Spotlight: Brittany Tinkler (IN '22)March 3, 2023
Dealing with her own learning challenges made Brittany Tinkler (IN ’22) determined to overcome her teachers’ limiting labels and become the educator she needed as a student: “I hope they develop skills that will impact how they overcome hard things for the rest of their lives.” She received her Milken Educator Award at Rosa Parks Elementary in Indianapolis on February 8, 2023.
Milken Family Foundation: You have worked as a classroom teacher and teacher leader, impacting school growth as a whole. How does the longer view help you in your day-to-day work in the classroom?
Brittany Tinkler (IN ’22): I’m now able to focus on what really matters with clarity. As a classroom teacher it’s hard to distinguish between what’s really important and what we can stop overthinking. As a teacher leader, I learned how to analyze data with an intentional lens, how to break standards up into bite-sized pieces and scaffold them in an appropriate way for my students, how to use curriculum as an instructional tool rather than a map, and how to have conversations with colleagues in a productive way, focused on our goal of growing kids.
All of this insight makes the planning I do much faster. I can think on my feet and move at the pace of my students more easily. I’ve learned that it’s okay and even good to model not knowing something and figuring it out in front of my students, because it serves as a model of what learning through failure looks like. I now view any conversation with my colleagues as an opportunity to grow myself. Most of what I’ve learned has come from those around me, whether it comes directly from the conversation or from a reflection about the conversation later on my own.
I’ve also learned that at the end of a day it’s okay to go home and do what I need to do. That might mean going for a walk with my spouse, watching my kids in their sports, working out while listening to my music, or lying on the couch. I’m a better teacher when I fill up my own soul. I’m more patient, understanding, optimistic, and energetic — all things you need to be an unforgettable teacher for young kids.
MFF: What do you like about working with elementary students?
Brittany: I like that I get to impact the way they see themselves at a foundational level. I have the opportunity to plan learning experiences that will remain with them forever. One day these students will grow up and have to overcome much harder things than they go through now, and I get to lay the foundation for how they overcome those challenges. Through the experiences I give my students I hope that they develop skills that will impact how they problem-solve and overcome hard things for the rest of their lives.
MFF: How did you end up in education?
Brittany: Education has been a part of my family for three generations now. My maternal grandfather became an elementary school principal after serving in World War II. My maternal cousins are both educators, and now my youngest sister and I are teachers too. I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a teacher; I used to make up work for my little sister and neighbors to do as we played school.
The idea of school was exciting to me as a child, but I soon developed some foundational gaps that made learning very difficult for me. Being at a private school made it harder for me to receive the support that I needed. By the time I switched over to Perry Township Schools for middle and high school those gaps were much larger and began to affect my behavior.
As I grew older my philosophy of education deepened. I no longer wanted to be a teacher because school seemed fun. Now I wanted to be a teacher so that I could reach every child and strive to understand the way they see the world. This outlook allowed me to overcome challenges, something others never thought was possible.
I was ready to do what I knew I was born to do, but due to my academic struggles, my grade point average was too low to get into a traditional college. I had to take extra courses during summer and start my degree at a local community college. From there I transferred to IUPUI [Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis] and graduated with my Bachelor’s degree on time with a 3.8 GPA. A few years into my teaching career I went back to school for my Master’s degree and graduated from Wesleyan University with a 3.9 GPA.
My persistent character led me to be able to live my dream, and this story is what allows me to empathize with all the students I teach.
MFF: Project-based learning (PBL) has been an important tool in your practice. How does it fit in now with your work at Rosa Parks?
Brittany: I have taken my passion for PBL with me everywhere I go, so of course I hope to spread it here at Rosa Parks! PBL can seem overwhelming until people try it a couple of times, so my evangelism happens in phases. This begins with one or two people who are facilitating PBL units in their classrooms. Students create products, invite community members, and hold a culminating event at the end of their project, and all of these things will be noticed by others and create curiosity. Phase two starts when curious people ask questions and seek opportunities to get involved. Now more people begin trying bits and pieces. Maybe it’s as simple as inviting your whole team to come listen to a guest speaker, while other teammates want to come see what you’re doing in action. This is when the coaching takes place. As more people want to know more about PBL, we’d hope for a training over the summer, so all interested staff members can plan a unit to implement the following year. Eventually, hopefully, this rollout and buy-in process would reach all classrooms.
MFF: Who are your role models?
Brittany: My early role models in education were my grandfather and my cousins. My cousin Katie Brennan is 10 years older than I am and always felt like a big sister. Seeing her become a leader in education inspired me to follow my heart the way she followed hers. My cousin Eric Howe teaches high school history, and it’s his passion—he’s always remembered by his students for his engaging storytelling ability. He also coaches, which inspired me to instill a sense of hard work in my community as a running coach too. Of course, my parents and sisters have always inspired me to overcome obstacles and reminded me that with hard work and perseverance I can accomplish anything.
I had a favorite teacher in high school, Brian Knight. He was actually my dean at the time, but I got really close to him. He always knew how to see in me what others did not. He knew how to identify my strengths and push me in ways that grew me into believing in myself.
MFF: How was your first year of teaching?
Brittany: That year involved a lot of growth for me both professionally and personally. I had an 18-month-old baby, a boyfriend (now my husband) who was going through fire academy training with the Indianapolis Fire Department, my first apartment, and my first classroom full of first graders in an inner-city school. My students were from a very low economic community, and most of my students spoke Spanish as their first language.
My first year was extremely challenging, but I learned that if my students weren’t having their most basic needs met, and weren’t embraced and welcomed each morning in a classroom where they were needed and wanted, then the academic skills for that day were not going to be met. Learning this from year one helped me to ensure that each and every year I create a culture that supports the diverse needs of my students, and to expect that from year to year this will be different.
I’ve received many compliments on the calmness felt in my classroom. That’s not easy to create or maintain, but when the routines are in place and students feel a sense of interdependence, the work that’s produced far exceeds basic expectations.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Brittany: I remember walking into the cafeteria and seeing all of the cameras. I looked over at my student teacher and said, “Wow, I’m glad I don’t have to talk in front of all this!” As we entered the cafeteria, students sat on the floor. Most teachers were sitting in chairs that were set up for them next to their students, but I decided to sit on the floor next to two of my nervous students to help ease their nerves.
The notification began, and it seemed like a normal convocation, with a lovely read-aloud from [Indiana Secretary of Education] Dr. Katie Jenner. As I listened to the story I remember thinking about how much the character reminded me of myself — it really resonated with me, which became evident in the speech I gave later. When [Milken Educator Awards Senior Vice President] Dr. Jane Foley was introduced and began talking about the Milken Award, I started realizing what was going on. I kept looking around the room at all the AMAZING educators around me, wondering who in the world it might be.
Once my name was called I just froze — my face in the pictures says it all. I was thinking, What in the world? Who did they say? Why me? How did I get to this point? I kept thinking about how all I do each day is wake up and do what I love to do, with a continual focus on my “why.”
MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?
Brittany: When my name was announced and I was frozen with shock, one of my students gave me his hand and said, “Come on, Mrs. Tinkler, that’s YOU! You have to go up there!” Listening to him encourage me, the same way I encourage them in the classroom, was a moment I will never forget.
After giving my speech and receiving the Award I walked toward my students. They swarmed me for a group hug and said, “We knew it would be you, Mrs. Tinkler! You really are the best.” Hearing this from them was humbling. I honestly do just go in every day and do what I love to do.
I’m not sure what kind of lasting impact my Milken Award will have on my students, but I do hope that it shows them evidence of our class saying: “Good things happen to good people.” I want them to know that everyone has the ability to work hard and use their strengths to brighten our world. I also hope that through my story I’m not only impacting my current students, but that students across the township see that they can do anything, even if others tell them they are too far behind.
MFF: Any plans for the $25,000?
Brittany: I have two young kids and a hard-working husband at home. I’m a teacher, he’s a firefighter —both community-focused jobs that don’t pay much. Anything we do with the money will impact our kids, their experiences, and their educational needs. We want to provide them with rich experiences that will grow them into people they want to be and who will positively impact our world.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Brittany: Success is having the ability to identify the burning desire you have in your heart for something you want to achieve, and having the courage to pursue it.
My whole life I had to overcome the adversities that people labeled me with. Teachers labeled me with all the things I couldn’t do. For a while that’s all I could hear. My success has come when I fought against the labels people put on me and decided to seek answers to one question: Why not me?
As a teacher I look for the strengths in all my students and phrase any feedback around what I like about the effort they’ve put into their work. I define success by the growth my students make, not what the numbers or previous teachers say about them. I measure their success based on their ability to persevere, and I celebrate these moments with them so that they can see and name their progress. I intentionally point my students in the direction of identifying their strengths, knowing that these could be the things that bring them closer to finding their purpose in this world. Nobody’s success is supposed to look the same; no two people will get to their desired outcome in the same way. It’s important that students understand what success looks like to them, and that I act as a facilitator on their journey to finding their successful destination.
MFF: What do you hope students remember from their time with you?
Brittany: I hope they hold onto the rich, community-focused experiences from our time together, and that they are able to connect those experiences to deepen their understanding of concepts throughout their educational careers. I hope they remember the feeling of setting a goal and reaching it. I hope they remember the feeling they get when they give back to their community and peers. I hope they remember how to talk to themselves when going through something hard. Overall, I hope that what they get from their time with me impacts them as they go into other grade levels, and eventually into the world.
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