Spotlight: Amara Alexander (AL '16)March 16, 2017
Though Amara Alexander (AL '16) always preferred science to novels, her first job was teaching sixth-grade English. Vampire fiction got her hooked on books. Amara received Alabama's 2016-17 Milken Educator Award at Horizon Elementary School in Madison on November 29, 2017.
Milken Educator Awards: How did you end up in education?
Amara Alexander: Honestly, I received a C during my first semester of college in a broadcast journalism class. It broke my heart! I struggled in the class and did not have an interest in the discovery of color television. After that I chose a major: Elementary Education. The first teaching course was Introduction to Education. Oddly enough, the instructor was Tammy L. Alexander, also known as my mother [and a 1998 Alabama Milken Educator]. The class didn't bore me and I was excited to learn about the history of education. So I stuck with it and became a teacher. I never had that "aha" moment when I knew that I was destined to teach. Becoming a teacher seemed like a natural fit.
MEA: Why elementary school?
Amara: Elementary education impacts a child's journey throughout school. I have taught fifth and sixth grades, and I love this age group. They are at that awkward stage in life. They are witty and fun to be around. They get my sense of humor. The most frustrating thing is the paperwork!
MEA: What was your first job?
Amara: Working at a local grocery store. I learned how to make connections and build relationships. I also learned how to "go with the flow." Each day was different because of the range of customers who came into the store. I take all of those experiences into the classroom today. I make connections not only with my students but with colleagues and parents or guardians. In my 10 years of teaching, no day has ever been the same as any other.
MEA: Who was your most memorable elementary school teacher?
Amara: For me, it was the music teacher at Lynn Fanning Elementary [in Huntsville]. I only attended the school for one year, but I looked forward to music class. Music has always been a passion of mine and Mr. Music—odd that I can't remember his name—deepened my love for it. At the end of the year I had a lead singing role in the performance and I remember singing in front of the school.
MEA: Other than your mother, are there educators in your family?
Amara: Several of my family members are ministers who teach in a variety of settings. My father has served as the Baptist campus minister at Alabama A&M University for over 30 years. I watched him teach college students as a young child. My maternal grandmother and two uncles are also in the preaching/teaching ministry. My mother says that when I was in second grade I announced that I was going to teach. Ms. Outz, my second grade teacher, must have instilled that in me.
MEA: Which subjects did you like (or not)?
Amara: My favorite subject is science and my least favorite is math. My hardest subject was language arts. I didn't like to read or write. I tackled it by not giving up and finding another friend or student in the class to help me.
MEA: Tell us about your first class.
Amara: I began teaching in a sixth-grade English/Language Arts class. That was the first surprise. At the time, I did not enjoy reading or writing! I had to instill a love in my students for something I wasn't passionate about. The funny thing is I began to enjoy the content while I was teaching it. During my first few years as a teacher, the Twilight series [young adult fiction about teenage vampires] came out. A few teachers encouraged me to read the books and join their discussions. I've been reading ever since.
I can't remember that first group of students—the first year is a blur. I was teaching a subject I needed to learn and I coached cheerleading. All the demands of teaching took me by surprise. I was prepared for the lesson plans and the teaching, but the paperwork associated with being a teacher, the meetings, parent conferences and the other stuff were a shock.
MEA: What impact do you think your Milken Educator Award presentation had on students at your school?
Amara: I think they were just as surprised as I was. The students have been thrilled since the presentation, even the students I have yet to teach. The day after, one student was cheering down the hallway as he saw me standing to greet students. Since the Award it has been a whirlwind but a wonderful experience I can share with my students. Looking forward, I hope more learning opportunities will arise, and I will be able to gather innovative teaching practices and incorporate them into the classroom to impact student learning.
MEA: What do you hope your students remember about you and their time in your class?
Amara: When I think of teachers who have impacted my educational journey, I don't recall the assignments given, the tests or quizzes. I remember how they encouraged me, inspired me and believed in me. I have an emotional connection with those teachers; their energy motivated me to excel. I hope my students recall the same about Ms. Alexander.
MEA: How do you involve parents and families in your class?
Amara: I try to give parents the opportunity to "see" what is happening in the classroom by posting our learning on Edmodo.
MEA: What's your favorite time of the school day?
Amara: Morning, definitely. It provides an opportunity for a fresh start and sometimes it's the only time I can get to myself. I arrive early to prepare: I play some jazz, meditate and get ready for the day.
MEA: What's the biggest challenge you face in your classroom?
Amara: The biggest challenge is management—not the students, the "stuff." Teaching is easy. It's the paperwork, deadlines and pop-up meetings that are challenging.
MEA: If someone gave you a million dollars for your school, what would you do with it?
Amara: In my dream world, I would redesign my classroom. First, flexible seating. Sitting at those old desks and tables for hours at a time is boring! I would buy comfortable seating and high-top tables to create a more relaxed atmosphere. Next, I would expand the classroom for more space. Conducting science or any subject in a confined classroom limits the exploration of learning. Can I call the Property Brothers [HGTV home renovation experts] for help? Paint for an awesome mural of leading scientists, engineers and app developers with inspirational quotes. The science learning lab would be equipped with the latest technologies for students to explore—a fun, chic learning environment like Apple or Google.
MEA: If you hadn't chosen a career in education, what would you be doing right now?
Amara: Anchoring the TODAY Show. I worked at Alabama A&M's radio station, WJAB, during college. I enjoyed radio but the ultimate goal would have been television. Matt, Savannah, do you need a guest co-host?
MEA: What can our nation do better to encourage young, capable people to consider teaching as a career? How can we motivate new teachers to stay in the profession?
Amara: We need to elevate teachers as a nation. I appreciate the commercials where actors share their "favorite teacher" stories—we need more of those. We need to talk to students about the impact teachers make on all other professions.
What about an acronym like "Give Me FIVE" as a model? FIVE stands for Fun, Innovative, Visionary, Engaging. I think if we framed teaching this way people would run to the profession.
- Fun: A good teacher helps students learn lifelong lessons in a non-threatening way and creates an environment where all students can learn and believe that they can achieve. Students are challenged to ask and answer their own questions, make mistakes and grow in a fun and friendly atmosphere. The culture is one of inquiry.
- Innovative: If one method doesn't work, try another. Good teachers use teachable moments and work outside of the box to ensure learning takes place.
- Visionary: A good teacher sees the potential in all students, sees the next doctor, nurse, engineer, teacher and U.S. President sitting in the desks, on the floor, in the hallways and on the field. Good teachers set high expectations for all.
- Engaging: Good teachers engage students in learning both within and outside the classroom. They are enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the subject they teach. They attend PTA meetings, ball games, concerts and more to let students know they care.
In order to motivate new teachers, we need to have a solid induction program in place. New teachers need mentors to help them navigate the system and stay abreast of the paperwork. They need someone to listen to them. We should provide ongoing professional learning opportunities and give time for teachers to collaborate.
MEA: Finish this sentence: "I know I'm succeeding as an educator when..."
Amara: ...when I have a former student come back and say, "Learning was fun, and those experiences have impacted my life far beyond the classroom."
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