Published Sunday, March 03, 2013
By REBECCA LEFTWICH
Madras Middle School language arts teacher Tracey E. Pitts knows that the trick to reaching students is to keep ‘em laughing.
Like the year one of her students annoyed his teachers to the nth degree by insisting he saw dead people, distracting his classmates and disrupting lessons with his shenanigans. Fed up, Pitts eventually responded in kind.
“I got tired of it, so I got right up in his face and said, ‘You know what? I see them, too. In fact, one of them said for you to sit down and be quiet and not get back up,’” Pitts recalled. “He said, ‘Oh my gosh – you’re crazier than I am!’ and he stopped saying that.”
Of course, the student quickly replaced ghost sightings with other mischief. But Pitts – who in addition to her BA in middle grades education also holds bachelor’s degrees in theater and psychology – has many more tricks up her sleeve to help keep students engaged and on track. That’s where her love of theater, literature and young people converge.
“I just enjoy getting into character,” Pitts said. “I act out characters and do lines from books and novels they are reading, and that gives them more ownership in what they are learning. I know some of these kids will remember that day or that story forever.”
Pitts may get her students’ attention through a line from “The Outsiders” – “We gotta do it for Johnny, man!” – for instance.
“I’ll put their names in, say, ‘We gotta do it for Kylie, man!’” she said. “I’ll do a little something funny to let them know I’m sincere about them and their learning.”
Pitts created her most beloved character – Ms. Ivera T. Grundy, based on her mother and grandmother – when she was just a teenager, visiting churches and performing in skits. Pitts is a playwright, actor and director whose “Ms. Grundy” is a familiar figure to students, who see her at many school functions such as a recent Black History Month program at Madras. Pitts has no intention of leaving her church beginnings behind, however, saying she “gives God the glory and honor for her gift” and asks for divine guidance about her new students every year.
“I pray I’m able to reach these kids in some form or fashion so they will know they are important and loved and appreciated,” said Pitts, who is in her 26th year in the classroom. “I want to make sure every kid feels that way before they leave for the year.”
Developing relationships with students takes time and patience as well as theatrics, creativity and prayer, according to Pitts, who admitted the process is a balancing act that sometimes goes awry. When her students continue to talk and not do their work despite her best efforts, or when they act inappropriately, they see a side of their normally fun-loving teacher they may not expect.
Students often police themselves, jumping in when they see a classmate going too far behavior-wise or “getting too mouthy,” Pitts said. That’s where establishing a good rapport by investing in each student personally can pay off.
“One of my kids is having a real hard time at home, and he started yelling about it in class,” she said. “I told him to calm down and said, ‘I love you, but what you’re doing is very disrespectful. I know you and I know you’re having problems, but I want you to think about what you did and see what you could do differently. Everybody has problems, but when you do what you did today, it compounds your problems.You’re taking your anger out on the wrong people.”
Pitts and her husband of more than 20 years, H. Leon Pitts Jr., are raising an 8-year-old nephew. The couple has no biological children, but Pitts plays a definite maternal role – sometimes serious, sometime humorous – in her students’ lives.
“Even though I don’t have children I think God has given me a motherly instinct,” Pitts said. “My students feel safe here, they feel good here, they like being in here. I have used humor for years, and I have been able to reach some pretty tough kids. I try to develop a good relationship with the kids first, and that way when I have to be very serious, they take it pretty well.”