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Teacher Spotlight: Vanessa Ellis

Vanessa Ellis Veterans Memorial Middle School Social Studies Teacher/Department Chair
1. How long have you been teaching?

This is my 12th year in education.

2. What inspired you to pursue a career in education?

I always knew from a young age that I wanted to be a teacher. I helped my younger brothers with homework and taught them basic life skills, such as how to tie their shoes and how to play with others. In the summers, my family would fly to Jamaica, where I was born, to teach vacation Bible school to rural children. My parents saw that spark in me from a young age and gave me a platform to change lives in my home country. I tutored my friends throughout school who were “too cool” to ask the teacher but felt safe and secure asking me for help. Teaching has been my passion for as long as I can remember. I was born to be an educator.

My time in Muscogee County School District also inspired me to be a teacher. I had some AMAZING teachers at Dawson Elementary School, Rothschild Middle School, and Jordan Vocational High School. I am a product of public schools, and I just wanted to do for students what so many teachers have done for me—provide a space for me to have fun, take risks, and learn meaningful lessons that set me up for success beyond the classroom.

3. What is your favorite thing about teaching or your biggest success story?

My absolute favorite thing about teaching is helping middle schoolers rediscover their love for learning. Babies and elementary school students are like sponges who soak up everything. They have this earnest excitement to learn that, unfortunately, seems to erode over time. Adolescents are bored in school, and learning becomes a chore. So I've made it my mission to reignite that spark in my students. My classroom environment, the language I use, and the assignments I craft all guide students to work to learn, not just earn grades. To embrace challenges and be confident that they can do hard things. To find satisfaction in learning new things and overcoming obstacles. I consider helping students to find joy in school to be my biggest success story and my favorite thing about teaching.

4. What challenges do you face in the classroom?

The challenges I face in the classroom are not unique to me but representative of what all teachers are experiencing across the profession. Teachers are tired. There is an unrealistic expectation to accelerate the learning that was "lost" due to the pandemic. Motivation and achievement have definitely been affected, but these issues existed prior to the pandemic. Due to staff shortages, teachers are having to use their prep time to cover classes and wait for late buses. The biggest challenge, in my opinion, is a general lack of respect and appreciation for teachers. We see it in the policies that are made without teacher input, the impossible workload, what is said about teachers online, and how teachers are treated by some students and parents. All of this impacts student morale and contributes to burnout.

5. How do Gallopade products or Gallopade Curriculum help you in the classroom?

I have a very diverse set of students who range in achievement, reading level, English proficiency, motivation, and life experiences. The Gallopade Curriculum is accessible to all learners, in print and online. The readings provide a baseline for all students. Each section is followed by activities to check for understanding or enhance student learning. I especially love the charts, graphs, and primary source documents to support students' information processing skills. Not only is it beneficial to students, but also as the teacher, I appreciate not having to look for or create these resources.

6. What is something that every student should know about teachers?

Every student should know that teachers are human, just like them, and we ask that they show the faculty and staff the respect we deserve. Put yourself in a teacher's shoes: Having a class or classes of diverse learners in today's public schools—different races/ethnicities, gender/sexual identities, socio-economic statuses, languages, learning and physical abilities, etc. Think of all of the time and energy that goes into planning lessons to reach all of those students. Imagine being responsible for their physical and psychological safety from bullies, severe weather, or the possibility of an active shooter. After a long day at work, don’t forget we have our own families to take care of as well as ourselves. We just ask that students empathize with us and trust that we are doing our very best for them.

7. What advice would you impart to a new teacher or someone who wants to become a teacher?

My advice to a new teacher or someone who is considering entering the teaching profession is the advice I wish someone would have given me: Do things that bring you joy and reevaluate what doesn't. For instance, I love creating engaging lessons for my students. I put a lot of time in energy into that. But I don't love grading assignments. Teachers spend hours, in insolation, pouring over students' work, slapping a grade on it, and entering the grade in the grade book. There is little-to-no communication with the student about what that grade means nor time and opportunity for students to show improvement based on the grade. And I've found that it's nearly impossible to quantify learning anyway. To me, it all feels pointless. Grading doesn't bring me joy, so I reevaluated what grades mean in my classroom and how I grade. My students play a big role in their grades. We work together to identify strengths and areas to improve. Students self-evaluate their work, revise and resubmit to show growth, and select a grade that best encapsulates their learning. Grading is now more joyful for me and the student because it's a collaborative effort in which students have more agency in the grades that they make.

8. What do you love to do when you're not teaching?

After work, my happy place consists of a yummy dinner, a hard run, and a couple of episodes of my favorite show with the hubby. The weekends are for soccer games with the kids, family movies, and date nights. Once a month, I aim to do something out of town, like a hike in the North Georgia mountains, visiting a new city, or seeing my favorite comedians or singers perform in a cool venue. Taking time for me protects my mental health and replenishes my weary teacher soul so I can return to work the best version of myself.

Do you know an educator who goes above and beyond the call of duty to inspire their students? Nominate them to be our next Teacher Spotlight!


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