Taking It Personally

Elizabeth Jones

In a high school in the impoverished, rural Black Belt, a young Mountain Brook teacher discovers a simple truth: Believing leads to learning.

By Tom Gordon     

Photography by Jerry Siegel

The ninth grader paused at the classroom door. Other students, in their required uniforms of white and blue or white and khaki, passed him in the hallway like cross–currents in a stream flowing around a stone. His algebra teacher, Elizabeth Jones, was standing in the doorway, and he had something to tell her.

“I really want to learn today,” Devontae McMeans said in a voice barely audible above the conversational buzz of his fellow students, smiling slightly as if to acknowledge there had been previous algebra I classes in which he had wanted to do something else.

“Awesome,” Jones replied. “I teach. You learn.”

“Devontae’s very smart,” Jones would say later. “He’s real sweet. He’s just very playful.”

The exchange, which took place last April, lasted barely a minute, but it represented one of those daily triumphs that any teacher loves. Especially Jones, who was nearing the end of her first year as a teacher in a school and a part of Alabama that could not have been more different than what she had known as an A-student at Mountain Brook High School and a Phi Beta Kappa student at the University of Alabama.

Jones, who turned 23 in May, teaches algebra, pre-calculus and geometry at Calhoun High School, which sits on a quiet rural expanse in Lowndes County, in the heart of Alabama’s impoverished Black Belt. She now is in her second year at Calhoun under Teach for America, a national program through which college graduates and trained professionals teach for two years at schools in low-income communities.

While she did not come to Calhoun wearing a kumbaya cap, Jones came away from her first year convinced that she can play a transformative role in her students’ lives, just as some teachers played a role in her own. But for her to be effective, there was much for her and her students to learn, accept and understand about each other, and the process is a continuing one.

“It’s definitely the most important thing I’ve ever done,” Jones said shortly before she started the 2011-12 school year. “Everything I do means more. It affects the 60 kids I come into contact with every day, and so anytime I mess up, I’m a lot harder on myself than I would be if it were just like I got a B on a paper, because it’s a lesson that they’ve missed, or it’s a test that they’ve failed. They don’t pass my class, I take it personally.  The weight of it gets to me for sure, and I guess that’s part of my nature.”

There’s an additional weight that all teachers and administrators are feeling at Calhoun these days. That’s because the historic school, co-founded more than 100 years ago by Booker T. Washington to give basic education and vocational training to the children of black sharecroppers, has not consistently met Alabama’s math and reading proficiency goals under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. As a result, it has been designated as a school in need of improvement.  Schools that cannot shake “improvement” status after five consecutive years could face a state takeover.

In 2010-11, Calhoun was  one of just 26 schools statewide that made less than 60 percent of their Adequate Yearly Progress goals under NCLB. It met only six—or 46 percent— of its 13 goals and did not hit the necessary mark in either reading and math. In 2009-10, its graduation rate was 72 percent, well below the state average of 88.

Calhoun’s academic struggles, and those at three of Lowndes County’s six other public schools, prompted Lowndes County school officials to successfully apply for a $15 million federal school improvement grant and detail how they planned to change each school. For Calhoun, which ultimately will receive about $4 million from that grant, officlals initiated a “transformation” program, which began last year. Among other things, the transformation consisted of replacing the school’s principal, adding new technology and tutoring, and adding a Teach for America teacher, Jones, to its faculty.

The new principal is Kenneth Fair, a quietly intense ex-Marine and Desert Storm vet who grew up in Birmingham and is a graduate of Holy Family Cristo Rey High School in Ensley. After taking the Calhoun job, he met with the faculty and told them what he expected, and he spent part of the year evaluating their classroom performances.

When he met with Jones, Fair was well aware of their different educational experiences, and he wanted her to bring some of her experiences, where practicable, to her students. According to Fair, Jones has performed well.

“I think that honestly, with the right attitude, any first-year teacher … can walk into a classroom, can provide what’s needed, and produce the desired results,” Fair said. “She’s been able to do that, based on her attitude. She’s jelled well with the students. She’s provided extracurricular opportunities.  So she’s just kind of opened herself up to be their teacher and in essence, they’ve bonded with that.”

Quinterrius “Quint” Baity, one of the 45 Calhoun seniors who graduated last April, bonded with Jones. He has referred to himself as Jones’ son.  She helped him get his financial aid paperwork together so he could attend Alabama A&M, and they’ve stayed in touch.

“Every time I need help with something, she’s always there for me, so I call her my mom,” Baity said shortly before graduation. “It took me a while to get comfortable around her, but once you get comfortable, she’s a real cool teacher.”

Jaylen Greene  and Ashanti Smith, now seniors, said they had liked Jones’ way of getting points across.

“She’s one of the best math teachers I’ve had so far,” Greene said. “She explains things. She’s good at breaking it down in a sensible way that most teachers can’t.”

“She just doesn’t give us the work and tell us to do it,” Smith said. “She gives it to us and then she explains what to do and she works with us, one on one. It’s challenging, but with her working with us, it became easy, I’d say.”

Ever her harshest critic—“I never feel like I’m doing a good job, ever,” she said during one interview—Jones sought feedback from students at the end of her first semester.  She told them to frame their responses as letters to students who would be having her as a teacher for the first time during the next semester and allowed them to respond anonymously if they wished.

“You have probably seen Miss Jones on the side of her door, passing out high fives,” one student wrote. “Oh my gosh, that lady is so crazy. Well, expect her to act the same way in class. Expect her to give you problems out her head and even some animals in them. However, she expects you at the end of the year to be a champion.”

“People will try to tell you sometimes that kids don’t like to learn, but when  they do learn, there are very few kids who don’t like it,” Jones said. “The hard part is getting them to believe they can learn and make the effort.”

And if the believing leads to learning, higher grades and better test scores, the students will have other life options before them—perhaps college, or a career path far different than what they had envisioned for themselves. Some may give the options a try; others may not. But as Jones sees it, it’s far better to have these new choices, these different possibilities, than not at all.

“It will never hurt you to be a better student,” is what she says. “It will never work against you.”

That attitude was never in question when she was growing up, the third of four children born to Jeff and Liz Jones. Her parents, who met while they were attending Alabama, have undergraduate and law degrees.  Her older sisters, twins Emily and Eleanor, have degrees from Rhodes College in Memphis, and good grades and a degree are part of the family expectation for her younger brother Jeffrey, 13.

But you would expect those expectations, and the willingness of youngsters to fulfill them, in a place like the tiny kingdom of Mountain Brook, where the contrasts with a place like Lowndes County are, to put it mildly, stark. No one in the city lives below the poverty level, compared with 30 percent in Lowndes, and Mountain Brook’s per capita income is more than four times greater than the $16,466 listed for Lowndes in 2009. In the tiny kingdom, there are neighborhoods where the number of doctors exceeds the number (only three) found in all of Lowndes County.

None of the estimated  4,500 students in the Mountain Brook city school system receive free or reduced price lunches; nearly all of the 1,800 or so students in the Lowndes system do. At Mountain Brook High, the students wear no uniforms and many drive themselves to school every day.  At Calhoun, almost every student rides a bus. When Jones was a student at Mountain Brook, the school had a yearbook, a newspaper, intramural sports and fielded girls’ teams in a variety of sports. At Calhoun, there’s no yearbook or newspaper, and the only girls’ team is in basketball. But school officials plan to field a girls’ softball team this year, and Jones, a former player herself, will be the coach. One of her challenges: finding a playing field.

Coaching will be a challenge for someone already working 15-hour days, but it’s in keeping with Jones’s principal’s desire for her to share some of her high school experiences with Calhoun students and, again, raise their expectations of what they can do after they graduate. One hope that Jones shares with her fellow teachers is to equip more of her students to pass the high school graduation exam with ease and to become more confident about taking advanced tests like the ACT. Right now, high school graduation test time at Calhoun is full of a stress she never knew at Mountain Brook.

“It’s a very, very nerve-wracking experience for a lot of our students,” she said. “It hangs over them … which is so sad.”

Jones was asked if she saw herself as not just a teacher but an agent of change. “A lot of my students aren’t thinking about college,” she said, “so it’s not just helping some who are on a path to somewhere, it’s trying to open other doors and redirect and   broaden the scope of where they even think the path will go. And that’s a big job because that’s people’s belief structure, where they see themselves, and what they identify as their identity in a lot of ways, and when you try to change (that), you really have to be convincing and, you know, they have to have a reason to believe. When you’ve just been there for two months and you’re new to the community and you’re clearly very young, there are not a whole lot of reasons to believe me and so you kind of have to earn that.”

Mountain Brook has its share of families where sons and daughters choose the same career as their parents. In Jones’ family, her mother says, “There’s a lot of teaching blood.” One of Jones’ grandmothers has taught adult education and another taught and coached for about 30 years at Athens High in North Alabama. Liz Jones says Elizabeth herself showed a teaching tendency during her early grade-school years. “One of her favorite pastimes was to take all of her stuffed animals big and little and line them up in neat rows on the living room floor and teach them,” Liz Jones wrote in an e-mail. “She would give them papers to do and then correct them and give them report cards.  They always did very well with her as their teacher.”

In school, Liz Jones said, her youngest daughter always did well, but she seemed to work harder and do better under teachers “who cared about her.” That pattern continued at Alabama where she majored in economics and was in the Honors College, and one of her teachers was Birmingham attorney Stephen Black, director of UA’s Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility.

As a freshman Honors College student, Jones and a sophomore student named Alex Flachsbart were participants in the center’s Moral Forum debate competition, and Jones, teaming up with another freshman, bested Flachsbart and another sophomore in the finals. The topic: Legalization of a human organ market in the U.S. Jones also took a mentoring class where she worked once a week with third-grade girls at Matthews Elementary School in Tuscaloosa County, often turning math problems into understandable stories. As the students responded, Jones found that she enjoyed helping someone learn, “especially somebody who thinks that they’re not good at learning because they haven’t had success or it hasn’t been stressed as important.”

After the Matthews Elementary Experience, Jones and Flachsbart worked with Black  to found another mentoring program, Speak Up Tuscaloosa. This program was designed to encourage youngsters at Hillcrest Middle School to research and debate the pressing issues of the day,.

Black said his center encourages students to ask themselves what it means to be a citizen, and Jones’ generation is answering that question by volunteering at an unprecedented rate in civic endeavors that need their time and talent. Black said he was not at all surprised by Jones’ teaching in Calhoun. Nor would he be surprised to see her active in efforts to end “the injustice of education disparities” that afflicts her native state.

“I don’t think she’s going to be living a  nice suburban life and be active in the Junior League,” Black said. “She has an intellect and an emotional passion for systemic reform in education and fortunately she has the ability to do that. She’s smart as shit and she’s driven.”

Whatever path she takes, Alex Flachsbart will be with her. The two of them fell in love at Alabama and were married in Cathedral Church of the Advent in June. And Flachsbart, who’s from the San Francisco area, is in his second year teaching math under Teach for America at Lowndes County’s other high school, Central.

During their first year of teaching, Flachsbart and Jones were like a floor under each other’s feet, reviewing their teaching days, kicking around ideas and sometimes lending an ear to each other’s frustrations and feelings of inadequacy.

“I know it was the only way that I got through,” Flachsbart said. “We share almost everything that we do in the classroom with each other and the vast majority of the resources that I use in my classroom, I steal them from Elizabeth.”

The two have many productive years ahead and are not sure what they may do with those years. But at this point, there is no other place the two of them would rather be than Lowndes County, whether it is in the classroom, in the stands at Calhoun or Central football and basketball games or at their junior-senior proms. They have been tested, accepted, inspired by the hard work of their fellow teachers and gratified by what they have seen so many of their students achieve.

That gratification comes when a smart but mischief-prone student locks in on the day’s algebra lesson, or when other math students are far enough along in their understanding to help some who are struggling, or a when student has raised his nine-week geometry grade from an F to a C and thinks, perhaps for the first time, that he can take it even higher. And then there are moments during Calhoun class changes on “High Five Fridays,” a Jones innovation from last year in which she stands outside her classroom and swaps hand slaps with passing students. When she has to momentarily abandon her post, students often seek her out.

“It’s fun… and the kids are so fun,” Jones said. “High school students are high school students and they do a lot of the same things I did in high school. They try to get out of stuff just the same way, you know, I did. A lot of it is just the same, in a lot of ways. They grew up in Lowndes County. I grew up somewhere else, and it’s different, but I would never make a quality judgment about that. My students are remarkable—very bright and way funnier than I ever was.”

On a recent Thursday morning, the first class of the day in Room B105 was Algebra II, starting at 7:45 and lasting until 9:15. Twenty-one students, sophomores and juniors, are on the class roll. A few of them were late because the buses were not on time. “Welcome to Mrs. Flachsbart’s Class!” stated a sign over the big, white erasable board in the front of the room.  The students preferred to call their teacher Miss Jones, and one of them did so as she waved a sheet of paper at her.

“Oh, is it homework?” Jones said. “My favorite thing in the world.”

“I left my homework on the bus,” another student said.

Factoring was the class’ main focus. To help students learn the process of breaking down various mathematical expressions into their simplest parts, Jones also showed slides of a mansion, a sports car, a cake and the Los Angeles Lakers, and asked the class to tell her the parts that made up each. Moving from images to equations, she talked rapidly, pushing, challenging, but the students and their answers seemed to be keeping pace.

“It’s not going to get hard!” Jones said when some of the students expressed unease as the factoring problems became more complex. “Stick with me!”

To the right of the white board, on a piece of poster paper, was a quote from B.B. King: “The beautiful thing about learning is that no one can take it away from you.”

“That is why I teach,” Jones had written in an e-mail a few days earlier. “That is why I am humbled by the importance of my job and teachers’ jobs everywhere, because what we do every day has to be great enough that it will last for the rest of our students’ lives.

One Response to “Taking It Personally”

  1. fyi says:

    Wonderful article, inspiring young woman. Shocked by Stephen Black’s opinion that one could not be a member of the Junior League and actively improve the community, or be “smart as shit.” Of all people, he knows better. Perpetuating outdated stereotypes only hurts the causes that the League supports and funds EVERYDAY in Birmingham.

Leave a Reply