texasmonthly.com: You are featured in Dorothy McConachie’s book, Top Texas Teachers. How were you chosen?
Carolina Carner: They picked 35 teachers from across the state. One of my students nominated me at Barnes and Noble in Round Rock. McConachie got thousands of entries, and I was picked out of all of these teachers.
texasmonthly.com: You’ve only been teaching for a short time, yet you’re already considered one of Texas’ top educators. How did you learn the secrets of good teaching so quickly?
CC: Some people say I have a natural ability to teach, but it has a lot to do with the people I work with. They helped me from the first day that I got here. Plus, my students are awesome.
texasmonthly.com: In your opinion, what is the most important quality a teacher can have?
CC: Patience is a good quality, as well as enthusiasm for teaching and your subject area.
texasmonthly.com: Why did you become a teacher?
CC: I became a teacher because I wanted to help people. Also, I love science and wanted to share that knowledge with all of my students. I try to encourage them that even starting in sixth grade, they can do whatever they set their mind to.
texasmonthly.com: How do you keep the attention of sixth graders?
CC: I try to keep my lessons as interesting as possible. I also make sure my students understand that the rules need to be followed. It is especially important for students to pay attention and follow lab safety rules in a science classroom.
texasmonthly.com: What do you do with a student who is just not interested in learning?
CC: With those students, you have to take a personal interest in them and talk to them one on one. You have to find out why they don’t like the subject. Sometimes teachers don’t make subjects come alive. I try to show my students that science applies to their life. Then it becomes important to them, and they take ownership in it.
texasmonthly.com: Have you encountered problems caused by under-funded programs?
CC: Our school district is going through Chapter 41 right now, so a lot of the money from our school district has left. But if I need things, parents and students will bring them to me. I will spend my own money to make sure we have whatever we need.
texasmonthly.com: Are most public schools too large to give the kind of personal attention children need?
CC: I’ve got about 25 to 30 kids in a classroom. If I had 35 to 40, that would be too many to do the kind of activities that I like to do. But if you have structure and order to your classroom and you make lessons interesting, then it doesn’t matter. The kids will learn.
texasmonthly.com: How do you feel about the tracking systems that most schools use?
CC: In our district we put everybody together. In my classroom I have every level of ability from gifted to struggling. It works well. I just have to target them in different ways. Also, pairing students of varying abilities helps everyone to learn.
texasmonthly.com: What about the TAAS test? Is it a good measure of what kids are learning?
CC: Yes, to some degree. We’re not doing the TAAS anymore. The new test is the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). It’s supposed to concentrate more on higher-level thinking. It’s much better.
texasmonthly.com: How is today’s junior high different from junior high when you were a child?
CC: I think all the same issues are there. Kids still have to deal with peer pressure and trying to fit in. They are exposed to more. They are leaps and bounds ahead of us as far as technology goes.
texasmonthly.com: Some people feel that girls and boys are treated differently in the classroom and encouraged to do different things. Have you noticed this?
CC: Not in my classroom. I don’t know what other people do, but I really try to encourage students to do whatever they want to do. Sometimes girls come in thinking that scientists are men, but in the past couple of years, I haven’t seen that as much. Educators start talking to students in elementary schools about how women can be police officers or doctors. I am starting to see a positive influence on the girls; they think they can do anything.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think that parents are involved enough in their child’s school career?
CC: Yes they are. There are some parents that aren’t, and I wish that they were. But hopefully, when they’re not there, we make up for it. We really try to help those kids that aren’t doing well.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think that parents can be too involved?
CC: No comment. Seriously, I have very involved parents and that is wonderful. They have their child’s best interest at heart. I would rather have a parent that is over-involved than a parent who does not care.
texasmonthly.com: What can parents do to enhance their child’s time in school?
CC: They need to know what’s going on in their child’s life. We have so many ways for the parents to find out what the kids are doing. They can call or e-mail us. We have a homework help line, where they can call and find out what the assignments are. Plus, they can be in PTA.
texasmonthly.com: What has been your greatest challenge so far?
CC: A couple of kids seem like they have already given up, and it’s only sixth grade. It is difficult trying to reach those students and give them hope that they can do something with their life. One really good teacher can make a big difference. You really don’t know what kind of influence you have over kids.
texasmonthly.com: When students leave your classroom at the end of the year, what do you hope they take with them?
CC: I hope that they learn to respect one another, follow rules, and write in a complete sentence. I also want them to take a little inspiration.