Meet Our Team: Karen Baptiste
In this new blog series, we are interviewing members of the CT3 team about their background in education as well as the expertise that they each bring to their work with educators across the country.
Why did you want to become an educator?
Being a teacher was never part of my career plan. I didn’t choose teaching, but teaching chose me. I was a journalist, and that’s all I ever wanted to do until a friend of mine told me that I would be great working with kids. I told him he was crazy and that I would never be good at something like that. He kept pushing me to do it, so I took him up on it and explored that path when I became a behavior specialist working at a group home in the Bronx. While I was there, my supervisor came to the housing unit and used this stern, raspy voice to call me down to the office. I wasn’t sure what was going on when he told me “you know, you really need to go into public education. You could do so much more there than you could here. I think you would be great at that.” I slept on what he said because he didn’t give compliments easily! Then one day I was on the train, and I saw an advertisement from the NYC Teaching Fellows that said, “Most students remember their kindergarten teacher. Who will remember you?” About a few weeks later I enrolled in school and created a teaching path for myself by applying to become a NYC Teaching Fellow.
Tell us about your background in education.
While I was working as a behavior specialist, I was also pursuing a bachelor’s in Sociology and Psychology because I was always fascinated with the development and behavior of human beings. From there, I got a Master’s in Urban Education, a second Advanced Master’s in Educational Leadership, and now I will have my Doctorate by May in Leadership and Organizational Management.
What was your first teaching experience like? What did it teach you?
Before becoming a certified teacher, I worked as a paraprofessional and substitute teacher. I only taught special education because that is where the highest need was. I have always gravitated toward people with learning differences because they are often overlooked and under-supported. Being a special education teacher taught me compassion, gratitude, and how to be a fierce advocate around equity. Seeing an overwhelming amount of black and brown youth placed in special education and given labels such as “mental retardation” or “ADHD” was disturbing to me. My students didn’t deserve those labels. And they certainly were not mentally retarded (which is no longer a label recognized or used, thank goodness). That’s what advocacy does! At the end of each year, I would always share with my students that they taught me way more than I can ever teach them, and I would forever be grateful of that. At the end of my first year of teaching, I was voted “Teacher of the Year” by the parents of the students in my class. I didn’t expect that, but I humbly accepted it.
Do you have any regrets from your first year of teaching that you wish you could do over? Why or why not?
Yes! I think back to my lack of understanding and having this belief that I had to be understood. I remember one day I yelled at one of my students because he would never do his homework. I was frustrated from putting in hours and hours of planning over the weekend and not seeing a return on my investment. I told him he couldn’t go to swimming class and that he had to sit with me and the paraprofessional and complete his homework. What I didn’t know was that he had an extremely difficult life he was living every day. He lived with about 6 other people in a 1-bedroom apartment, with no furniture, and one mattress on the floor that everyone slept on, and no lights in the apartment, so he couldn’t do his homework at home because he had no lights. I felt like crap. When I think back to that time, I realized that I didn’t take time to build deep, authentic relationships with my students because if I did, I would have known about his living situation and would have been equally nurturing to my no-nonsense persona. Once I found out that he had no lights, I never lowered the bar or pitied him. Instead, my para asked his parent’s permission to let him stay after school and we worked with him every day after school to complete his homework and develop his reading skills. By the end of the year, Wayne graduated on time, and was able to move his reading level up by four levels. Three years later he came back to visit and told us he enrolled in the ROTC program at school, and how he was grateful that we pushed him to do more and learn how to read because he was able to fill out the application without someone reading it to him. Those moments are what teaching is all about for me!
What is your unique perspective when working with educators?
When working with teachers, coaches or principals, I’m always very observant to school culture and the relationships people have with each other, students, and parents. I’m always on hyper-alert to how students with IEPs are included or excluded in the general population. Schools with trust, high expectations, and love always create a thriving environment. That’s immediately present when I walk into a school, from the minute I’m greeted by school security and the office staff.
What are you an ‘expert’ in besides CT3’s work?
I’m definitely an expert in special education, building school culture, cultivating trusting relationships, and educational policy.
What, in your opinion, is the most important aspect of school in order to best serve students?
Trust. Positive relationships. Equity. And opportunities for students to engage in activities and learning experiences relevant to their life. People know when you care. I always tell teachers that kids will have you figured out as soon as they meet you, as you will spend all year trying to figure them out. Kids are very perceptive and we don’t always give them credit for that. They can tell you everything you wore to school that week. The bottom line here is that kids won’t learn from you if they don’t trust you!
What is your best advice for a first-year teacher?
I would tell a first-year teacher to do more listening than talking. Seek to understand than to be understood. You’ll learn so much more. Allow students to be themselves and to incorporate their life and culture into the curriculum. Just because you’re the adult doesn’t make you right. Acknowledge and apologize when you are wrong, and publicly praise your students. Include parents in the learning process and don’t discount their life experiences. They have many experiences that can support your teaching, so use them! Creating that space of trust and acceptance will give you a return on your investment that beats any stock.
If you could only tell educators ONE thing about CT3’s work, what would it be?
It’s imperative that you make time to build positive relationships with each of your students one-on-one beyond knowing surface-level information about them. Remember, you’re teaching people first. Remove the label of student and see them as a person first. Have conversations with them about their hobbies, and likes/dislikes as you would with your own child, niece or nephew. See them as “our children” and not “these students”. I always tell teachers that “when students like you, there’s nothing they won’t do for you. When students don’t like you, there’s nothing they won’t do to you.”
What’s been your proudest moment working with educators and students?
The proudest moment for me is when an educator’s face lights up because something finally clicked for them and they’re able to do something independent of me. I used to teach adults at night, and most of them, as old as 65 years old, could not read. I would never forget the look on each of their faces when they learned to read and would use those skills to create a whole new life for themselves and their loved ones. That was priceless to me, and it still is! I believe to teach is to spread love because endless opportunities are created that allows that person to pass the torch and touch others in their life with the skills they’ve acquired along their journey.
Click here to learn more about Karen Baptiste, and here to read her thoughts on how No-Nonsense Nurturers in a variety of classrooms can use the Universal Design for Learning framework to support all students, not only those receiving special education services.