After teen’s suicide attempt, this Colorado teacher wrote letters to each student. Now, she’ll share her story on a bigger stage.

Teacher Brittni Darras is lifted by graduating seniors from Rampart High School's varsity cheerleading squad, which Darras coaches.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Brittni Darras, an English teacher at Rampart High School in the Colorado Springs-based Academy School District, was shocked by what she learned about one of her students in a parent-teacher conference. The outgoing teen had recently attempted suicide, the girl’s mother told Darras.

The news made Darras realize that other students were probably suffering in silence, too. She decided to write personalized cards to her more than 100 students telling them how much they mattered.

“It changed the way I see my role as a teacher,” she said.

Last fall, Darras’ efforts earned her the 2016 Hero of Mental Health award from AspenPointe, a nonprofit mental health provider in Colorado Springs. In July, she’ll speak at the TEDxMileHigh 2017 event at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver.

Darras talked to Chalkbeat about her card-writing campaign, what motivates her to wake up at 5:45 a.m. and why she doesn’t mind if students talk in class.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I have known I wanted to be a teacher since I was in third grade. When I was in elementary school, during summer breaks, I would teach my little brother “lessons” and make him practice school-related work. He was a real trooper!

At the time, I thought I wanted to teach elementary school, but when I entered college, I started tutoring at my former high school through the AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination) program. I left every day inspired by how hard my students worked. I enjoyed having conversations with them about college and their future plans. By the end of that semester, I switched my major from elementary education to secondary education.

What does your classroom look like?
I like to think of my classroom as a place that is both interactive and caring. My students are frequently up and moving around. For example, one of my favorite interactive activities includes me posing a statement relevant to the unit I am teaching. My students have to stand against the “agree” or “disagree” wall and be prepared to defend their position in regard to the statement. We have had phenomenal discussions about heroes and what it means to be a hero as a result of this activity. It serves as a great introduction to our tragic hero unit.

I consider my classroom caring, because I always reiterate the need for my students to use positive self-talk and to use encouraging words with each other. I also make it a point to ask my students each Friday what their plans are for the weekend, and I always follow up on Monday to ask how their weekends were. It gives me an opportunity to learn what else my students do outside of school, and it provides me with very valuable information about each of my students.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _______. Why?
My students. They are the reason I wake up and go to work every day. It’s like I always tell them, “If you love your job, you never work a day in your life.” I love what I do because of my students, so if it wasn’t for them, it wouldn’t be worth waking up every morning at 5:45 a.m.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
One of my favorite lessons is a scene interpretation assignment where students have to pick some kind of alternate reality and apply it to a chapter in a novel or a scene in a play we have read in class. They then have to alter the dialogue or script to match their alternate reality. Finally, they perform the new version in class.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
If one student doesn’t understand my lesson, I like to pair that student up with another student who understands the topic a little better. It helps develop leadership, and it allows my students to share their knowledge and understanding. It helps the students realize they ARE smart!

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I don’t mind if students are talking. Many times, I ask them to talk. I believe having conversations allows my students to make more sense of the material, and it also allows my students to help and support each other through the learning process.

If students are off task, 99 percent of the time, a conversation with that student one-on-one solves the problem. Most of the time, if a student is off task, it is not intentional. Instead, it is usually because something else is going on at home or with their friends that is causing inner turmoil and making it hard for them to focus. These conversations allow me to assist and support my students as well as show them that I care about more than just their grade on their report card.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I get to know my students by learning about what they do outside of school. As mentioned before, every week, I ask them how their weekend was, which gives me valuable information about their sports, hobbies and passions. Last year, I created an “Events” section on my board where students could write the date and time of upcoming events, such as their sporting events or school plays. It allowed me to show up to a variety of these events, and I was also able to follow up with my students to ask how the event was if I wasn’t able to attend.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A memorable time that had the most impact on me was when I had contact with a student’s mom at parent-teacher conferences. Her mom told me she had been absent from my class because she almost committed suicide. While this was tragic and devastating, it made me realize that this beautiful, outgoing, friendly girl can’t be my only student who is struggling.

As a result, I took action and wrote personalized cards to each of my students to let them know how much I care about them and why they make a difference in my class and on this planet. It changed the way I see my role as a teacher; teacher’s often see students more hours in a day than the students’ own parents do, so it is important for teachers to support students emotionally instead of just academically.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
Right now, I am reading A Prayer for Owen Meany. Part of it is for enjoyment, and part of it is to prepare to teach AP Literature next year!

What’s the best advice you ever received?
The best advice I ever received is to live each day like it’s my last. I am grateful each day for the opportunities and experiences that I have, and I try to encourage my students to embrace each day and each moment also. I strongly believe that when you start to examine the positive aspects of life, you live a happier, more fulfilling life.

Detroit math teacher tends a greenhouse, welcomes parents into her classroom

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Marquita Reese, a math teacher at Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men, works with students to cook vegetables grown in the school's greenhouse.

How do teachers captivate their students? Welcome to How I Teach, a feature in which we ask great Detroit educators how they approach their jobs. Have a recommendation of someone we should profile? Write us at detroit.tips@chalkbeat.org.

Marquita Reese defies a traditional job title. At the Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men, an all-boys high school on Detroit’s east side, where she has taught for more than two decades, she is a chef, a gardener, and a meditation leader. Oh, and she teaches math.

Reese headed up an effort to build a greenhouse at Douglass, funded with federal grant dollars. Vegetables grown on the campus are used in cafeterias across Detroit’s main district. When it started in 2016, the program was lauded by Sen. Debbie Stabenow for simultaneously feeding children and teaching about science and nutrition.

Reese spoke with Chalkbeat about the garden, being a woman in the hard sciences, and welcoming parents into her classroom.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I graduated from Wilberforce University [in Ohio] with a degree in clinical psychology, but being a psychologist didn’t work out. Wanting to maintain a strong math and science grasp, I enrolled in the school of education at Wayne State, majoring in mathematics and sciences.

I said I’ll do math and science, not really considering that those are two of the most challenging areas of study.

I didn’t realize in retrospect that I was one of the few or only females that had a math and science background in the district. I would go into some meetings and would be one of the only females.

How do you get to know your students?

Students are given a survey and are required to write a short paper about themselves.  They must speak to their expectations and provide some insight about their goals for the present and for five years from now.  This year I included a three-minute meditation in the morning every day. Doing that at the beginning kind of relaxes the setting, and starts to build that trust between you and your students.


You run a greenhouse and garden on the grounds of Douglass Academy, and you also teach lessons about cooking. Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach your students about the garden. Where did the idea come from?

An activity I do before my students set foot in the garden is called colors of the rainbow. You take the colors of the rainbow, but you extend it, so I do teal, tan, indigo. For each color, they have to provide a fruit or vegetable that can be grown in Michigan and they have research their nutritional benefits.

In what region of Michigan can it be grown? When can it be grown, and at what temperature? They present it to the class, and they also have to do a PowerPoint. Then we we go for seed selections or transplants, they understand that some plants can’t be put in the ground at certain times. One year, we actually discovered that we can grow oranges in Michigan.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

One of the things I felt very passionately about this year was changing the narrative society is putting out, especially looking at melanated young men. I was worried about these young men, their self worth, their self esteem, so I just opened up to them, told them how I’m feeling, and they expressed their views.

It was an emotional time for us all. Being melanated people, we don’t have a good idea of where our ancestors are from, so some of our dialogue is about that. We talk about what we don’t know and what we do know about African cultures.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

Myself and an English teacher put together a parent group and a student group with all the parents’ email addresses. We’d send a message each time something happened in the classroom, homework or anything else, to the parents and the students.

Then I started getting notes from parents. They said ‘Hey, can we do this too?’

They’d text me like, ‘Hey, I don’t get this.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, you can come in and take notes, try to figure it out.’

It became an open door.

It was the SAT year, so they knew the importance of the child understanding the material. They never said, ‘It’s because I want to learn.’ They wanted to make sure that when their child came to them, they understood how to help their child.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I thought that the students and families that entrusted their kids to me had the same ideologies, learning style, and background as myself. For some, their exposure and educational experience or support was nothing like mine, so I had to refocus and adjust my teaching style and methods.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

To be hard, consistent, and fair. As the students learn something new, so should I every day.

How this Indianapolis teacher uses his own learning disability to understand his students

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

How do teachers captivate their students? Welcome to How I Teach, a feature in which we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. Have a recommendation of someone we should profile? Write us at in.tips@chalkbeat.org.

Erik Catellier doesn’t expect perfection from his students. He expects greatness.

That’s why Catellier, a language arts teacher at Center for Inquiry School 2, also wants students and their families to know about his own challenges: He is dyslexic.

“I have never been able to be the sage on the stage, all-knowing teacher,” Catellier, known to students as Mr. Cat, told Chalkbeat. “I am upfront and honest with my students and my families about my struggles as a learner. I have the fact that I am dyslexic in my email signature.”

Catellier was diagnosed with dyslexia in first grade. Dyslexia is a learning disorder affecting a person’s ability to read and spell.

Growing up, the setback pushed him to learn how to manage his own learning style and establish strategies to be successful. With the help of his own teachers, Catellier was able to understand class material and was reassured that he was a capable student.

That’s what inspired Catellier to help his own students discover their own capabilities.

“In the end, I had a lot of adults in my life that believed in me and made me feel valuable. I found that I wanted to be that for others,” he said. “These experiences planted the idea of teaching as a noble profession in my mind.”

Catellier gives the credit to his learning disability for his ability to adapt to a variety of learning styles and skill levels while also building relationships with students.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

PHOTO: Erik Catellier

I don’t really remember a single moment where I decided I wanted to become a teacher. It is just something that I have always felt called to do. When I was very young, I really struggled in school. It took me a long time to figure out how to manage my brain and to establish strategies that would allow me to be successful. I was supported by some amazing teachers who took time out of their day to help me understand not only the material in their class but that I was a capable student and that I was cared for.

In high school, I taught swim lessons and found that I had a talent for helping students overcome their fears in the water and master new skills. I also discovered how amazing it felt when a student mastered a new skill and would swim across the pool for the first time, or jump off the diving board.  

I realized that I had created a situation where that young person could do something they never thought they could. Just like those teachers supported me and helped me see that there was nothing I couldn’t do, I just had to figure out a way that would work for me. In the end, I had a lot of adults in my life that believed in me and made me feel valuable and I found that I wanted to be that for others.

What challenges come with being a language arts teacher with dyslexia?

There are some challenges to being a language arts teacher with dyslexia — usually these always have to do with communication. More and more, the preferred method of communication between school and home is through written communication like emails, newsletters, and text messages. At my school, we even have narrative report cards requiring me to write a paragraph for each student.

My biggest struggle is with editing my own writing. I can’t see simple errors like “from” versus “form,” or “her” versus “here.” But you can imagine receiving an email or report card from your student’s English teacher riddled with little errors does not inspire confidence. I have to go through a lot of extra steps when composing written communications.

What strategies do you use in the classroom to handle your dyslexia?

These steps have been refined over the years as technology has improved, but now every document I write goes through a three-step process. First, I use spell check to catch any simple errors. Second, I use Grammarly to find any mistakes that spellcheck might have missed. Third, I cut and paste it into Google Translate and listen to the computer to read the document.

Usually, if I do this, I catch most of the errors in a document. Unfortunately, I have not found a way to always have enough time to go through this process for everything I create.

How has dyslexia affected you as a teacher?

Whenever I got it into my head that I was some brilliant teacher and tried to control a class-based solely on my encyclopedic knowledge of the English language, I would make some silly error, and all the students would laugh, and the bubble would pop. Instead I had to show students how much I loved the content of the class and that I am always learning and growing, as well. This subject is hard for me as well sometimes, and so we often need to work together to do our best work.

How do you get to know your students?

As a language arts teacher and the “book dealer” of my building, I use books to get to know my students. I talk to my students about what they like to read, and what they don’t like to read. I ask them what their favorite books are, and I share mine with them. I suggest other books I think they might like, and all the time I am getting to know them. You would be surprised how much you can learn about a person when you talk to them about a book that they love.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I just finished “Tuck Everlasting” by Natalie Babbitt, and I am starting “Dread Nation” by Justina Ireland.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

Every year in the fall, my eighth-graders do a unit on banned and challenged books. Students use the American Library Association’s list of the most banned books to select a book they would like to read and then spend the quarter reading and analyzing it. The unit culminates in students making the case that their book should or should not be allowed in a public library.

I love this unit because, as a teacher, it contains all of my favorite things. It gives students choice in what they read and how they express their ideas, and it has a final product that is very connected with something people actually do. I also love the fact that I “trick” students into reading classic novels, like “Catch-22” or “Catcher in the Rye.”

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

I would be helpless without my daily PowerPoints. I have even been known to insert video clips of myself giving instructions when I am absent so students know what to do. The students call them “The Mr. Cat Vlogs.”

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

My principal always says, “Our parents send us the best kid they can every day.” I have worked really hard to remember that. No matter what a student’s circumstance, it is my job to be the best teacher I can be and to support them in every way I can. Often times school is the only place where a student feels seen and cared about. I think it is important to remember this and to try to be the kind of adult the students need and that they can count on.