Volume 16 Issue 3
By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
English teacher Brooke Nicolls
Are good teachers born or made?
It’s a question worth pondering in an era when nearly half of all educators quit before their fifth year of teaching and the profession is under constant attack.
English teacher Brooke Nicolls admittedly was not the best teacher starting out. Most teachers, if asked to chart the trajectory of their careers, would probably say the same about their initial experience as educators. As in any career path, a teacher’s success depends greatly on the support, mentoring and professional development they receive along the way.
The path wasn’t always easy for Nicolls. She barely survived student teaching and her first solo year. She got pink-slipped early on. She nearly quit from burnout, yet found a way to rekindle her passion.
Her achievements over 25 years of teaching are noteworthy. Nicolls earned a master’s degree in 1995, received National Board Certification in 2003, and was honored by the Carlston Family Foundation in 2009 for outstanding teaching. She is one of a group of teachers at Grant High School in Sacramento who created a new curriculum designed to change culture in low-performing schools.
Still, Nicolls doesn’t see herself as being particularly special.
“I’m always trying to find new ways to improve,” she says modestly. “There are lots of teachers who are just like me.”
The early years
Nicolls knows a thing or two about personal transformation. Nicolls was always “the new kid” because she attended seven schools as a child, finding her niche as a basketball player. She doesn’t recall being encouraged to go to college. Her father suggested she join the military.
She assumed she couldn’t afford college, but a high school coach urged her to apply to American River Junior College on the last day of registration. She transferred to CSU Sacramento, where she changed her major five times before earning a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in business administration. Three days before the deadline, she applied to the school’s teacher credential program and was accepted.
“I was incredibly lucky, even though I was uninformed about college,” she says. “I always tell kids to ask questions, find information and make informed decisions. I tell them they have options.”
Student teaching at diverse Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento was “eye-opening,” she relates. “I was naive thinking that I was going to walk into a classroom with students sitting there eagerly waiting to learn and their books open — and it’s not like that. I went into the classroom and started teaching, and boy, I wasn’t very good.”
With little direction from the master teacher, Nicolls did the best she could. A fight broke out in her classroom. A student made a pass at her. Classroom management was a constant challenge. She taught the way she had been taught — opening a book and reading vocabulary aloud.
“Gosh yes, I was boring!” she says. “Without a sense of humor, I couldn’t have gotten through it. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
She earned her teaching credential but wasn’t sure she would ever set foot in a classroom again. She took a job at UPS. While substitute teaching for extra income, she received a job offer to teach and coach basketball from Rio Linda High School in Sacramento County and accepted. She was assigned a class filled with “behavior problems” that had gone through eight substitute teachers. She operated in “survival mode” and continued the same style of teaching, trying to bond with students.
The turning point
During her second year, she began attending an after-school workshop series run by the Area 3 Writing Project at UC Davis. It transformed her style of teaching.
“I remember thinking, ‘Ohhh, now I get it — this is teaching!’” she recalls. “Suddenly I was part of a group of people who were talking about how to make connections with kids and how to teach writing, and what I was hearing rang true for me. It was serendipity. I never looked back.”
She focused on making material relevant to her students. “For example, when I introduce them to the book 1984, I no longer start by asking them what they know about George Orwell. I learned that you have to start from where the kids are and help them to find themselves in the material so they have a voice. I ask them about privacy, whether their parents have the right to look at text messages, and whether the government has the right to go through their car without permission. I ask them how it feels to be racially profiled. I ask them to discuss things they care about and then move forward.”
Once engaged, students improved their behavior. She found that with higher expectations, students began acting like grown-ups.
“I learned how to scaffold curriculum, so I wasn’t just getting kids interested in a topic and saying, ‘Here, write about this,’” says Nicolls. “I learned how to move them along to increasingly complex tasks so they could build on their skills and apply them in a variety of ways.”
Her pacing changed, too.
“The best thing I learned from the Writing Project is to look at where my students are and let that influence what I am going to teach next. By looking at where they are, I can constantly adjust.”
She told students there was no excuse for failure, and did something unusual: She put her phone number on the board and told them to call her if they needed help with homework. “I said, ‘If you are not willing to take advantage of this resource, shame on you. And if you are sitting around on a Saturday night and prank-call me, apparently you need dating advice.’ I only got two or three prank calls in my entire career, because my kids understood that I wanted them to succeed and do well.”
Her confidence grew as a teacher, and her students were showing growth. But she received a pink slip her third year due to budget cuts.
"I knew it was coming; I was the person with least seniority,” she recalls. “I felt that I was a good teacher, but that I was disposable. It was very painful.”
She lost her job, but didn’t lose her spirit. Fellow Writing Project members who had also received pink slips formed a support group, and several of them became involved in a summer program called Transition to College for the Area 3 Writing Project, where they created curriculum and thematic units of instruction.
“I wanted to focus on moving kids beyond valuing material things so they could examine their own sense of what’s right and wrong and learn how to make decisions for themselves,” says Nicolls. “The thematic unit revolved around short stories, nonfiction and a novel about what to do in certain situations, how to problem-solve, and what kinds of things should really be valued. It was geared toward students traditionally not college bound.”
Her “team of five” was invited to come teach at Grant High School in 1990, where nearly all of the students are at the poverty level. The newcomers were asked to implement their new curriculum, and gradually the school environment become more collaborative and professional learning communities were formed.
"Within the English Department, our goal was to bring in rigorous curriculum and make it accessible,” she relates. “Teachers became more cohesive and shared common expectations. Students knew what to expect from one grade to the next and had continuity. We also wanted to build community so students could participate in discussions and critique each other’s work in an environment where they felt safe. We wanted to set guidelines and consistently model the behavior we expected from students. We wanted our classrooms to be a microcosm of larger society, and instead of just assigning work, we wanted kids to take ownership of what they were doing and set goals for themselves.”
The school has risen steadily in achievement, and Nicolls calls Grant High School “the best-kept secret” in Sacramento. She was offered a job at a more affluent school, but turned it down so she could stay where she felt most needed.
Nicolls sought to continue her education, and was accepted into the master’s program in international multicultural education at the University of San Francisco in 1994.
“It was very strenuous,” she says. “I came out of the program a better teacher — and also a better person. In the program, we examined our teaching, philosophies about life, cultural differences and personal bias. We looked at what it meant to be part of a global community, and it gave me a world view instead of relying on my own view of the world.”
In 2003 she received National Board Certification at the urging of her district, which paid for the application process. Certification further improved her practice.
“The most beneficial thing about the National Board Certification Process was taking time to reflect on the choices I made about why I chose certain assignments, what I looked for in student work and how it informs the next steps I want to take. It was like putting a microscope on choices I make and reflecting on those choices. What should I do next time? What really works?”
Nicolls, a teacher for 25 years, almost quit during her 10th year.
“I felt burned out and tired of the paper grading, the time commitment, the seemingly endless needs of my students, and changing administration,” she says. She considered attending fewer workshops so she would have more time to catch up on paperwork and lesson planning.
Then she was invited by the director of the Area 3 Writing Project to become a more active participant in professional development opportunities. She felt torn.
“At first I resisted, thinking that I just couldn’t do one more thing,” she recalls. “But then I said yes, and to my surprise, as I became busier, I felt differently. I felt energized because I was doing more than just being a teacher. I was given the opportunity to see myself as a learner. I wasn’t just ‘feeding’ others. I was being fed as an intellectual, as a reflective thinker. I was given time to share ideas and talk through what worked and what didn’t. I now had a larger and more constant professional community — one that challenged me and helped me to be a better teacher.”
Nicolls is aware of the attack on public education, the magazine headlines that cry “Fire the bad teachers,” and the fact that teachers are undervalued and underpaid.
“What’s being lost in this discussion is the importance of professional knowledge,” she relates. “Some people feel that teaching doesn’t require anything. They say, ‘I went to school and I can teach.’ They discount the knowledge and experience that teachers bring to the classroom. But this knowledge and experience helps them be good teachers.”
Experienced teachers, says Nicolls, need the opportunity to grow, reflect and see themselves as learners alongside their students. “I’m always thinking of things I can do better. That’s what has kept me in the profession so long.”