A Project Worth Sharing: Project Inspire’s Role in Elevating Equity-Minded Leaders

It’s a warm spring day in May. School is just about to let out for the year, but there’s still some learning yet to be done at Ooltewah Middle.

Children move from station to station. Today, they get to experience what it would be like to be a student with a different level of ability than their own. One child hobbles on crutches, building empathy for how her classmate with a broken foot might feel. Another experiences the challenge of reading words in a mirror, to simulate what it might be like for a student with dyslexia. All the while, their two teachers, one of them Project Inspire resident Hannah Pell, support the 20 or so children in the class.

Hannah Pell works with a student on crutches

Project Inspire, a program of the Public Education Foundation, specializes in taking professionals who have earned degrees in areas other than education and equipping them to teach in the classroom. It is appealing to those who desire a career change, those who obtained a degree in something they later decided they’d rather not pursue, or just those looking to sow back into their community through the service of teaching.

We had the opportunity to sit down with Hannah and learn more about what made her want to become a teacher, how Project Inspire helped to make that a reality, and the ways in which she’s already giving back to the community we all share.

Tell us a little about your background. What did you do before you began to teach, and what made you want to become a teacher?

I originally went to school to be a physician’s assistant and while I was shadowing a couple different physicians assistants I just kind of realized that they weren’t able to form the kind of relationships with patients that I had envisioned when I thought about going into medicine and helping people. So I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do, but I did have some experience working at an after school program and being able to form relationships with kids there.

And I worked at a chiropractor’s office while I was still figuring things out. I thought, “I don’t think I really want to be a PA, but I don’t really know what I want to do.” And I realized when kids would come into the office with their parents I really liked explaining things to them, answering questions they had about equipment, or just different things in the office. So that’s when I kind of started thinking about the idea.

What did you do then?

After I graduated college I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and I had applied for Project Inspire, but I didn’t know if I should be a teacher or not. But I went to Colombia, South America and I taught English and science for the semester after I graduated and I just really fell in love with it, especially just the relationships that I was able to form with students. So I was like, “Yes! I could definitely see myself doing this.” And then the next summer I started Project Inspire.

A poster on the wall of Hannah’s classroom

What was your experience in Project Inspire like?

The way the residence program works is we took classes the first 2 months, in June and July, and came to the classroom in August. From the very first day, my [mentor] teacher let me do some different things, like leading warmups, or introducing certain activities, but we weren’t teaching full time until the end of the fall, which was a great way to ease into it.

It’s a special opportunity because you have a lot more time, since you’re not teaching all the time and immediately taking on all the responsibility of teaching, to form deeper relationships with students. It helps you realize how important those relationships are when you’re teaching and trying to motivate students to learn and get them excited.

The Hamilton County community has been talking a lot about issues around equity for our students. What does equity mean to you?

As a teacher, when I think of my immediate role towards equity in the classroom, one aspect is that every student should have an entry point in the activities that we are doing. For example, a lot of times I’ll carry around back pocket questions, which are designed to give students who struggle an entry point into the curriculum without feeling lost. This ensures that every student has access to a really engaging curriculum with high standards across the board while providing students who struggle a way to enter into those harder and more rigorous critical thinking activities.

I think student voice is also very important, so I try to do activities that give students an opportunity to express their thinking about something before we go into a new unit. For example, asking kids what they think about electricity or what their experience has been with it. Exposing them to real hands on activities and letting them think about the process, rather than just giving them worksheets and trying to lead them to the one correct answer. Actually helping them to discover things and express their own feelings and ideas about things.

A student reaches for a top shelf while in a wheelchair

How do we make sure that students and teachers have a real voice in the issues that matter to them?

I like to go off the idea of giving students the ability to express their own thinking. I don’t just want them to give me the answer that they think is the right answer, I want to truly know their ideas about things and what they think. So the first thing we need to do in the classroom is to create that space – to know that it’s okay to really say what they feel and what they think and to explore that.

And it’s not just in the classroom, but also in the relationship between me as a teacher and my students. I think the most important thing I can do as a teacher is give students a voice, just to tell their story. And so I try to be very intentional about forming relationships with my students, and carve specific spaces for students to do that.

As far as teacher voice, that’s one thing I feel less certain about – how to jumpstart that and how to really know where that fits in. That’s something I’m still more curious about – how do I really do that in a way that’s going to be effective?

A student tries to tie their shoe with one arm

This was a great day for us to spend some time with you in your classroom, because you did an activity today showing how students have varying needs. Can you take a moment and tell us a little bit about the activity today, and the intent behind it?

One of our standards that we covered earlier in the year was assistive versus adaptive technologies, and how these technologies help support people who have certain needs. Today we did an activity where students got to experience using different assistive technologies. One of the examples was simulating the loss of an arm, so they had to do different activities with one arm like zipping a zipper and writing their name. Then they would rate how hard the activities were on a scale of one to five.

Another activity was vision impairment, so students had to practice pouring a glass of water with special glasses that made their vision blurry, or practice reading braille without being able to use their eyesight. We had wheelchairs and crutches to simulate those disabilities with students as well.

The goal of the activity was to not only learn why we have assistive technologies or how they can help, but really to put them in the shoes of the people who have to use these technologies, to make them more empathetic toward people who are using these technologies, and further their understanding and their perspective.

Students use a mirror to simulate what it might be like to have dyslexia

Thank you for modeling empathy both for your students and our community.

You’re welcome. And I’m excited to learn more about exploring these issues on the inequities in our school system, and how I as a teacher can help.


Editor’s note: The interview transcript was lightly edited for clarity.

Learn more about Project Inspire