Teacher Feature – Ms. Benita Nelson-Tutt

April 7, 2016

(Photo credit: Liz Orfaly)

This March, Inspired Teaching spoke with Ms. Benita Nelson-Tutt. Now retired, Ms. Nelson-Tutt attended the very first Inspired Teaching Institute in 1996 and spent more than 30 years teaching in DC Public Schools.

Inspired Teaching: How did you decide to become a teacher?

Ms. Nelson-Tutt: At a young age, I became really aware of some of my teachers, and it wasn’t in a positive way. As I went through the DC Public School system as a student, I was in classrooms with some teachers I just didn’t have good feelings about. As I got older, I realized that I wanted to be a teacher so that I could help students learn and be engaged. I didn’t want students to feel the pressure and lack of positivity that I felt.

What defines an excellent teacher?

To me, an excellent teacher is someone who takes the child where he or she is and then moves that child to wherever he or she can possibly go. Excellent teachers push students past their comfort zones in a meaningful and supportive way. They interact with children in a way that helps children feel good about learning. When students feel good about their time in the classroom, they learn better and faster and that information stays with them throughout their lives. Excellent teachers make you feel wanted. They make students feel that they can learn, regardless.

How did you find Center for Inspired Teaching?

When Inspired Teaching first started, a few Inspired Teaching staff members came to my school and talked to us about the Inspired Teaching philosophy and all that’s possible when you teach outside the box. Listening to them, I thought “This I what I want to do. This is what I’m passionate about.” So I signed up immediately.

What do you remember most about the Inspired Teaching workshop?

We learned so many teaching methods that were different and exciting to me. Many were things I had always wanted to do in my classroom, and before Inspired Teaching, I thought I was the only one. I thought that if I implemented those things, I would be wrong. Inspired Teaching opened my mind even wider, and I really got excited about the different possibilities. Inspired Teaching told me that it was ok for me to focus on student needs and student engagement. At the time, I think I needed that ok. I needed some reassurance.

Back in 1996, instruction was really structured, and I didn’t want to be that type of tightly wound educator. Whenever I could, I wanted to incorporate a little of my out-of-the-box-craziness (I call it craziness because it was considered that at the time) into my classroom. When I added a little Inspired Teaching into my instruction, I saw how much my kids accelerated in their learning and how much they enjoyed learning.

Why is it important to engage students?

It’s important because then students begin to get excited about what they want to do. Kids are inquisitive. They want to know. As teachers, it’s our job to guide them through their journey. The harder we push them within a positive, supportive environment, the harder students try. They grab onto it, and they run with it.

What are some of your favorite classroom memories over the years?

Well, at one of my schools, we decided we were going to do the Success for All program. It’s an extremely scripted program. It’s timed, and as a teacher you’re told “do this in 2 minutes.” “Do this in 3 minutes.” Even though I knew the time signals, I stopped following them and taught the way I needed to teach to meet my students’ different challenges. My students learned what they were supposed to learn; my students mastered what they needed to learn; and they had fun doing it. At the end of every quarter, the school staff had meetings to discuss student progress, and mine were always leading the way.

At another school, we used Reading 180, which is also very scripted and timed. The program was loaded onto a computer, which was connected to the downtown office, so central staff could monitor when our students were online completing the activity and how long it took them to do each one. As a result, our principal cared the most about the computer portion because that’s what they could monitor downtown. After a few weeks, our completion times weren’t going down, so the principal told me to stop teaching and just let the kids practice doing the computer section over and over. And I couldn’t do that. I had the students come back during lunch or whenever they could to use the computer, but during my class time, I taught. I taught the material so that my students could be engaged and could practice using it. A lot of the activities I used were what I had learned from the Inspired Teaching workshop, and they worked, so thank you.

When teachers have to follow a script, we are forced to focus on time, not students. They tell you the kids will catch up if you move on, but often those students don’t, and then they get further and further behind. If you’re following a script, then nothing is allowed to be personal. Every lesson is just a timeslot you have to get through. Without a script, you can really teach. You can be innovative. You can adjust the timing based on your children’s needs, and that’s so important to ensure students really are learning.

What advice would you give to someone considering becoming a teacher?

My first and most important piece of advice is that you have to have a passion for this. Sometimes, honestly, teaching can feel like a thankless job. But at the end of the year, when you see how your children have grown and how you have inspired them, it really feels good. Go into the classroom with a passion and the understanding that it’s not easy, and that it might get a little discouraging, but the end product is so rewarding. You have to stay focused on the big picture. Once you get in the classroom, it’s about the children taking the lead and showing you the direction that particular class needs to go.

What skills do you think today’s students need to thrive?

Strong social skills are extremely important, as are communication skills. No matter what, students are going to have to be able to work with others, so they need those abilities and opportunities to grow them. When I retired from teaching, there was a growing focus on building these social-emotional skills in some classes, but it needs to be part of all classrooms.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I do want to add how much I appreciate Inspired Teaching. It was powerful how you helped me refocus my teaching and how you guys made learning and professional growth so much fun. I enjoyed every Inspired Teaching workshop I attended, and more importantly, you helped me help my students learn.

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