Spotlight: Tiffany Tynes Curry (OH '16)March 14, 2017
At her surprise Milken Educator Award notification, Tiffany Tynes Curry (OH '16) shared her personal story with students and colleagues. "I was once a statistic—raised by a single parent, living in poverty—but through continued educational opportunities, I was able to transform my life," says Tiffany. "My students realized that we are more alike than different." She received Ohio's 2016-17 Award at Weinland Park Elementary School in Columbus on January 24, 2017.
Milken Educator Awards: How did you end up in education?
Tiffany Tynes Curry: My many teachers influenced my decision to become an educator. I was fortunate to have dedicated educators who planted seeds of excellence in me, nurtured those seeds, and provided the foundation that I am now extending to my students.
MEA: Why elementary school?
Tiffany: Because I know I have the capacity to provide opportunities and experiences that will help my students love school. My favorite thing about kids at this age is their developmental maturity: They use complete sentences, understand my humor and are largely self-sufficient. The most frustrating thing is that in my context, elementary-age kids are exposed to so much at an early age. My students are not children anymore. The barriers they deal with on a daily basis have robbed them of their innocence. They have seen too much.
MEA: What was your first job?
Tiffany: Working at a Wendy's fast food restaurant. I learned that I never wanted to work fast food again. I also learned the importance and value of working as a collaborative team—not to mention learning from your own and other people's mistakes.
MEA: Who was your most memorable teacher?
Tiffany: Mr. King, my high school social studies teacher. He was also my basketball and track coach. He was a hilarious teacher and an excellent coach. I was very good at sports. I was also very competitive and did not like to lose. During some of my track events, I would cry if I messed up or did not perform as expected. He would always remind me that there's no crying in track. If I continued he would take me out to the middle of the field and kiss me in front of everyone.
Mr. King also supported me as I transitioned to college. He wrote me a letter before graduating from high school telling me that if he had had a daughter (instead of his two sons), he would have wanted her to be just like me. Knowing Mr. King, or "Dad" as I call him, was the first time I experienced father-daughter love. His wife—I call her my "other mother"—extended the same kind of love. They helped me navigate the world and exposed me to opportunities that, unfortunately, my mother had never experienced and thus could not teach or provide for me.
MEA: Any educators in your family?
Tiffany: I was the first to graduate college in my immediate family. There are many educators in my extended family. Unfortunately, my grandmother died when my mom was nine, and despite having family members in the same city, my mom grew up in the foster care system. I knew my extended family, but we were not raised together. It was only after I became an educator that I learned that so many of my family members were in teaching as well.
MEA: What subject did you like (or not)?
Tiffany: I always loved school and learning in general. My least favorite subject was geometry, in which I earned the first unacceptable grade in my life. Thankfully, I was still able to remain on the honor roll. I advanced to higher math classes and did well, but I was not a good math student or thinker. It was truly a surprise when I became a math teacher.
Once I became a teacher, I discovered that I loved math. I was able to make connections! I was disappointed that my teachers had focused so much on procedures and did not teach me how to think mathematically. I also realized how important it is for my students to love math and (just as important) that I must not communicate my math anxiety to my students. Instead, my goal became to teach my students how to think mathematically, and to stop focusing on the "right" answer.
MEA: Tell us about your first class.
Tiffany: I graduated from Wittenberg University in May and began teaching fifth-grade math (departmentalized) in August. Of course I was nervous on my first day of school! I was teaching fifth-graders. They might have been children by age, but they looked like adults: They were tall, fully developed and outspoken.
Overall, my first year of teaching was amazing, and I learned so much. I taught at a school seven minutes away from where I grew up. I felt like working in an urban environment was the right decision—I knew that God had placed me there. I learned so much from the seasoned staff I worked with. The hardest thing, however, was trying to navigate all the responsibilities of being an elementary teacher while coaching high school volleyball. I also discovered the importance of being flexible and making instant decisions. No textbook can teach you how to be an effective teacher.
MEA: What impact do you think your Milken Educator Award presentation had on students at your school?
Tiffany: The Milken Educator Award presentation was a surprise for us all. My students were able to see me vulnerable (floods of tears and speechless for once). My colleagues and students had the chance to hear my story and to learn that I was once a statistic—raised by a single parent, living in poverty—but through continued educational opportunities, I was able to transform and impact my life in a positive way. My students realized that we are more alike than different.
MEA: What do you hope your students remember about you and their time in your class?
Tiffany: I hope my students always remember that educated individuals can successfully navigate society as they develop the skills necessary to become productive citizens in a global community. Being educated is empowering!
MEA: How do you involve parents and families in your class?
Tiffany: Family involvement is a struggle at my school. I communicate frequently through classroom newsletters and other communication structures. I also ensure that I attend every monthly Parent Night or school-related event to work closely with parents.
MEA: What's your favorite time of the school day?
Tiffany: I do not have a homeroom class, instead teaching four small 75-minute math/science blocks each day. My largest class size is 14 (classes split in half), which makes it easier to address the needs of my third-grade students. My favorite day, however, is Thursday, when I have an hour to engage in professional dialogue with the fourth- and fifth-grade math teachers during our Teacher-Based Teams. We discuss student artifacts, instructional practices and other professional development topics. Truly empowering!
MEA: What's the biggest challenge you face in your classroom?
Tiffany: Students enter my classroom two or sometimes three grade levels behind. Also, our students deal with a lot outside of school; unfortunately, education is not always top priority. We deal with a lot of emotional-social issues with our students ("fight or flight" mentality) which impact the classroom environment negatively and interfere with students' ability to access and retain learning.
MEA: If someone gave you a million dollars for your school, what would you do with it?
Tiffany: I would create an in-house wellness center where students have daily access to nurses, doctors, social workers, counselors and psychologists. I would also create programs that teach parents how to parent. We need a system designed to teach the whole child: mentally, physically, emotionally and academically.
MEA: If you hadn't chosen a career in education, what would you be doing right now?
Tiffany: I would probably be doing something in the behavioral sciences. My concentration in undergrad was in behavior science (sociology, psychology and criminology). I always enjoyed classes about studying and observing others.
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?
Tiffany: Our nation needs to do a better job respecting the teaching profession. At one time, teachers were highly regarded and respected. I also believe that the salary should be comparable to other professions like doctors, lawyers and engineers.
Most importantly, please stop trying to make urban schools operate as a business. Charter schools are overly represented in poor urban areas, weakening the public schools. There may be some successful charter schools, but [I haven't seen them] here in Ohio. Politics, politics, and more politics! Our nation has to stop injecting politics into schools. Educators or other individuals in the trenches should write educational reform, policies and curricula, and should make other educationally-related decisions—not politicians.
MEA: Finish this sentence: "I know I'm succeeding as an educator when..."
Tiffany: ...when my students know how to work past their own expectations.
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