For the past six years, Daniel Warner has been teaching 11th grade history at East High School in Memphis. According to the Tennessee Department of Education, his students are some of the state’s top achievers.
So is Warner.
He was recently named West Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year after nine months of winning various qualifiers, such as Shelby County Schools’ Teacher of the Year.
The honor comes as Warner, along with every teacher in the state's largest school district, has been adapting to virtual learning. It’s hard, he told us, not being able to chat with students between class or whip up spirited classroom debates about historical events.
We recently talked to him over Zoom about how the pandemic, along with other current events, has changed classroom conversations about U.S. History.
Q: It looks like you’re in an actual classroom.
Right, I have a space at home I can work, but I was just tired of my whole life being in my home. And there's not a whole lot of us who come up here, so it still feels pretty distanced.
Q: As an award winning teacher, how has virtual learning affected the way you teach?
Just being able to work off of student energy in the classroom, like what kids would call the “vibe,” or the energy -- is really important. That's hard to feel collectively through a video call. So it’s harder to facilitate what I would call the democratic aim of the classroom. I really love the ability for discourse to happen in the history classroom. That is a little more challenging to facilitate, but we're starting to figure it out with breakout rooms.
Q: I can’t imagine what that “discourse” might sound like today. When I was in high school, history class was where we all sort of learned to be “Proud to be an American.” But in the past few years, our country has been really reevaluating the past, especially some of those uglier chapters, whether it’s about confederate monuments or inequality. What do you see is the role of a history teacher today?
Love this question! First, my essential question we come back to throughout the year is “What does it mean to be American?” because that term is so contested. You know, someone can be naming all the things they love about America and someone else can be doing the same thing and they're talking about opposite lists. And I think that more so than training up students to be patriotic, or the converse example of training them up to be solely critical, the classroom is a place for students to explore their relationship to America's past and how it impacts their identity today as an American.
Q: ...Which is also happening simultaneously as history is being made. A couple of years ago, one of your students decided not to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance as a form of protest. And you have described that as a learning moment for you.
It was the weekend after the White Supremacist march in Charlottesville, and she was just so angry. Not only at inequality writ large across our society, but at the specific racist hatred that was chanted by these white men in Charlottesville. She just knew she couldn't stand, and so what I did was I sat down next to her. And I asked her how she was doing. And we had a brief conversation and a longer one later. But I knew she had processed these things (because) she’d been in my history class, one of my best students the year before. For me, what I learned from that moment that when teachers are too self-focused, that's when we can respond out of anger or feeling challenged, or respond selfishly, instead of asking, “how does that student feel? What's going on in their world and their mental space?” She really taught me about being less self-focused in the classroom.
Q: One of the, I guess, prizes, for becoming a Tennessee Teacher of the Year, is being put on an advisory panel to state Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn. As a teacher in Shelby County Schools, what do you feel you’ll be adding to this discussion about how to improve the quality of education here?
This could be a whole interview. I really want to bear witness to the experiences of poor children in education in Tennessee. And I probably shouldn't even get into this whole thing, but even at the ceremony for Tennessee Teacher of the Year, every finalist was white. And for years, all of my students have been African American. Only recently has that begun to change because of the TSTEM optional program. But there is just a missing voice when it comes to Tennessee education. But I just want low-income children to be represented at the table and not in some kind of paternalistic way, and not in some kind of way that just says “well, that’s their issue over in West Tennessee,” because we got poor kids in rural West Tennessee -- you know, poor white kids. We got low income white kids in Northeast Tennessee in the mountains. I think that most of the time people who are honored as Teacher of the Year for something come from spaces that are more stable, more affluent, where there's more career teachers. Teacher turnover is an enormous issue, and it’s a huge issue in high-poverty districts. So, I just want high-poverty schools and districts and kids who are brilliant but economically disadvantaged to have a seat at the table.