The Teacher’s Lounge podcast welcomed Kellie Tuten this week with an interview about her passionate desire to lead other teachers to become better at their craft, to show them how they can be more than just “classroom managers.” We’re including part of the conversation here in the Curriculum Trak blog, but to hear the full interview, you can listen in here.

Michael Arnold: I’m honored to be joined today by a fellow curriculum nerd, Kellie Tuten, who is the Curriculum and Instruction Coordinator for Virginia Academy, a private Christian school in Ashburn, Virginia. Her classroom experience covers a wide range of junior high and high school English classes. Her dream is to get even more involved in coaching others in relevant pedagogical practices, especially in faith based education. And I’m always excited to talk to other curriculum nerds. So, welcome, Kellie.

Kellie Tuten: Thank you so much. I am so excited.

Michael Arnold: So, I use the term curriculum nerd in the best way possible. I could honestly talk about methods, materials, strategies, research, all the things about curriculum all day, every day. So, it’s always fun to get a chance to talk to someone like you. How do you feel about that term curriculum nerd? Are you okay with it?

Kellie Tuten: I am totally okay with it. I love it. It is wonderful.

Michael Arnold: Great. I think you’re unique among our guests here on The Teacher’s Lounge in that you’re the first to have a teacher Tik Tok page. So you dabble a little bit in Tik Tok to the tune of about 25, 000 followers. That’s amazing. What kind of things do you share on your Tik Tok page and how can we find it?

Kellie Tuten: Okay, so my handle is @yourfavenglishteacher and the content is really for students and I think that’s why it has so much of a following. Really I package learning targets or helpful hints in a TikTok box, which I think is really fun and students seem to enjoy it.

Michael Arnold: I was just going to say what a great way to reach your students where they are. I know those of us that are more Facebookers or Instagrammers, we’re of a certain age. That’s old hat these days. So that’s amazing.

We want to talk a little bit about instructional leadership today, more specifically classroom leadership. But before we get there, tell us a little bit about your story. Why did you get into education? What excites you about education? Why faith-based education?

What’s Your Story?

Kellie Tuten: I knew I wanted to be a teacher from the moment I was five years old. I used to play teacher with my stuffed animals, which is embarrassing to say, but it’s just a desire that the Lord put in my heart for a while. I went to Liberty University and I got to study under some great teachers and also I had some amazing teachers in high school, but really I didn’t have the faith-based learning experience.

But then when I started having children of my own, I realized the great value in faith-based learning. I am really passionate about packaging instructional strategies that are relevant to the modern-day society inside the framework of our Christian faith.

Michael Arnold: Yeah. The mission of a Christian school, I think, would drive us towards the best strategies, the best practices, the most research-based practices for the sake of our students. That should be baseline and it is hard to keep up with all of that. So it’s great to have people like you who are like, “Hey, let me share some ideas with you.”

You recently completed a master’s degree at the University of Virginia. What were your takeaways from that?

Kellie Tuten: That’s where I became aware of curriculum as what we learn, right? Curriculum is what we’re learning, the content and all that stuff. It’s more than that, but we’ll just say that as a baseline.

So at UVA, I had a lot of professors that would ask questions like, What is the purpose of this lesson? Or how are we going to frame this for students to best understand? And all of that got me thinking, there’s got to be a way to package this so that somebody can use all of these best practices that maybe are not relevant to Christianity and put them in such a way that would help their instruction or their classroom. My takeaway from my study there is that multicultural education is multifaceted and there are plenty of options and helpful tools to give educators so that they can teach a wide variety of students with a wide variety of practices, but it doesn’t have to be without the overarching umbrella of the Lord’s work.

So I was inspired by my classmates there. I got to share my story of faith a lot. There was one specific assignment that we had to write about our guiding philosophy of grading and education, and obviously mine was not without a statement about what I believe about the Lord and about how He has called us to instruct others well. I think if we’re Christians in this arena, we should be doing it the best. Our classroom should be the most irresistible environment. Our practice should be the most cutting edge, just in obedience to what He’s called us to do.

Opportunities and Strategies

Michael Arnold: That’s amazing. I love your approach. The idea that there’s only one right way to teach something is a misconception, because there’s a variety of learners and a variety of people, and we can take a very relational approach and understand our students and pull strategies from our toolkit.

That’s something that I like to encourage teachers to think about, and yet stay up with all of the opportunities and the strategies and the research. That’s very hard, and that’s why being part of a learning community and turning anything that we’re learning into something that other people can benefit from is helpful.

So, is that part of what you do in your role there as a curriculum and instruction leader?

Kellie Tuten: Yes. I really enjoy curriculum and instruction. I used to just teach in my own classroom, but now I have access to all of them. It’s not just my one bird’s eye view that I have now, it’s a whole vertical alignment. It just broadened.

So, really what I try to do with the teachers that I coach is to help them understand that they are a leader in their classroom and that they do have the tools like myself and others with them.

There’s a lot of things that teachers do that are amazing. And then there’s a lot of things that teachers might not know that they do. You know what I mean? If you’re going to coach somebody on a basketball team, they can’t see themselves dribble. You’re watching them dribble, right? So I always say, if you were in my seat, you would probably be thinking the same thing I’m thinking.

Michael Arnold: So from your seat, from your vantage point, what is one of the biggest needs or deficiencies among educators that you’ve observed?

Kellie Tuten: Great question. I think that I really want to build confidence in teachers for them to own their classroom. And I don’t want that to sound in misalignment with administration because the best way to own your classroom is to fall under your leadership. You can’t own it without being under them first.

I just want to empower them to own their instruction. There’s a big difference in a teacher that is confident in what they’re speaking about and even competent. They understand the content and they can speak it well and they can own it. And there’s a big difference in teachers that are not. So really I believe every teacher is able to do that. It might look different depending on you and how you can get across that line and move that way.

Management vs. Ownership

Michael Arnold: This might be a gotcha question, so I’ll apologize in advance, but what would you describe as the opposite of that? What’s the opposite of ownership and confidence and competence? What do you see as far as characteristics in those areas?

Kellie Tuten: This might be a hot take, but in our world we use the verbiage classroom management. I know that. And that’s great. I get it. But I would say that the opposite of a classroom owner is a classroom manager. Management versus leadership.

There’s two different facets. So if you’re not owning your classroom, you’re just simply managing it. We could take it a step further and say, you’re entrusted with your classroom. So everything rises and falls on you. And if you’re just managing it, there are some things that you might not think you have to do, when in reality, you are ridiculously in charge of owning everything that happens in that room. And you could even expect greatness because you believe that all the students in your room are capable of this.

Michael Arnold: How do you draw that out? How do you encourage teachers to embrace that idea?

Kellie Tuten: I will say it’s tough. I think it’s tough even for me. I get to teach, luckily, one class. Only one. I teach an AP Language and Composition class. I still get to practice this. I’m still doing laps around the track. How do I help teachers to own their classroom? I have to be an influencer and inspire them. Managers can assign tasks, right? But leaders of their classroom can influence buy-in with the students, and that’s half the battle.
Managers try to control. Okay, so I’m trying to control my classroom, which is good. But I would say instead of only that, I would inspire trust. So how can I get my students to trust me? I have been entrusted with them. How can we build this bridge of trust together? If everything rises and falls on your relationship and building that trust, then it’s a lot easier to keep control or to just lead and encourage by influence.

Michael Arnold: It sounds messy. That sounds very relational. Sounds like getting down in the mud, you know, and learning who your students are and what makes them tick. That’s the hard work of teaching. And yet, I think all of us who feel called to teaching would say this is why we got into it in the first place. Nobody wants to manage when we can lead, right?

Kellie Tuten: Exactly.

Michael Arnold: Let’s go back and talk about the difference between the ownership mentality and the leadership mentality. What are some of the pitfalls or faulty assumptions that would lead a teacher to embrace that management style as opposed to a leadership style in their classroom?

Kellie Tuten: I want a teacher to feel confident and empowered in what they can do in their classroom, and I think that ultimately comes with asking the question, How am I going to do this, and why am I going to do this? Instead of, What do you need me to do and when do I do it? If we can’t, as leaders in our classroom, understand why and how, then how are we expecting our students to?

Michael Arnold: I can’t help but see the connections between why and how versus what and when, and higher level critical thinking. This is what we want out of our students, right? And we struggle sometimes when Johnny raises his hand and says, “Why do I have to learn this stuff?”  But that’s the question every student should have. And it should be the question that every teacher is always asking anyway.

Kellie Tuten: It reminds me of when the people lowered their friend to Jesus through the roof. They were thinking, How can I do this? They knew why. They wanted their friend to be healed. But they weren’t asking anybody, When should I lower him down?

Pitfalls of Management

Michael Arnold: Yeah. Back to that idea of ownership versus management, what are some of the pitfalls or the problems in student outcomes or achievement if we just stick to that management idea? I think you already alluded to lack of engagement, maybe even boredom. If the teacher’s bored, the students could be bored. But what else would you see?

Kellie Tuten: That’s a great question. Teachers’ working conditions are student learning conditions. How I am working is affecting how my students are learning. If I am not owning that material, and I’m not packaging it in a way that they understand it, then how are they themselves going to own it when they take the assessments?

I think it doesn’t always have to be amazing, inspiring, or engaging. Sometimes it’s going to not be that. If you have the mentality of, I’m going to own our in-class work time, what does that look like?

Michael Arnold: So in your experiences, either personally or as you’ve observed other teachers, do you have stories, anecdotes, or examples of the difference that this kind of a practice makes?

Kellie Tuten: I do. I haven’t had many laps around this track, but I have had the opportunity to work with foreign language teachers. They’re my favorite to work with. (Don’t tell anyone.) I was just working with a teacher and explaining to her this process of being a leader in her classroom. She shared with me that she knows she has her content that she has to get through, and out of respect, she wants to do what the curriculum says she needs to do. And I told her to please, please teach your content; that’s good. But I opened a window with her. I went to one lesson and I said, “Today I want you to do what you always do.”

She did. And then we met and I said, “Okay, now I want you to teach the same lesson–the same exact one–but I want you to own it and I want you to do it how you think your students would want it to be, or how you think that this would best be communicated.”

And it was completely different. One lesson was not like the other lesson, and that was encouraging to her. I said, “You’re not a manager, you’re a leader. You led your classroom through this, and did you notice that all of your students were engaged?” I will say, it’s not always the case. Sometimes it takes multiple lessons, but that’s just one tangible example about how it really helped her.

Michael Arnold: I asked you earlier about maybe some of the deficiencies that you see in education from your vantage point. You get to observe a lot of teachers. You have big ideas that you’re sharing. What are some of the highlights that you see, especially in faith based education today? What excites you?

Highlights from Faith-Based Education Today

Kellie Tuten: What isn’t exciting? I love my school. I love Virginia Academy. Just today I actually gave the chapel message to our students, and what’s exciting to me is seeing teachers help build the faith of their students outside of classrooms. I really love that we get that opportunity.

So if we’re going to build together a great learning environment, it actually starts with stuff outside of the classroom. So I’m really excited and grateful that our students in Christian education get to attend the chapel. They also get to attend sporting events. At our school, we say we launch arrows into the world to hit the mark, right? It’s an important job. It’s exciting because we have the opportunity day in and day out to really connect and help others, to help students. I can’t put my finger on what I’m most excited about. I just like the idea that we get to do this.

Michael Arnold: It sounds like you’re describing some of those cultural components, the way that we do school differently. And sometimes it is the extracurriculars or the co-curriculars that really allow us to set the tone for our culture.

Kellie Tuten: I want my students to go and be thermostats, not thermometers. Set the tone. I think our faith-based institutions help to bring that out of students.They get to learn a lot of other great things that are really helpful for the later workplace or professional arena. So that’s good.

Michael Arnold: This is great stuff. Can’t wait to hear more from you in the webinar that you have planned for us. Thanks so much for being willing to share it. And thanks for being willing to join The Teacher’s Lounge today. It’s been great to hear about your passion for education n.

I’d like to give you the last word. As you think about your role and your interaction with teachers, if you had the opportunity to tell any teacher one thing, one or two sentences, what would you think teachers need to hear today more than anything else?

Kellie Tuten: I would just encourage teachers that they are the right teacher for the job. Nobody else can do what they can do in their classroom and they are equipped and empowered to make that happen.

Michael Arnold: Wonderful. Thanks so much, Kellie. It’s nice to have you with us today.

Kellie Tuten: Thank you.

Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

Kellie Tuten is the Curriculum and Instruction Coordinator for Virginia Academy, a private Christian school in Ashburn, Virginia. She has eleven years of classroom experience teaching a wide range of English classes in grade levels 6-12 – where she boasts 25k followers on her teacher TikTok! After graduating from the University of Virginia this year with her Master’s in Curriculum and Instruction, her dream is to coach others in adapting and aligning Christian curriculum framework within the relevant pedagogy in the current educational landscape.