Top of Page

Travis Pierce-Ryan

  • Travis

    NBCT/Transformative Teaching Cohort/Multicultural Arts High School/Social Studies/Network 15

My story

My name is Travis Pierce-Ryan, I am entering my 15th year as a teacher in the city of Chicago, but I also feel like I have been a first year teacher 5 different times. I grew up in a poor, rural area of Shiawaseee County, Michigan. We had enough money for books and library fees, but nothing else. Looking back we had everything we needed and nothing that we didn't. I have found that my family stories and childhood experiences are rooted in some of the same issues that our students face, but in a foreign context that helps to maintain interest, laughter and safety when dealing with some tough issues.

One of the greatest decisions that I ever made was to attend Lansing Community College. I had no plans to attend university, but when I was there I was able to see just how large the world could be in a classroom. I made friendships that stretched from my hometown to Indonesia. There was an equity in the excitement and diversity of the school, a similar working-class background, and yet a clear and stark difference in levels of ability and opportunity.

The most intense lesson that I leaned about equity and opportunity came through working construction (to pay for college). I worked with parolees, undocumented workers, veterans and people struggling with addiction. I witnessed an accident that killed a man who was just trying to get by, one day at a time. I saw how hungry people were for opportunity.

My equity challenge and how I work on it

I think the first student agency challenge that ever teacher faces is to get out of the way of their students. We think that our job is ""to teach"", and that we must be the source of this teaching. This isn't untrue, but our job is to facilitate learning. Learning is a natural process that students , and in particular teenagers, want to engage in and explore the world. A veteran teacher once told me ""Oh, they are wild, but don't you dare tame them. Help them learn. Everything else will take care of itself."" Many students' energy comes from desperation to find an outlet of expression and creativity.

There is a second challenge: silence. What happens when you give the students the stage, and it remains empty? Does it mean that you have failed to establish a learning community where students feel safe, where everyone can make mistakes and grow? Not necessarily. Sometimes we have to acknowledge that for many years our students have been told to be quiet. We have to acknowledge that students may be struggling to find their voice, to learn a new language, or to be willing to take a risk after living in an environment that is full of trauma and danger.

The third challenge: patience. Sometimes silence is the moment before something brilliant happens. Sometimes we have to create an environment where we struggle, we don't just move on. Zaretta Hammond established four key principals to a successful classroom: humanizing relationships, balancing cultural orientations, cultivating academic mindsets and improving information building blocks (cognitive skills). All four of these objectives is simultaneously urgent and long-term, but all are required to create a classroom of agency.

Quote/motto or one piece of advice for a teacher who is thinking about doing this work

"Student learning can be observed as increased participation over time."
-Dr Aida Walqui

"The teacher's task is to initiate the learning process and then get out of the way"
-John Warren

"The best part of being a teacher is that it matters. The hardest part about being a teacher is that it matters everyday"
-Todd Whitaker

"If you sit kids down, hour after hour, doing low-grade clerical work...don’t be surprised if they start to fidget. Children are not, for the most part, suffering from a psychological condition: they are suffering from childhood.”

“If there is no learning going on there is no education going on. People spend a lot of time talking about teaching without talking about learning. There is a difference between the task and the achievement sense of verbs. You can be engaged in the activity of something without achieving it, like dieting. Teaching is like that. “There’s Deborah in rm 34 she’s teaching”. But if no one is learning anything, she isn’t teaching; she’s engaged in the task of teaching without fulfilling it. The role of a teacher is to facilitate learning- that’s it.”
-Sir Ken Robinson