When trying to think of a way to begin this blog post I did what I usually do: I hit my social media and asked my former students for some help. I asked them to sum up my impact or teaching style. I never know who is going to respond and it’s always risky putting that stuff out there. But, much like while I was in the classroom, I welcome input and feedback. I got things like “unique and helpful”, “truly care about and wanted the best for all your students”, “everything you do has purpose - no time was wasted”, “caring and customized”, “epic fun and everlasting”, and “embracing each individual, engaging in ways others may have never bothered or thought to.” Wow. I’m really glad I asked. After dedicating nearly two decades to teaching these are the stories and feelings I dreamed about leaving behind.
I was never a conventional teacher. Students never touched a single textbook in my class. I believed that the world was our textbook and they belonged in it, learning. I believed that the best learning experiences happen when educational concepts are connected to something real, relevant and hopefully outside. For this reason, my students could often be found exploring caves, suspended in the air on a challenge “ropes” course, traveling to South Africa or simply walking in the beautiful Arizona desert with their journals in hand. I worked closely with a variety of charities, locally and internationally, to demonstrate to my students that to truly understand the world and all its wonders, both human and natural, people must dig in and get their hands dirty.
I also believed in the power of humanity and that given the right opportunities, students would rise to any occasion to help and support others - as well as learn.
This meant that students spent a lot of time in my class thinking of ways to tie our concepts to giving back to their community. That looked like spending time at retirement homes recording their stories so they could be passed on; interviewing war vets to put real faces and names to the books we were reading; raising funds to take refugee students shopping; and creating an anti-bullying curriculum that they then taught at our middle school, complete with an anti-bullying rap song.
I still believe in the power and purpose of all those things.
After 19 years in and around the classroom, I was getting restless and in need of something different. I toyed with the idea of leaving education, but it broke my heart every time I looked at potential jobs. It wasn’t until I was serendipitously tagged in a post by a former student about a job at CharacterStrong that I instantly realized I had found my next calling. The best part about getting to work for CharacterStrong is that I get to continue working in the field of education and at the same time extend my reach to classrooms everywhere and promote something that has always been a passion of mine: investing in the humanity of students and teachers.
Excited doesn’t come close to expressing how I feel about getting to join this amazing team. It is a true gift to work alongside people who are walking their talk. I look forward to using all of my experience in the classroom to support building positive cultures on campuses everywhere.
Here are a few of my favorite ways to create solid relationships in the classroom along with some more responses from former students.
Build relationships and community before you even think about diving into the content:
I know that for many teachers the thought of “giving up” a week of instructional time at the beginning of the year may bring on a sense of panic. However, if there is one investment that I made at the beginning of every year that paid off exponentially it was doing just that. I didn’t start any content until I knew for a fact that every student in the class knew everyone’s names, something meaningful about them, and had overcome some challenges together. I would then reinvest in this process at least once a month adding new and exciting challenges that brought them even closer together. “I loved that you weren't afraid to toss the program out the window if it wasn't working. You didn't take ‘This is the curriculum’ as ‘this is what I am limited to teaching towards’, and whether you provided supplementary instruction or took us in a whole new direction we all came out the better because of it.” Chris Griffy, class of 2006.
Keep it real:
Both with the curriculum and with yourself. Early in my career, I had a lot of teachers tell me to “keep my distance” or “don’t bring too much of yourself into the classroom”. Frankly, this is horrible advice. I do not want my students to shut themselves off when they enter the room and become detached, and so why would I do that? Students want a detached curriculum as much as they want a detached teacher - not at all. Connect your curriculum as often as possible to things going on in the world. Things that matter to your students. Things that matter to you. Just connect it to something bigger than a test. “Caring and customized! You always made sure to create assignments with lessons that could be carried into the real world with valuable applications. You built your curriculum around important skills that were valuable for ALL your students.” Guadalupe Garcia, class of 2016.
Maintain High and Meaningful Expectations:
Any student who has ever had me will tell you that I made them do hard things. I was constantly pushing them out of their comfort zones. I refused to accept “I can’t” from any of them. I fully believed that if I lowered the expectations or gave them an out that all I would be reinforcing was that I didn’t believe in them either. So we took risks, big ones. Sometimes they worked like magic and sometimes they bombed and BOTH experiences were worth it. Those high expectations and risks lead to amazing work getting done in the classroom and in the community. “You're real with students and leave a lasting impact. I can honestly say that at the time you may have been my least favorite teacher because you didn't let me get away with less than my best. Nearly 13 years later I can recall more experiences from your class than most. As a teacher you pushed me past my limits, as a result, I realized I could do more than I thought possible. In hindsight, I'm grateful for having had you as a teacher. It pushed me to be better while allowing me to see I could do better. To this day I still know what diction means. Every time I have to write an important email, respond to a customer, or train an agent, I analyze what I'm saying to make sure it is as impactful as I want it to sound. Without you busting my butt back in the day I wouldn't think twice about my word choice. I may not be where I am as a result, so I can't help but thank you.” Jordan Lynch, class of 2008.
I have no idea where this next part of my journey will lead or the impact it will have. I only hope that I can continue to create lasting connections while we work together to spread kindness and create positive school cultures everywhere.
Krista Gypton taught for 19 years and has received numerous awards for her teaching and student community service, including the 2008 Arizona Teacher of the Year Ambassador for Excellence. She is an emphatic believer in the power of service to others and has traveled as far as South Africa with students to give back. She has been a keynote speaker and trainer for the past 11 years, both nationally and internationally.