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5-in-5: Q&A with Teacher Kyair Butts

Most episodes of Future of School: The Podcast feature a “5-in-5” rapid-fire interview with an innovative teacher―five minutes, five questions, five perspectives direct from a practitioner. The podcast prioritizes hearing from every voice in education, from the association and district leaders driving purchasing and policy, to the teachers delivering instruction in the online or physical classroom, to the students and parents who have experienced the benefits of having meaningful choice in education.

The latest episode of Future of School: The Podcast features a “5-in-5” interview with Kyair Butts, a sixth grade teacher from Baltimore City Public Schools. Kyair was Teacher of the Year in 2019 and 2020 largely because of his passion for adopting technology in his classes, his stellar mentorship of his students, and the facilitation of great minds and wisdom.

Our 5-in-5 interview series highlights teachers’ perspectives on the future of school. Read below for an edited recap of the conversation between Kyair and Amy Valentine, Future of School CEO and Education Evangelist, or listen to the full episode above to hear from Kyair, as well as Ray McNulty, President of the Successful Practices Network.

Amy Valentine: Kyair, what was the first experience that opened your eyes to the potential of blended and online learning for your students?

Kyair Butts: We used a lot of technology during the school year, so I’m fortunate to say that before March and switching to a crisis or distance learning ─ whatever term you choose ─ we’ve been using technology and getting experience on the computers quite a bit.

It’s that “a-ha” moment you get with students working on research projects, the dexterity, or the fluidity where they can go back and forth in using technology. It’s noticing how it increases their knowledge and their confidence. It opened my eyes to “You know what, I understand that we’re in a crisis moment, but it’s also a moment where we can do some creative things, and we can do this together.”

That’s relying on students, their savvy and willingness to want to try. It’s being humble enough to say, “It’s okay to try and make mistakes, take chances, and get messy.”

Amy: There are a lot of misperceptions out there in the discussion about online learning. From your perspective, what is the one biggest thing that people don’t understand or have a misperception about related to online learning?

Kyair: We’ll talk about online learning in a twofold sense. For teachers, it’s a lot of work. You can make the argument that preparing and being online, spending all that time in front of a computer, lends itself to asking, “How does this material translate virtually?” It’s a heavy lift.

We have to be prepared to invest in the hard work to talk to students and check in on their social and emotional health. We can get to the core of the “heart work.”

For students, a big misperception is that because they’re savvy with Fortnite or Xbox One or PS4, it automatically translates online. That’s not always true in communities of color, the underserved, or other marginalized communities. Just because you have access to entertainment tech doesn’t mean that you’re using tech in the same way for academic purposes.

I think that the answer again is twofold. Students need to have a tech-savviness about them, and it’s incumbent upon teachers and families in the community to work together to make sure that tech equity is something that every student gets to experience.

Again, as teachers, we also have to be humble enough to change our practice and adapt. It’s hard work, but the heart work is going to be still present even online.

Amy: What’s one strategy that you think every teacher should use?

Kyair: I like to watch the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and I love that there are so many games that he plays, and he engages the audience. There’s a genuine love for his job and what he gets to do ─ bring comedy to people every night so that they get to laugh a little bit.

I like to think of my job as a teacher in the same way. How can I make the content come alive and be engaging every day so that when students log in or watch the video later, it’s something that they want to do? It’s making sure coming to my class and experiencing literacy is a get-to-do, not a have-to-do. That mindset really does help.

Amy: When you consider what the future of school should look like for students, what comes to mind?

Kyair: The future of school for students! One thing that certainly comes to mind is that every group of students, regardless of how they are classified ─ by color, creed, gender orientation, and personal identity ─ has access and opportunity to compete in the learning process. Not in the sense that there are winners and losers; that’s not what education is about. It’s competing in terms of participation. Everyone has equitable access to the educational process. That’s where our life outcomes of joy, happiness, or purpose come from.

It’s incumbent upon teachers to provide that because we need to see ourselves as equity agents. Even though we’re in the grip of the pandemic, there’s also a moment that is undeniable both in terms of creativity and possibility. It’s pretty cool to be on the cusp or in the corner of creation and possibility. We can cross the threshold. We have to be able to do it together, and we have to make sure that families feel that they’re invited to do so and do so with us.

Amy: What’s the one big dream you have about education that you’d like to turn into reality?

Kyair: One of the biggest aspects or focus areas for me is thinking about “How can we shift teachers and their mindset with respect to how we view our job?”  Teachers already wear a lot of hats. Sometimes, you’re the de facto parent or guardian, counselor, or psychiatrist. We need to start seeing ourselves as equity agents. 

We’re at an inflection point in terms of racial justice and inequity. Teachers have an essential role to play as gatekeepers of possibility and potential. We can help if we see ourselves as equity agents providing equitable outcomes for students. We must provide students access and opportunity and build student knowledge around content areas that they might not have had exposure to and through no fault of their own.

If we can start to see ourselves as equity agents by changing our mindset, it will be a cool day when we get to stand on the right side of history and say, “We did this. We did this together, and our kids are better for it.”

Future of School thanks Kyair Butts and all of our great guests for participating in our podcast. To hear all episodes of Future of School: The Podcast, visit https://anchor.fm/futureofschool

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