The Q&A: Shanna Peeples

In this week's Q&A, we interview Shanna Peeples, the 2015 National Teacher of the Year. She was named the best out of more than 3 million U.S. teachers. President Obama presented Peeples with the title on April 29.

Shanna Peeples is the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, beating out more than 3 million others in classrooms across the country. She is an English teacher at Palo Duro High School in Amarillo.

With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:

Shanna Peeples is the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, named the best out of more than 3 million U.S. teachers. President Obama presented Peeples with the title on April 29 in a White House ceremony.

Peeples is an English teacher at Palo Duro High School in Amarillo, where she teaches AP English, English as a Second Language and special education. Amarillo has seen an influx of refugees in recent years from countries such as Myanmar, bringing marked changes to local schools. Some students who arrived in Peeples' classroom had never seen indoor plumbing; some had never had any schooling.

Peeples is a former newspaper reporter covering education. She earned an English degree from West Texas A&M University and a master's in curriculum from the University of Texas at Arlington. She is a literacy trainer for her district, and she gives presentations across the state as part of the Texas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Edu: What has your experience been as the new Teacher of the Year?

Shanna Peeples: I’m still not over even being Texas Teacher of the Year, when you consider there are 330,000 teachers here in Texas who do amazing work. Some of them deal with much more difficult cases than me. Then to think at the national level, I am representing more than 3 million teachers, it is overwhelming.

Trib+Edu: Your professional experience is different from traditional teacher training. What is your view of that kind of experience?

Peeples: I think what all those jobs gave me was a depth of experience. I think for many teacher candidates, we almost need to do what they do with doctors. I don’t think one semester is enough of student teaching. That is kind of hard for me to say, not having had any; I went straight into it. But the student teachers that I have worked with, I think they would feel better having at least a year, rather than just a semester. Then they can truly commit to the job. Then they will have spent a year seeing the cycle that a year goes through. The way it starts at the beginning, the way it bottoms out in the middle of the year, and it gets really exhausting and then how it picks back up at the end of the year. That is really the best part of the year.

Trib+Edu: What kind of training is needed for a teacher who will deal with students from low-income families or English language learners who have suddenly relocated, like you have experienced in Amarillo?

Peeples: The way language is used is important when talking about poverty. There is research out of the University of Kansas showing that by the time a child in poverty goes to school in first grade, they will have heard 30 million fewer words than a child of the middle class. That is staggering. Along with that, children in poverty grow up with language as sort of imperatives, as commands. “Sit down, be quiet, do what I told you.” Children in middle class homes hear language as negotiation. “Do you want this or do you want that? Why don’t you want it? How are you feeling?”

So when you are a middle-class teacher, and you say to a child, for example, “I suggest you do your homework,” a child in poverty will hear that at its face value. It is a suggestion. Whereas the middle class child knows it is not a suggestion. That was a hard thing for me to understand.

Trib+Edu: Amarillo has felt a big impact from the population shift in recent years with large numbers of refugees. What does that do to the classroom?

Peeples: It felt like it was an overnight change. We were so unprepared. I don’t know how you could prepare. There had been a wave of migration from Southeast Asia, from Vietnam and Laos. We have established communities there in Amarillo in the '70s. That, we were used to.

None of us knew anything about Burma, East Africa or the special circumstances that children were bringing with them. My co-teacher and I, when we took on that first class of refugee students, newcomers, we had to go online and do tons of research because we couldn’t understand what we were seeing. There were behaviors that we had never seen.

Some had never seen indoor plumbing, or used a kitchen. Some had no schooling whatsoever, so the first time they sat down in our chairs was the first time they had been cultured to a school setting. It was not normal to them.

It was a master class in culture and language and customs. It was overwhelming to us, across the district.

Trib+Edu: Do you see trauma in your classes?

Peeples: Totally. That is the most woefully underfunded need of students. It is a sort of invisible need that we don’t think about and that is mental health services.

Trib+Edu: How could you better deal with trauma in a school setting?

Peeples: The same way we have a school nurse on staff, we’d have a dedicated counselor. But we are asking so much of counselors now that they have their hands tied.

We need a dedicated mental health counselor. We see students that have struggled with depression, severe anxiety, what really seems like post-traumatic stress disorder. They have seen horrible things, and that's not just my refugee students. That includes regular students growing up with domestic violence.

Safety is the No. 1 thing you have to have when you deal with children in trauma. They have to feel physically safe and emotionally safe. You can’t learn when you are terrified.

That is something I hope to bring more attention to in this position. There are particular needs for students in trauma and how trauma is related to poverty.

Trib+Edu: What is your perspective of education in the state overall?

Peeples: I am concerned about the idea that is being floated about tying teachers' salaries to test scores. A discussion we need to have is how you make that system fair.

One of my best friends at Palo Duro is the choir teacher, but she doesn’t have a test. I have a test. How do you put us on a level playing field?

Trib+Edu: You teach high school, but do you have a perspective on Gov. Greg Abbott’s pre-K proposal we are seeing right now in the Legislature?

Peeples: It sounds crazy, but you can tell at the high school end who had pre-K. You can see. Tons of research support that early intervention pays off in huge dividends down the roads. It is an initial investment up front, but you are not having to remediate at the other end, which requires expensive solutions.

Trib+Edu: If there were a policy change that could make a really big impact in the classroom, what would that be?

Peeples: I really think it is assessment. We really need to look at how we are assessing student learning. What you assess drives your curriculum. The assessment can see what you know, but it can’t see what you can do.

It is notoriously difficult to pick up character, persistence, creativity, innovation, collaboration off a standardized test. That is why our assessments need to go toward more of a portfolio-based assessment, in addition to our standardized test. That is my hope.