Photo by Jonathan Kozowyk
Study Skills: Shanna Peeples
A look at a former national teacher of the year.
It’s a phrase you don’t expect to hear from the 2015 National Teacher of the Year: “I tried everything I could to not be a teacher.” But for Shanna Peeples, now a student in the Ed.L.D. Program, this is exactly how she felt when she started down her career path. “I didn’t think teaching was glamorous.”
What was glamorous, at least at first, was a string of other jobs: pet sitter in Beverly Hills, disc jockey for a country radio station in Texas, reporter for a newspaper. Eventually, though, the classroom found her as she spent more time reporting on schools. There she realized how much she loved being with students, especially seeing their joys, big and small: A project proudly turned in. A struggling student crossing the stage to get a diploma. Laughter.
It was seeing the pain that was tough.
“If you do it right, teaching will break your heart,” she says. Working at a low-income Title I school in Amarillo, Texas, Peeples saw students dealing daily with heavy issues — the same issues she had to deal with as a kid.
“I grew up in painful circumstances, with both parents addicted and periods of pretty severe poverty,” she says. “Working with those students made me connect with that pain. That’s partly why I didn’t want to teach.”
Now at the Ed School, Peeples is hoping to tackle what she sees as a looming crisis: the lack of other people wanting to teach. “We’re facing serious enrollment drops in teacher ed programs. The teachers we do have are leaving, particularly in schools with large numbers of low-income students. It’s a very real problem, especially for our neediest kids,” she says. “It creates a sense of abandonment. They think, there are no adults for me.” Peeples remembers one day when her students’ behavior was over-the-top awful, for just this reason.
“I had it with them and asked, ‘Why are you acting like this?’ One young man said, ‘You’re gonna leave like everyone else, so we just wanna have fun.’ I saw that the problem of teachers leaving is a very personal one for students who have so many other issues in their lives. What I was seeing in that behavior is them testing me to see if I would stay and, in staying, care about them.”
And she did. She stayed and she cared — cared enough to leave for a bit to get her doctorate and become an even better teacher.
“It was really hard to leave them,” she says. “But it wasn’t enough to be the best teacher in room 2000. I needed to do the best for all of the classrooms that I could.”