Philly native returns to teach at alma mater, citing her own ‘great experience’
This is how Janel Moore-Almond views her role: “Education isn’t something I give them. It is something that they take.”
A social studies teacher at her alma mater, George Washington Carver School of Engineering & Science, Moore-Almond is one of 60 winners this year of the Lindback Award for distinguished teaching. She teaches 8th-grade classes, an AP U.S. History course, and a few electives. She also plans to teach a gender studies elective, based on some language she heard in the hallways. She believes firmly that she should take a proactive approach.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, she went from Shawmont Elementary to Carver High to Harvard University for her undergraduate work. Then she joined Teach Philadelphia, a program similar to Teach for America.
She wanted to come back and teach in her hometown.
“Despite what they say about the Philadelphia public education system, I had a great experience,” she said, citing extracurricular opportunities and the breadth of subjects she was able to study.
Moore-Almond then got a master’s degree in education at the University of Pennsylvania before joining a couple of charter networks, including Mastery. When Carver High School expanded to include a middle school, she decided to take a job there because she had experience teaching both younger and older students.
“I see education as a calling,” Moore-Almond said. “We all have a responsibility to give back to the community we come from, and this is the community that supported me academically.”
Moore-Almond, an 18-year teaching veteran, strongly believes in the importance of a relationship with the students. She says that big questions cannot be answered without a high level of trust.
“If you don’t have a relationship with students, there’s only so far you can take them,” she said.
Building community is important, she said, noting the role of trust when it comes to civil discourse and spirited debates.
“It’s important for them to know that their voices are valued,” she said. “I want them to talk not only to me but also to each other.”
At the same time, Moore-Almond said, it is also crucial to set boundaries – there are some things her students cannot do or say – while making sure that they know there is a safe space for them to be who they are and that the challenges they face in life will be honored. It is a fine line, but she wants her students to know they are supported.
Moore-Almond also strives to find ways to make authentic assessments. She had her students write a racial autobiography after they explored how race is a social construct. For a final project, she had them research factors of desegregation and their neighborhoods.
“You should be a student of yourself,” she tells them. She has them research aspects of their identity, mental health challenges, and social issues such as immigration and deportation that affect their lives.
“When you ask students to look critically at themselves, it’s really powerful for both them and for myself,” Moore-Almond said. “There’s so many adults who can’t look at themselves critically.”
Moore-Almond’s philosophy is based on forging relationships with her students and also making sure that she maintains high expectations for them. According to Moore-Almond, students can meet expectations as long as they have the resources and support.
“If you give students the resources they need, they can do more than you realize,” she said.
She also tries to give students choices in meeting the requirements of her courses. Although the content is set, especially for the AP course, the way that the students learn is flexible. Moore-Almond provides at least two or three options for both the format and prompts of projects, as well as a wide variety of resources and strategies for each option.
“The more you give students choice, the more you give them ownership,” she said.
In her experience teaching both middle and high school students, she’s learned that middle school students focus a lot on themselves, so it’s important to support character and habits. At the same time, she has them think more deeply about their insights and reflections about how they can be a good student and a good human being.
High school students have a better sense of self, so they are able to ask deeper questions about the world around them, she said. So they talk more about how the world works and how they can adapt to it.
Although she can discuss similar types of issues with both groups of students, the focus is a little different.
“It’s a matter of giving perspective to the focus,” she said.
Because she teaches at various grade levels, Moore-Almond often sees students in class more than once and at different ages. Sometimes she has a particular student as many as three times, and at that point, the relationship is already established and the student is more willing to be supported and be honest. These relationships are especially valuable to her because she wants to be the kind of teacher who values children the way that families do and the kind of teacher she’d want her children to have.
“It is a lot of work, but I genuinely love my students – and I think they know,” she said.