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Learner, Teacher, Leader, Family Member Interview #5: Brittni Delmaine, English Teacher

I met Brittni in my third year at the school where I taught Earth and Environmental Science. At the time, I was our AVID (college/career prep) Site Coordinator and our Advisory (homeroom on steroids) PLC leader for our grade. As I continued to fine-tune my teaching practice, I was also learning to lead. And y'all, some days, I did not do a good job of it. Brittni talks in her interview below about a key directive that guides her work as a teacher - to always keep students at the center. While this was emphasized in my education coursework, so was the idea that teaching transforms lives, that we, as teachers, are tasked with huge responsibilities - know every student and parent, be a part of your community, plan lessons, go to sports games and school board meetings, advocate for the profession in political arenas, stay up-to-date on current educational research, take part in book studies, earn CEUs, work toward National Board Certifications, write meaningful assessments, provide feedback on meaningful assessments, read daily logs, keep a journal, find a mentor, shadow others, try new technology, use new technology in innovative ways in the classroom, work with colleagues to modify assignments... I tried. I succeeded for a while. But, along the way, I probably drove quite a few colleagues bonkers, definitely never slept, and ultimately, chose to step out of the classroom because I found it hard to stay focused on my students when there are so many dang problems to solve. I found my niche in working with new teachers, work that I love and hope to return to, and I miss my kiddos and would love to get back to them. I believe that our education system is our best shot at closing a lot of opportunity gaps, but not as it is currently. SOOOO, back to Brittni, she's one of the colleagues I think I drove a little bit crazy at first with my exuberance about fixing all the things. As I learned how to slow down, we became closer and closer as colleagues, and then friends. The year after I had HG, I had to stop doing CrossFit and wasn't working full time. Walks with Brittni kept me moving and helped me avoid the isolation that sometimes happens in new parenthood. I passed the AVID and Advisory batons to Brittni and have loved seeing the AVID program especially transform with her in the lead. Enjoy learning about wonder, learning, and education from Brittni!

1) Tell readers a little bit about yourself! Who are you? What do you do? What excites you about the upcoming year?

I have been teaching high school English for seven years. My time in education has allowed me to teach pretty much every variation on the theme: English I, English II, English III (my personal favorite because of its focus on American literature), English IV, Foundations of English, English 111 Support, and English 112 Support. I've always wanted to teach elective classes in Modern American Literature or Shakespeare or Creative Writing or Journalism. I'm currently at my third school--where I've been four years now--teaching freshman English and AVID.

Because I'm a teacher in North Carolina, I have a second job as a waitress at a local restaurant chain. It's not a glamorous life, but I do enjoy it when my students come to see me.

After seven years in the classroom--following four years of undergraduate training, internships, camp counseling, and student teaching--I am leaving the role of teacher to go pursue my MA in Literature by way of getting to a PhD. I'm now deciding between a few different programs. The leap is the most exciting thing about the next year and the years after that one. I will miss my students and their jokes and memes and their surprise at their own excitement over Shakespeare. But I must always move forward.

2) What is the most interesting/meaningful/helpful/cool thing you learned? Where did you learn it? How did you learn it?

The most helpful thing I learned was during the senior year of my undergrad, the semester before I began student teaching. My English Pedagogy professor told my class, 12 prospective English teachers, that there would be many demands made on our time, allegiances, and priorities by forces outside of our classroom. Our most important task was, then, to filter through the demands and keep our students at the center of the classroom. Her advice became my directive and has guided my decisions as I have encountered exactly what she warned us about. An endless parade of people telling teachers how to run their classroom never succeeded in pushing me to sacrifice putting my students' needs first.

I have applied my directive to other areas in my life. It's nothing new or earth-shattering: keep your eyes on the prize or manage your priorities. But it helps to allow myself the ability to filter out demands made on my time in order to make myself--my health, well-being, goals--the center of my life outside the classroom. I add only the things that add value to my life and filter out the rest. When I finally figured out how to apply my professor's advice to my life outside of school I became liberated and felt like I could finally breathe. I don't know if it's a feminist thing or just a human thing that self-sacrifice is the expectation. I am free of it.

3) What is a ritual (thing done over and over again, dailyish) or tradition that your family had that you loved? Or that you have right now that you love?

There wasn't quite a ritual we had growing up. My mom made it a habit to instill a sense of wonder in us. My dad worked to make enough money that my mom could stay home with us and indulge our hours of imaginary worlds. Trips to the library, stashes of her old slips and dresses in a trunk in a shed, the transformation of the living room into a magical universe (or even a plain one consisting of taking her order and bringing her food) shaped our days. She made treasure maps and scavenger hunts that sent us running around the forest in our back yard. Every night before St. Patrick's day we placed shoeboxes we had clumsily decorated on the steps outside our front door. The leprechauns whisked them away in the night and filled them with treasures and trinkets before hiding them for us to find before sundown on St. Patrick's day. Even when we were frustrated at our inability to find them easily she would not step in and find them for us.

It wasn't that she scheduled or structured our days or walked each step with us. She gave us space to imagine for ourselves. She pushed us outside on our own. She encouraged us to invent worlds of our own. I value this about my family. I had time and space to explore and question without needing to instantly know an answer. If I decide to have kids one day--a big if--this is the quality I want to pass on.

4) What are your daily musts and why?

I am not introverted and yet I get overwhelmed or overstimulated by the constant needs and movements of my students. A daily must for me during the school day is to close and lock my door and turn off the lights and tick things off my to-do list in the quiet. Unfortunately the space I require is invaded, not by students but by those who have a key to my door.

My daily musts for my life outside of school are easier for me to maintain. I have to read every day and to spend time snuggling with my cat and then to be asleep by 9. I have always needed more sleep than the average human but have just recently understood the ramifications of not getting enough.

5) If you could change one thing about teaching and learning, what would it be and why?

The whole system needs to be overhauled. Whenever I try to write one of the most important things I catch myself wondering if that will solve all of the problems. I think there needs to be more competent people making decisions at all levels of education, including in the classroom. I also think school reforms and their messy attempts to solve the education problem by focusing solely on instruction as the way to improve student achievement need to be turned away from the door. We need to change the ways in which we measure student achievement. Testing should not be our only tool, not only because it measures mere moments of a student's entire academic semester or year, but because the people who create the tests are themselves flawed. And I could talk for days about how the people who measure testing data are significantly, atrociously flawed, and I am not even close to being a statistician. There is a wealth gap in education that is widening because of incompetent leaders' insistence that students and teachers rely on technology that teachers might not know how to operate efficiently--meaning that it takes time away from veteran teachers planning meaningful instruction--and that students cannot access at home.

I think part of the problem is that we tend to pick up issues and examine them on their own without considering the whole. Then when a solution is implemented, it is not done so mindfully or appropriately. It is done with the implication that this, this will be the thing that solves all the other problems. If a teacher just differentiates more, then all of the classroom management problems will go away. If teachers analyze student data enough and change their instruction to address concerns, then test scores will go up. If we make staff meetings or professional developments fun enough, then teachers will be happier.

Education is the dumping ground of all society's problems. Schools, specifically teachers, are expected to solve all the world's iniquities (mostly by incorporating more collaborative group work). And of course I want to do that and know many other teachers who truly want to do that as well. We want our students to leave our classroom more inquisitive and curious, more hopeful, more self-assured and resilient, more human. But it's a war where the things we're fighting for don't really get their own say. And who else is stepping up to help?

A few notes of reflection on Brittni's responses:

  • I love how much Brittni describes a childhood full of wonder. One of the things I found exhausting in education was the obsession in our district with accelerating students through courses. I value the early college model as it aims to close make college WAY more accessible to many students. However, I don't agree with blocking (moving from teacher to teacher) in 3rd grade or taking high school Civics and Economics and Honors Earth and Environmental Science in middle school. Middle schoolers are JUST starting to move into the ability to view issues as more complex than black and white, so I think ensuring that students can have discussions of political systems as high schoolers nearing voting age is critical. To finish up my soapbox, my main concern is that acceleration seems to harm a student's sense of wonder and desire to ask, to muddle, and to learn. As parents, educators, and caregivers then, I think we are tasked with allowing (and expecting) learners to slow down and play an idea through - whether that's a two year old attempting to slide on a dollhouse slide or a 15 year old writing a paper with a very funky thesis statement only to go back and revise, revise, revise til they have a work they are proud of.

  • Secondly, Brittni's frustrations with the education system remind me of comments from EVERY interviewee so far. To me, this reiterates a point I heard in an interview with Jeff Jackson, an NC Senator who works hard to improve early childhood education - education needs to be a nonpartisan issue. The constant changes in educational mandates, funding, etc brought about by political changes are unhealthy for the children we serve. To me, it feels as though our entire educational system is caught in a messy divorce where the parents did not heed the rule to keep your kids out of the middle. When we change class size caps, when we change testing requirements for teaching licensure, when we decrease funding for schools of education and slash teacher pay, when we add test upon test upon test we are hurting children. And, we are not giving the a real voice in these changes. Want to find ways to get a little bit louder about your thoughts on education? Here's an advocacy toolkit from Public Schools First NC with broadly applicable tips and state specific stats.

  • I am so excited to follow along and see what Brittni does next as she works toward her doctorate. I admire that Brittni has used her time as an educator to serve students, but also to get serious about her passions and self-care.

WOOT! You made it through a long post for this blog! This is what happens when I get to talk education shop. Show Brittni and I something you do in your classroom, at home with kiddos, or for yourself that is even just a moment full of wonder. Use #watchwonderbloom if sharing on social media!

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