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Reframe Podcast: Episode 51

The Social Emotional Sides of Teaching

Ben Walker

As an award-wining teacher, Benjamin Walker is interested putting what he calls the “human side of the child first,” which means caring about their social and emotional well-being, as well as their academic performance.

Recently, Benjamin was also awarded Miami University’s 18 of the Last 9 award for his work with a social startup called the Academy Group. And for his work as a full time math teacher at Walter Payton College Prep, a high school in Chicago, where he’s also the director of Advanced Studies.

Read the transcript

James Loy:

This is Reframe. The podcast from the College of Education, Health and Society on the campus of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

As an award-wining teacher, Benjamin Walker is interested putting what he calls the “human side of the child first,” which means caring about their social and emotional well-being, as well as their academic performance. 

Recently, Benjamin was also awarded Miami University’s 18 of the Last 9 award for his work with a social startup called the Academy Group. And for his work as a full time math teacher at Walter Payton College Prep, a high school in Chicago, where he’s also the director of Advanced Studies.

(MUSIC FADE)

Benjamin Walker, thank you for being on the podcast. 

Benjamin Walker:

Yeah. Definitely.

James Loy:

So you’re a math teacher and a director of Advanced Studies. I have a pretty good idea what a math teacher does, but what does a director of Advanced Studies do? Is that a different from a kind of traditional teacher?

Benjamin Walker:

It is. It is. So this is something I love about Payton, where I teach. So I am a full time faculty member and I teach four class of mathematics. But then, the Payton Advanced Studies program is something that, just this year, I'm getting to direct for the first time. So Payton Advanced Studies is the program that we have for students who are … we like to describe them as incredibly compelled and compelling students who are excited about pursuing an independent course of study. So they create an independent research project or an independent course that they'll pursue on their own time for their entire senior year. They write a proposal during their junior year and then I read the proposals, I give them feedback in their proposals and ask them to revise, and then they come back with a plan of study for their entire senior year.

And so, some of these … like Emma Takahashi is studying the physics of ice skating with the goal to … her final product will be a video of her … showing her doing ice skating movements and then describing the physics behind it --- because she’s also in AP physics right now and really loves it -- for the purpose of sharing that video with young women, like middle school-aged girls, to get them excited and interested and kind of a gateway into the STEM fields. So that's an example of a student project. I have other students studying language and cultures from languages that aren't represented in our foreign language Department. I have students who are diving deep into zoology and Micro biology. They're doing research with, like, the various plant life in the lake ecosystem. And then I have some other students studying childhood behavioral development, and going to observe at these daycares and see how that how the children are growing and learning over a period of time. So all sorts of really neat projects.

And then I oversee all of them. So I meet with the students individually about twice a month, and give them feedback on their progress, help them develop assessments for their knowledge, and they give them guidance on making progress towards their final product. So each of them will give a final presentation at the end of the year to a panel of adults, some professors from local universities in Chicago, some community members and stakeholders in the community that makes sense. So they'll present all those. And so, this is the first year that we're bringing all the students under one cohort, or under one roof so to speak. And so, my principal asked me to step up to direct that program. Because I used to oversee just one student at a time in that program, and now I'm overseeing 22.

James Loy:

It sounds like some of these projects are pretty advanced? Was there a big learning curve? Like, I don’t know that much about zoology, so I don’t know how I can help you. That’s beyond my level of expertise. Is that a challenge?

Benjamin Walker:

Absolutely. And so, what I end up doing … so what I am is the advisor that connects them with the people they need to be connected with, if it's not me, right. So I can give them a lot of feedback on “how are you holding yourself accountable to the goals of your program” and “what assessments are you creating and completing in order to demonstrate evidence of your understanding?” But then, if it's how to do this Zoology thing, I'm just, like, let's connect you with a teacher who can support, or with a teacher from a different school, or a professor from University, somebody at the local chapter of the zoology club of Lincoln Park, or something that. I do a lot of connecting students with -- because they are so advanced -- connecting students with the people that they need to be connected with.

James Loy:

So you’ve been a teacher for almost 10 years now?

Benjamin Walker:

Almost. Yeah.

James Loy:

Do you feel like you’ve changed a lot in that time? A common theme among teachers is that the first couple of years you’re just finding your footing. But then, you kind of evolve quickly from there.

Benjamin Walker:

I have changed drastically since I graduated. And it's hard to actually to measure because it feels like every year I’ve changed so much, even relative to just one year ago. And that's something I absolutely love about the teaching profession is how challenging and engaging, and how much it changes all the time, and how much it demands me to change in order to keep up with my expectations of myself. That's something that I think is really exciting, and also, in teaching specifically, when you're working with students and you have these cohorts of students, you're only as good as your current relationships with your classes. And I like that the teaching is the cyclical … there's the cyclical nature of teaching, where you get new students every year. And so, even if you put in a ton of work, and make a bunch of progress, and get the classroom culture to where you're doing amazing work. You have to start over from the beginning. And I really that. That iterative process is something that I found very useful in helping me hone my skills and develop. But I do so many things differently from when I got out of undergrad. And that's actually what I’ve loved about being back at Miami is to see how much the education program, of which I was a part just eight years ago, how much it has changed, as well … sort of parallel to how much I have changed.

So it's really exciting to see that the professors and the teaching staff here are doing so much to evolve the curriculum, and it's to the point where I'd practically don't recognize it. But in the best way possible. So it's really neat to see that while I've changed so much, Miami has kind of changed with me.

James Loy:

So when you just talked about the current relationships that you have with your classes and how the year kind of hinges on that.

Benjamin Walker:

Yeah. It’s true.

James Loy:

Is it tough to develop those relationships from year to year? I’ve heard people talk about – parents, teachers – how quickly students and children seem to be changing. Like, especially with the way they use technology, or the way they may see the world, or the way they may want to engage with the content. Maybe teachers who were able to relate to one class the year, or a few years before, might not work with the next generation coming in. Is that difficult to keep up with? 

Benjamin Walker:

I wonder why, but I actually don't see the students as significantly different from year to year. But . . .

There's more technology. There's more cell phones. But I feel, at the core, a student walks into my classroom, they have an identity … they have an intersectional identity, they want to be successful in the class, they want to learn. They love to engage and use their brain. And they need a teacher who can, one, create a safe environment for them to take intellectual risks and engage and have the things in place so that they can bring their best self. And they want to be social, right. They're high school students and their social identity is a huge part of who they are. That has not changed, I think. And if I can create this this classroom environment where they feel they're a part of something bigger than themselves, where they feel accountable to the values of the community, and they feel accountable to the learning, and they feel like they have the power to hold themselves, and one another, accountable. So if you have a classroom that isn't just hinging on the teacher as the authority. But you have a classroom that hinges on the values of the community, then I find that to be an incredibly hard thing to accomplish. But also successful every time that I'm able to accomplish it. Right. And that doesn't change despite …. The students are different, by the way. But those things about them are not that different.

And so, one difference might be that students have a greater awareness of intersectional identity. They have a greater awareness of issues of equity and inequity in the country. They're much more aware of political polarization. Because I also think actually political polarization has increased since the time I graduated. But they're aware of these things, and it's a part of the conversation, but that does not change what they need to be successful, really, in the class. They've always needed a place where they feel safe, and where they feel like their voice matters, and they feel like they can contribute to a community in a meaningful way. They've always needed that, I think. Certainly it’s what I felt like I needed when I was a kid. And all of the students that I’ve had over the last nine years have needed those things in the same way that -- if I work hard and I problem-solve enough -- that I can figure out how to provide for them.

James Loy:

It’s probably good to know then . . . Maybe it’s encouraging to know that there are these things that don’t change. There are these core, consistent ways that students are that you can try to engage them through. Even though it might be a challenge and anxiety inducing to try and do that, you know, from year to year.

Benjamin Walker:

Yeah. I definitely have that anxiety all the time. As a nine-year veteran teacher, if you can call it that, I'm always worried, like, how am I going to relate to the students? And the way that you relate is the way you relate to everybody. You ask questions and you listen. You let them tell their story. And those things don't change. You do have to make time for it, right. This is part of what I love about teaching is that you teach and then you just have work all the time, and then you're going to student activities, and you're going to these things that show that you care about the student as a whole person, and not just the student as an academic.

But when you do those things, you build a relationship where they see that you care enough about them where they're able to be vulnerable, and they're able to take these risks that ultimately make the classroom a really rich space.

James Loy:

Does that speak to maybe a larger paradigm shift about how we’re culturally looking at the teaching experience? Or, maybe that professional teachers in general are seeing teaching as this evolution toward that relationship-building type of model?

Because I think back on my experience and it very much was . . . I feel like it very much was that teacher as authority model that you mentioned, where this is the content. Learn it. It didn’t seem like this relationship type of experience that it seems to be changing into. Is that part of a new paradigm shift in general? Is that how it’s evolving generally?

Benjamin Walker:

I would love it if it changed like that. Honestly, I would be excited if that were a paradigm shift and not just a rogue shift of people that I would to think of myself a part of, as placing the social emotional well-being and the human side of the child first in teaching. To make it be about relationships, about social emotional well-being, about identity in a way that I really think it needs to be. That has to happen first before anything else.

James Loy:

Alright. Great. So before we run out of time. There is another project that I wanted to ask you about. Beyond your work with Walter Payton Prep, you’re also involved in something called the Academy Group. 

Benjamin Walker:

Yes! Oh man, I haven’t gotten to talk about the Academy Group at all! 

James Loy:

Well, now is the time. What is that?

Benjamin Walker:

Oh my gosh. I'm so excited about the Academy group! So I teach a leadership course with the Academy Group. The Academy Group is an organization that strives to help students from the most resilient communities in Chicago and the United States. So students from the south and west sides, mostly black and brown students, who have been historically disenfranchised from economic opportunities. The organization seeks to create opportunities for these students, so that they can reach the highest levels of leadership in business and society. And so, the two founders of this organization -- the Academy Group -- look at the various gaps that fall along racial lines in the country, especially the economic gap. And their response to that is access to economic opportunity. In other words, we need black and brown business leaders. We need black and brown entrepreneurs, who can lead the charge in their communities, and be a force for good in their communities, and do business for social good. And be the leaders of their communities that help people make gains and be leaders and be successful, and, in a lot of cases, pull themselves out of these incredibly hard situations, like low income and economic devastation. So …. Devastation is the wrong word. But sometimes it feels like that because the inequity is so deep. So economic hardship might be a better way to describe that.

So the Academy Group has these summer programs that …. And we just started. So this was the first full year of the Academy group, and I was on the teaching faculty for the 10th graders. So the students were taking classes in business finance, computer programming, design thinking, social justice, and wellness, which includes fitness and mindfulness, and then my class, which was called the CEO of Yourself, which is hilarious title. But I love it, and I love teaching the class because it's all about asset based leadership, and developing the skills necessary to be a leader of others. 

And what it means to lead for others. And so my co-teacher and I – I taught with the gentleman named Jajuan Pollard, who teaches full time for the for the Academy Group. And then I'm just on the summer faculty because I teach at Payton full time. But he and I developed this course that the students found incredibly transformational. And we start the course with Strengths Finders, and then focus on asset based leadership development throughout the course, helping them do things like build positive habits and redirect unhealthy behaviors. We help them talk about seeing their block and their neighborhood and their identity as assets and the reasons for which they will be successful. Rather than the reasons despite which they'll be successful. And so, it's just a wonderful class and an amazing organization that's doing great work that I feel excited … so excited, that I could be on the … Like, I'm in the first wave of teachers for the Academy Group.

So I'm doing work with them throughout the year. Ultimately the students will go through … we’ll actually start them in 4th grade and go all the way through college. What happens is the Academy Group partners with various businesses in the Chicagoland area, and then the students, once they're in college, will have internships with those businesses throughout college. And then they'll be able to use those connections to be in those same businesses, or start their own businesses, and then continue from there.

James Loy:

So there are so many things your involved in. You’re the director of advanced studies, teaching math courses. The Academy Group. We didn’t even get to all the national education conferences that you often speak at. So with all these things going on, and all the things you’re involved in, what do you hope to do next? Where do you hope to go in the future?

Benjamin Walker:

Yeah. So professionally, I would love to continue to learn. Payton has not tapped me out. I have so much to learn at that school, and in that community. I have teachers and colleagues and admin that really support me and push me. And so, I definitely want to continue my work there. I'd love to build out the Advanced Studies program into a more robust and really solid partnerships in the community. I'd love to see that grow. I would love to continue my work presenting at conferences. I'd like to start consulting work at some point. Because that's something that I find really exciting, is working with other departments, with other teachers and other math departments, in helping them develop and grow in the same way that I’ve enjoyed so much presenting at these conferences. I would to have a kid with Katie. I think it would be super exciting to be a father. We're trying to buy a house right now. So it'd be … I would love to be done with that process immediately, if possible, because that is a that is quite a process. So those are all the things on my short list.

James Loy:

Alright. Wonderful. Benjamin Walker, a graduate of Miami’s department of teacher education and recent recipient of the university’s 18 of the Last 9 award, thank you so much for being on the podcast.

Benjamin Walker:

James. Yeah, a pleasure.

James Loy:

If you enjoyed this episode of the Reframe podcast, there are many more episodes available. You can download them all for free. We’re on iTunes, on SoundCloud, and now on Google Play Music. And thank you so much for listening.

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*Intro/outro music used in podcasts: "Tech Toys" by Lee Rosevere