Indianapolis Public Schools’ teacher of the year has been feted lavishly for her successes lately.
Last week, Tina Ahlgren was handed a check for $25,000 as one of four winners of Al and Kathy Hubbard’s new Life-Changing Teacher Awards. At that ceremony, tears welled up around the room during a video story of how Ahlgren broke through to a troubled, pregnant teen in her class, staying with her in the hospital as she gave birth and practically adopting her afterward.
Today, she was greeted by a packed auditorium of cheering kids at Shortridge High School. One-by-one, her Algebra students spoke of how she changed their attitudes about math, helped them turn their academic work around and made better futures they had only dreamed about suddenly seem achievable.
Ahlgren, a new mother herself holding her 12-week-old son Elijah, could have just basked in the glow of all that success. Instead, she told reporters about her teaching failures.
Because, she said, figuring out what’s not working in the classroom is the only way teachers can find their way to the techniques that will make every kid succeed.
“Don’t beat yourself up from your failures, but you have to be willing to learn from your failures,” she said. “Just like I teach the kids to do.”
Ahlgren is a nine-year IPS teacher who grew up in New Albany and came to work in Indianapolis after graduating from DePauw University.
How good of a teacher is she? Like many excellent teachers, she got every one of her students to pass the state end-of-course exam in Algebra.
But consider the scale of her challenge: For Ahlgren, every one of those students had failed the test at least once before.
Tenth grader Mary Baker, who this year had Ahlgren for Algebra II, is an example of one of her students who never thought she could pass the exam.
“I was scared,” she said. “Math was always the subject that held me back. I was never, ever good at math. It was always Ds and Fs. But with her, it’s become As.”
That was critical, because Baker’s dream is to become a family lawyer. She has friends and relatives who have gone though tough times over divorce and custody issues and she just has a sense that she would be good at helping families in those situations forge compromises.
Shortridge is a magnet school for law and public policy, so Baker is in the right place. But she knew being a lawyer would not be possible for someone with an F in math who can’t pass the state Algebra test.
There was something about the way Ahlgren explained things that made it come more easily, Baker said. And she could tell Ahlgren really wanted her to succeed.
“I would have never made it to where I am without her,” Baker said. “With Algebra I, from the beginning I was like ‘I’m not going to pass. I’m not going to pass.’ She made sure I passed.”
Her classmate, 10th grader Darius Taylor, told a similar story. Taylor wants to be a firefighter, but he is dyslexic and has trouble controlling his anger when he gets frustrated. To him, Taylor said, Algebraic equations literally looked like a random jumble of numbers and letters. He felt overwhelmed by the subject.
“It takes longer for me to understand stuff than other students,” he said. “She sat with me and had me lay it out so we could go through it in a slow process. When she helps me, instead of being all scrambled on paper, we break it down into little things so I can understand it piece by piece.”
Ahlgren’s patience helped gain Taylor’s trust.
“It could be a week or two after everybody else but she’s there helping me try to understand it,” he said. “No matter what, Mrs. Ahlgren will never let me fall behind.”
Trust is the No. 1 thing her students need, Ahlgren said.
“They’ve been let down a lot in their lives and they don’t trust people very much,” she said. “You have to start day one, minute one trying to connect with them any way you can.”
For example, students who take Ahlgren’s tests “pass” each question. Passing the test is focused on mastering each concept, not a big letter grade at the top of the page.
“I focus a lot on small successes,” she said. “So they can be successful on topic one and if they fail topic two they can go back and retake it. So they can see I passed topic one on Monday and then I passed topic two on Tuesday they can feel ‘I’ve been successful.’ Whereas if they had seen an F across a total test they would have been defeated.”
The reward that comes from building trust is overcoming fear, particularly of a subject that many students find intimidating.
“It takes a lot of effort and personal risk of failure to be successful in the classroom and especially in math,” she said. “It’s an area a lot of kids are really afraid of. A lot of kids will shut down rather than try and fail.”
But it’s not just students who try and fail, she said. The only way to become a great teacher is to keep overcoming failure on your end, too.
“Early in my career I had kind of the fun and engaging part down,” she said. “What matured for me over the years is making it connect back to what some other math teacher would teach when they have them next time.”
An example of one of Ahlgen’s failures was a hands on lesson where kids learned algebraic concepts through “ninja battles.” They loved it and were doing a great job — until she gave them the exact same equation to solve on paper.
“They were like, ‘I don’t know how to do this,’” she said. “I really learned from that and said, ‘next time I do this I want to use some elements of it but I’ve got to change it.’”
Ahlgren said she goes over every one of her lessons, asking herself what worked and what didn’t and making changes so when she teaches it in the future it will work better.
Sometimes, recognition that a lesson doesn’t work can even come in mid-lesson. In fact, this happened not long ago on a day when her principal was observing, although she hadn’t noticed him come into the room.
She thought her kids were ready for a fun exercise on a concept they had learned. But she recognized as she went around the room from kid to kid that none of them were getting it.
“All of a sudden I just yelled: ‘Everybody stop!’” she said.
The startled group put the lesson aside and she began to teach the concept a different way.
“You can’t be afraid to just throw out what’s not working,” she said. “That’s how to get through to these kids.”