a teacher?
I wanted to move to New York and do something where I could go to bed at night and believe I was making the world a better place. And I wanted to do the hardest thing imaginable. Somewhere over the course of becoming a teacher, teaching has become a profession and a passion for me and I have sought out opportunities to get better and better at it over the years.
Why do you think teaching is “the hardest thing imaginable”?
Teaching forces you to put to work such a broad range of skills, ranging from content knowledge, to interpersonal dynamics to leadership to multitasking to management and organization. And combining all of these things, all at once (as if you were putting it all together in a blender) is incredibly difficult. And we do all of those things every day—you don’t have a choice of when to use those skills because you’re using them all throughout the day. I was talking to some non-teacher friends the other day who told me their worst day was coming in to the office and not having anything to do. As teachers, we never have days like that.
You said you’ve sought out opportunities to get better and better. What has helped you become a better teacher?
Coaching, support, and, most of all, having other great teachers around me. Working with other teachers who stay late, brainstorm together, and critique each other is incredibly motivating. In our school we have a culture of continual coaching and I am surrounded by an incredibly high level of teaching because of that culture. Teaching and learning in an environment like that has forced me to raise my own bar to be on par with the great teachers I work with.
What is the effect of being in a high-performing environment on your kids?
It was interesting to transition to a school where all the teachers are phenomenal because I went from being what I thought was a great teacher to needing to learn a lot. Since all the teachers at our school are rockstars, the kids in our school are used to a high standard. I realized last year that my classroom management (which used to be considered good) needed major work in such a high-performing environment. But that’s good for my kids because it pushed me to be better. There is a mission deeply engrained in all my students, so that when even the sassiest of students complains and asks me “Why are we doing this??”, I can say “Because I want you to go to college”, and it means something. My kids are just as invested as I am in their education.
As an example, already this year, with me not really doing much to make this happen, we’ve had 98% homework completion rate in my classes. There’s such a strong culture here that so much is automatic for the kids because they’re invested in their own education.
What role do teachers play in creating that kind of environment in all schools for all students?
It starts and ends with teachers. This kind of environment gets created with a team of teachers. Anything that brings teachers together in the spirit of collaboration is going to help kids. I feel like E4E is relentlessly positive and it’s a model of positive teamwork that I am glad to be a part of. At the broader, systemic level, promoting positive teamwork and positive collaboration could go a long way to bringing folks together to get them comfortable with the idea of working for their kids.
What advice would you give individuals looking to enter the teaching profession?
I would share with them a quotation from Joshua Slocum, the first man to circumnavigate the world single-handedly in a sailboat. He says:
To young men contemplating a voyage I would say go. The tales of rough usage are for the most part exaggerations, as also are the stories of sea danger... Dangers there are, to be sure, on the sea as well as on the land, but the intelligence and skill God gives to man reduce these to a minimum. And here comes in again the skillfully modeled ship worthy to sail the seas. To face the elements is, to be sure, no light matter when the sea is in its grandest mood. You must then know the sea, and know that you know it, and not forget that it was made to be sailed over.
This job is no cakewalk. It is probably the hardest thing you will ever do. It will put you up against more frustration, defeat, and disillusionment than you are likely ever to face. You will face an immense range of thoughts, doubts, emotions, and feelings.
But this sea was made to be sailed over. It must be sailed over. And it desperately needs those with the skills and talent and perseverance to get themselves to the point where they can sail it. If you can stick with it, you will become an element of fundamental change in the lives of 20, 50, 120 students every year.
And if you maintain a positive spirit, if you don't let yourself fall into the disillusionment and cynicism that every single one of us faces, you will come out of your experience in the classroom--be it two years, ten years, or a lifetime in length--with the commitment, knowledge, and experience necessary to spend your entire life helping put an end to this disgrace that we call the achievement gap.