On a sweltering Monday evening, I knocked on the door of a suburban home about fifteen minutes south of downtown Columbus. A dog barked and a child squealed with delight as I heard Mrs. Ankney’s muffled voice telling me to enter through the garage door. She greeted me with her usual warmth and we chat as she continued completing miscellaneous tasks around the kitchen. Her energetic four year-old bounced around the house, showing me his toy trucks and asking for someone to join him in playing video games while their gentle and nosy dog seemed more interested in sniffing my backpack. I helped myself to some homemade Chex mix at the kitchen table as Mrs. Ankney juggled preparing dinner and responding to her son’s periodic exclamations of triumph or frustration at his game.
As East High School’s theatre teacher, Mrs. Ankney makes her classroom an accepting environment for her students, and I’ve had the chance to witness the rapport she has with many kids–she’s relatable, candid, and stern all at once, a combination that seems to make her a much-loved figure in the school.
Since TED-Ed Club at East High’s inception in January 2015, Mrs. Ankney has been its steadfast coordinator and champion. As much energy as we put in as site leaders for BCEC, our programs would stand little chance of flourishing without coordinators like Mrs. Ankney who generously give of their time and talent, serving as vital links between BCEC and a given organization’s administration. Through the conversations we’ve had and by watching her interact with students and coworkers, I’ve learned a great deal from Mrs. Ankney. I believe that her perspective, along with that of other educators, is one that is often overlooked. Thus, this blog seemed like the perfect opportunity to make it known and she kindly obliged.
She put some cous cous on the stove and sat down as I clicked record on my phone. What follows is our chat:
Me: Why did you decide to become a teacher and how did you know that that’s what you wanted to do?
Mrs. A: Okay, I wanted to become a teacher when I was a senior in HS–because when I was a kid, I wanted to become a pediatric cardiovascular surgeon, which I know is insanely specific. So I wanted to do that for a long time until I got to high school and I had to take anatomy. And I thought, no that’s not what I want to do. You have to take a lot of anatomy when you go to medical school. My mom was a nurse, so she was in the medical field; she always wanted to be a teacher, but her parents told her they wouldn’t pay for her education if she [became] a teacher.
I decided that I wanted to go into theatre, because I loved it and I had been doing it forever. And I started thinking about jobs I could do, and the idea of being a theatre teacher came up. And my theatre teacher was such an inspiration to me, she was a huge mentor in my life. So I decided I wanted to be a teacher because I wanted to be an artist, but I also wanted to be able to have a family and kids.
Me: Do you find that your colleagues share the same path in how they got into teaching and why they got into teaching?
Mrs. A: I think everyone’s path is different. Some people got into teaching because they had teachers who inspired them, and some people became teachers because they had teachers that they really hated. And I think that drama teachers, especially, there’s this weird perception that people become drama teachers because they couldn’t hack it as artists. And, when it comes to drama teachers, that’s what happens a lot of the time. There aren’t jobs, and it’s so competitive, and so people become teachers. And I think that does a disservice to the students to have somebody teaching them who would have rather been doing something else. But, of course, now that I think to myself that I might want to do something different, too, I wonder if I’m better or worse at my job because of it.
Me: What has been your experience working in the public school system–have you always worked for a public school?
Mrs. A: I have always worked for public schools. I started my career at a high school in North Carolina, at Terry Sanford High School. On my first day of substituting, I met this teacher who was showing me where to go; I was subbing in a culinary class. She was like oh, you’re a drama teacher? We have a drama opening here. I had another job slated for the next day, so I went there, but I started subbing on Monday and then I got hired full time. And then I moved to a school of choice in the district; kids wore uniforms, but it was still a public school. It was phenomenal. My first year was also the principal’s first year, and he had a 100% graduation rate his first five years there. It was the same population of kids that I teach here, but, for some reason, it was totally different. The way the school was run was totally different.
Me: So, what may be the factors that make East run a bit differently than Reid Ross? In your experience.
Mrs. A: East is sort of an emerging school and schools take time to turn around, I think. Usually, they say that, under a new administration, change takes about three to seven years. So, we’re at the end of our third year now, the end of our second year with this complete administration. I think that a lot of change still needs to be made with the way students are handled, the way parents are communicated with, the way staff members are treated. And I…it’s hard, and I don’t imagine that I have all the answers as to how to do it. I try to be charitable in my thoughts about it. But I also know what it’s like to stand at the bottom of a hole and look up, thinking there’s no way we’re going to get out, and then do nothing. Because it is easier to do nothing than to start. So I think that the first couple years, we didn’t…we didn’t push as a staff and everything kind of stayed status quo, even with the different leaders. And I see some good things coming. We’re doing an awesome thing with Harry Wong and the Five First Days of School. Are you familiar with Harry Wong?
Mrs. A: Okay, he’s an educational theorist, and his whole thing is “routine + procedure = structure”. And it’s about using those first two weeks of school to nail down and rehearse expectations so that you’re rewarding behavior instead of punishing ___ re-teaching expectations every time. And if you start firmly–kids do better when they know what to expect–…The school I worked at in North Carolina, the principal had [each staff member] read Harry Wong’s book at the beginning of the year as a school book club. He also used E. Perry Good, she wrote a book called A Connected School, which looks at behavior from a plant-based perspective instead of a rock perspective. A lot of people look at behavior from the rock perspective–just because you push a rock around all day, it’s still going to be a rock at the end of the day. If you look at it as if our kids are plants, plants grow–
Me: In the direction of the sun…
Mrs. A: Right, so she uses that metaphor, and I see some of that creeping its way [into East]. And I’m not sure if we had to get here in order for that to happen.
Me: There is a saying that “people change at the precipice”
Mrs. A: The changes that I’m seeing happen over the summer, in the meetings I’ve been going to and in the things we talk about, I’m really excited about them. It feels sincere, I am excited about it, but I would not be surprised if I went back and things are the same way they always are…I miss going to work and feeling like I’m on fire. I miss getting home exhausted because I had a productive day. I feel like I just run into a wall every single day.
Me: So, moving into some TED-Ed questions, have you seen any kind of changes in the culture of the school in the year and half we’ve been there?
Mrs. A: I’ve seen changes in individual students. I think we’ve got some time.
Me: Do you see it building into something that could [change school culture]?
Mrs. A: I do, I think the things we have planned for this year will help with that.
Me: That’s exciting! So, on that vein, what’s your biggest or craziest idea for TED-Ed Club?
Mrs. A: School-wide.
Me: I love it!
Mrs. A: Yeah, every kid that takes class, to write a TED talk, and to actually give it. It’d be a school-wide event that everyone has to attend. My goal for the end of the year is to have kids looking at what we’re doing and saying I want to do that, not what is that.
Me: Increase our visibility in the school? I like that.
Mrs. A: Yeah.
Me: Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about East, or TED-Ed, or what you do, in general? Teaching, the kids…
Mrs. A: Just that we want more people to see what we’re doing. You know, even if you don’t have a kid that goes to East, come to the plays, come to the football games, be involved in your community. We want them to see what is happening in the schools on a daily basis. Sometimes these schools…they get vilified in the media and there’s all this other stuff, some great things happening, but you can’t sit on your couch and read the Dispatch and think you know what Columbus City Schools is about. You have to come and see.
Me: Mhm, I like that a lot.
Mrs. A: I just want people to come in and to see what it is we’re doing. People who just live in the neighborhood, or even people who just live in the city.
Me: Yeah, for the play, I was so surprised to see like 20 cars in the parking lot…
Mrs. A: And it was phenomenal, too!
Me: They were so good!
Mrs. A: They were so good, and I was so proud of them. And so impressed with the work they did. And no matter how many signs and flyers I put up, I just can’t get people to come to see a play at East High School at 7 o’clock on a Friday night. And that makes me sad. And I get it, that’s a large town mentality, but, I think, if we want to make a difference in our schools, we have to start thinking about the community. There doesn’t always seem to be a connection between the neighborhood/community and the schools. I’m not sure where that comes from, and I’m not sure how to fix it.
Me: Well, I appreciate you sharing your thoughts.
Ms. A: Thank you, are you sure you don’t want any [dinner]?