Most of us conjure a specific image when we think about teachers. We all remember a favorite, a man or woman who would stop at nothing to empower and inspire us in our youth. It’s easy to think of great teachers as the Golden Standard. But that can be dangerous. Our students need more than the hope that their teacher will be nearly superhuman; an Outstanding Educator.
This is not an Outstanding Educator story. But it does feature one.
Jennifer Muirhead was Trinity High School’s Teacher of the Year in 2017-2018. Her Environmental Science class, stationed at the far end of Trinity’s expansive campus, looks just like any other classroom. Blacktop counters fill the perimeter. Textbooks line the walls. There’s an eyewash station tucked with menacing assurance into the corner.
It’s the same science class you sat in once. But there’s an almost tangible distinction about it, too. The desks are clustered in groups of four rather than rows. Labeled baskets of supplies wait in the wings. Everything about the space is built to tell students one thing: you matter.
‘They Are Someone’
Muirhead joined the Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District in 1993. She knew from the moment she started that she wanted to be a Trinity Trojan. The school’s magnetic diversity drew her in. Because of Trinity's unique cultural fusion, she could learn from her pupils. Touch every corner of the world from a single location. Plus, she could volunteer as an assistant volleyball coach. She wanted to impact as many young lives as possible, and her subject matter was an extension of that mission.
“I started off because Environmental has a lot of at-risk kids in it. That was kind of my calling, to get those kids to appreciate coming to school; to feel appreciated and really become engaged in science,” Muirhead said. “I feel like it’s almost a moral responsibility to teach the class. We are responsible for our Earth, and I tell our kids all the time that the main thing I want [them] to get out of this class is that [they] have a voice.”
There’s a duality to Muirhead’s class. It’s about morality and stewardship; the collective ways in which humans interact with our world and its resources. But it’s also about the power of the individual within a system. The idea that every person can contribute something — positively or negatively — to the world around them. That gives her a unique chance to encourage and equip the on-level and International Baccalaureate (IB) students who rotate through her room.
“I want every kid to know that they are someone. That there is someone who cares about them, someone who will take care of them to the best of their ability. Who is excited to see them every day, but will still hold them accountable for their choices,” she said. “I feel like, as adults and teachers, it’s our job to steer all kids, but specifically at-risk kids who may not get that mentoring at home.”
Personal value is an important message for any child. It’s also a difficult one to communicate to a child who isn’t in position to succeed from the outset.
‘It’s Day One, and I’ve Lost Them’
More than half of students in the Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District (HEB ISD) are considered to be “economically disadvantaged.” That number varies wildly from campus to campus — sometimes reaching into the 90th percentile — but tends to level out in high school as affluent and struggling communities merge. The Texas Tribune pegs Trinity’s share of struggling students at 48%, slightly lower than the district average but higher than their rivals at L.D. Bell.
Statistically, students seated in groups of four within Muirhead’s classroom are all but guaranteed to sit next to someone who can’t afford their own lunch. Even if they are one of those students. Over the years, the teacher-coach has learned that even a $1 notebook is a significant hurdle for students like that.
“Sometimes, a dollar is a lot of money. Or they don’t have a way to get to Walmart. Or their mom doesn’t get paid for two weeks and now they have to come to class and kind of be shamed by not having their supplies,” she said. “If they don’t have their supplies, there’s a wall being built between me and them.
“They’re just going to feel: ‘Well, since I don’t have it I’m checking out. Who wants it, anyway? I don’t care about this class, anyway’ — all defense mechanism — and then I’ve lost them. It’s the first day of school and I’ve lost them. So it’s wonderful that 6 Stones Back 2 School gives me these items, but I would pay for them if I had to. I would do anything to make sure a kid is engaged in my class and feels comfortable.”
That’s not a blanket statement. It’s a commitment. Before Operation Back 2 School, Muirhead says that she could spend up to $1,500 on supplies for her students. She’s not alone in that.
“It’s tough,” she said. “But it’s a decision that teachers make over and over again. We will do what’s necessary. We will sacrifice our own finances to make sure [each] student is engaged.”
The Tragedy of the Commons
Everything about Muirhead’s classroom is intentional. Each day starts with a journaling assignment, and every assignment must be neatly filed into a three-ring binder. She provides a notebook and binder for everyone, but students are individually responsible for their own.
Over the course of a Trimester — Trinity classes rotate every twelve weeks rather than every eighteen — Muirhead sees attitudes shift from indignance to pride. Those resources stop being a daily hassle and become a monument to the value of hard work.
They also provide a unique object lesson for a class centered around resource management. Muirhead can apply positive pressure to her students, reminding them that every pencil and sheet of paper was an investment in their education. So it would be a waste not to use them.
“The day they come into class, I have everything they need from the Back 2 School program,” she said. “Whether they are rich, poor, have great parents, don’t have great parents, or are working a job themselves, everybody comes in and has a composition book and a binder. That sets a tone for the class, that ‘Coach Muirhead will take care of us and we’re all on the same playing field.’
“That takes pressure off the kids, and I get projects where I might have gotten zeros, because I have all the supplies available for them. There’s no shame in it at all because everybody uses the supplies. I don’t let you go get a big piece of glittery cardboard to make yours stand out… the difference between them is your creativity, not your pocketbook.”
Her community stockpile also exemplifies an essential Environmental Science concept: The Tragedy of the Commons. The idea that individual selfishness, spurred by an inflated sense of need, tends to deplete or destroy any open, unregulated resource. Because of her system, Muirhead’s students learn not to take more than they need, and in so doing develop a habit for responsible consumption of shared resources.
Muirhead’s classroom is an innovative, unique environment. Just like every other one in HEB.
The Culture of the Uncommon
At the start of the summer break, we set out to cultivate a deeper understanding of HEB ISD. To uncover and celebrate the culture, the needs, and the individuals who tackle them. Thanks to Superintendent Steve Chapman, we’ve taken a tour of the programs and resources here. Because of the openness of faculty at Shady Brook Elementary, we saw at-risk students through the eyes of two women who spend the better part of every day with them. Now, as we dive into individual classrooms to see just how important school supplies can be, we have to be wary of the Tragedy of the Commons.
It’s easy to look at Operation Back 2 School and grow complacent. To see all of these readily available, easily accessible resources and trust that they’ll always be there, no matter how hard we lean on them. To breathe a sigh of relief when we hear teachers like Jennifer Muirhead talk about their willingness to go the extra mile for our kids. But this is not an Outstanding Educator story.
This is an Outstanding Community story.
According to Jennifer Muirhead, any teacher would do what she does, and most of them have borne or do bear a financial burden on behalf of their students. At the same time, Steve Chapman will tell you that schools and programs can’t flourish without support from local partners.
People need each other, and that need is active and ongoing. It’s as true on the systemic level as it is of individuals. We have to support our students, our teachers, and our schools. The moment we take the work for granted, the community falls apart.
So this is your chance to do the work. To be Outstanding. Uncommon. All we ask is that you make the most of the opportunity.
You can directly support local teachers and students by making a donation in support of Operation Back 2 School. $35 provides everything a student needs for the upcoming year. If you want to make a long-term impact, you can join The Coalition by committing to a monthly gift in support of 6 Stones.