Local teacher receives national ‘Honors’

Zoë Brinkley (l) and Arteria Evans (r) \\ Photo by Caroline Yang

“Ms. Evans is the most dedicated teacher I have ever come across.”

With those words, a 37-year-old mother from Minneapolis nominated an extraordinary educator for the Honored award — teacher who, over the course of a year, had a huge impact in the life of her 9-year-old daughter.

The nomination is full of words like “attentive,” “wonderful” and “amazing,” and it goes on to tell of a bright, charming third-grader who was struggling to stay focused in class, and a teacher who went well beyond the extra mile to make sure the student — and her parents — didn’t fall through the cracks.

So, what does the teacher in question make of all this? “That,” says Artiera Evans, when I read her those words, “is awesome.”

But perhaps not all that surprising for a woman who knew from her earliest days growing up in Moorhead, Minnesota, exactly what her mission was in life. As a preschooler, she’d gather her stuffed animals and play ‘school,’ with them, with her, of course, as the teacher. “Even before I went to kindergarten,” she explains. “I wanted to be a teacher. It’s something I always loved and could always see myself doing. It was my purpose.”

Nowadays, Evans, 31, is a veteran teacher with eight years’ experience and a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota. She teaches third grade at Emerson Spanish Immersion Learning Center, a public school in Minneapolis.

And it was there, in the fall of 2017, that Evans met Zoë Brinkley. Zoë had a great year in kindergarten, her mom explains, but was coming off a couple of rough years in the first and second grade. She’d struggled to pay attention in class, and things didn’t really click with the teachers. Zoë’s mother, Nilvia Brinkley and her husband, Quince, felt that they weren’t really getting the help and support they needed.

Emerson is an exciting school, with a dual-immersion program in Spanish and English. But it can also be a challenging one. More than half the students are English-language learners, and more than 75 percent receive free or reduced-price lunches. With so many students of Latinx descent, Nilvia Brinkley says, she felt that sometimes the smaller population of African-American students, like Zoë, weren’t receiving the attention they needed.

By the end of that second-grade year, things had gotten to the point where she began thinking “that I was going to pull Zoë out of school. Maybe try homeschooling.”

Her daughter is a gifted and eager learner, Nilvia explains, with a great sense of humor and a voracious appetite for books. (Egyptians and mummies, Dork Diaries, The Baby-Sitters Club, “just about anything.”)  But sometimes she has trouble focusing on her work. “Zoë just wants to take everything in all the time,” her mom says. At school, “she’s kind of like, ‘Squirrels!’ or, ‘This is happening!’ She’s often just in everyone’s business.”

And so as third grade loomed, Zoë’s parents were watching closely.

When Zoë landed in Artiera Evans’ third-grade classroom, one of the first issues Evans noticed was Zoë’s focus. “Even from the very beginning, in September, I could see she was really struggling to pay attention.” This had nothing to do with Zoë’s intellectual capacity, Evans realized, just “her ability to stay focused and engaged.”

It’s something I always loved and could always see myself doing. It was my purpose.

And so, “I just started with both parents, but mainly with [Zoë’s] mom.” Emails, phone calls, notes home. “I suggested that we do some little experiments,” Evans says. She’d been watching as Zoë sometimes got distracted by the goings-on in the hallway or other parts of the classroom.  “I couldn’t tell if it was all the hustling and bustling that distracted her, or if it was sound.”

So the teacher borrowed a pair of headphones, the kind that muffle outside sounds, from the school social worker and asked Zoë to wear them sometimes. “It really helped.” Nilvia Brinkley saw the difference, too, and eventually bought Zoë a pair to replace the borrowed ones.

This was great, but even more important to Nilvia was that the attention came so early in the school year. Many parents know the frustration of learning about a problem their child is having — for the first time — at parent-teacher conferences a month, or even two, into the school year. This teacher had reached out right away.

For the next experiment, Nilvia says, Evans set up a plan where she would give Zoë a “kind of a tracking system.” Evans calls this a task card. It’s a little chart, broken down by subject areas, with boxes for data points that the teacher could enter: “Worked consistently.” “Completed task.”

It was information that both teacher and parents could use to identify problems and try solutions. “Most importantly, for her mom and me,” Evans explains, “was that we didn’t want her missing out on learning opportunities just because she sharpened her pencil for five minutes.”

Of course, all this wasn’t some magic bullet: “It was a few weeks before I saw any change.” Slowly, though, things started looking up. Even Zoë noticed the difference with her new teacher. “She helped me,” Zoë says. “She gave me a chart so I could show my parents how I was acting.”

For Evans, the next big teaching challenge was Zoë’s shyness. “Even with a microphone, at the beginning of the year, you could not hear her. You had to be inches from her face. She would whisper just about everything.”

To tackle this, Evans turned to one of the oldest tools in an elementary teacher’s toolbox: Show-and-tell. “It’s a great way for us to get to know each other, besides academics.” And, because Emerson is an immersion school, “it’s a great way to get everybody speaking Spanish.” Evans learned Spanish in high school, and spent six weeks in Spain when she was 16. It’s a big part of her life as an educator.

It’s also a major factor in the Brinkleys’ choice of Emerson as a school for Zoë. “My mother is from Panama,” Nilvia says. “I don’t speak Spanish but I really wanted that for my daughter.”

Despite her shyness, when it came to show-and-tell, Zoë took to it right off. I asked her to explain to me how it works: “Everybody sits in a circle. And if you brought something big, you put it in the middle. And if you brought something small you could pass it around.”

She never missed an opportunity. “I remember when I brought my skateboard, and my violin,” Zoë recalls. (What song did she play? “Twinkle, Twinkle.”) Her mom saw the enthusiasm, too: “She blossomed then and took ownership. She wanted to make her show-and-tells really cool, and I could see her confidence was boosted.”

But for Evans, show-and-tell is about more than just speaking up. “It’s super important that my students don’t leave any parts of themselves at the door. I want them to bring all of who they are.”

For Zoë, that meant, at show-and-tell one day in the middle of the school year, talking about her religious faith. The Brinkleys, Nilvia explains, are Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s a central part of their lives, and yet they didn’t want some of the tenets of their faith — like not celebrating Christmas or birthdays or other holidays — to make Zoë feel uncomfortable in class or have the other students view her as “different.”

This aligns, too, with Evans’ approach to her teaching: “There are a lot of different cultural elements in our school,” she says. She tries to build on those differences and use them as learning opportunities: “Not preaching, but allowing the kids to be exposed to different things.”

Teaching is not just what I do, it is truly who I am.

And so when Zoë told her teacher she wanted to talk about her religion at show-and-tell, it was a big deal. “She was nervous, and asked if I would sit by her, in the circle.”

Evans was nervous, too: “But she’s just saying, ‘this is what I believe, and this is different and special to me.’” And so, with her teacher sitting by her side, the shy student who a few weeks earlier could barely talk above a whisper, spoke openly and proudly with her classmates about her beliefs.

For Nilvia Brinkley, this cemented her belief that Zoë had a teacher who was very special. Adding to that was Evans’ attention to yet another form of diversity: She is a co-founder, with another teacher, Arika Quintanilla, of an affinity group for African-American students that’s now in its third year at the school.

Emerson’s enrollment is about 12 percent African-American — lower than the average in Minneapolis. And sometimes Evans says, that led to adjustment problems. “We saw that [students] would be subconsciously rejecting Spanish, or having some kinds of behavior issues. Or some kids didn’t feel a sense of belonging.”

And so, when some concerns arose from parents, the two teachers started the group with the goal of creating a safe space. “They could have said, ‘We’ll leave it to the district or the PTA,’ but they did it themselves,” says Nilvia.

For Zoë, the attention, the extra help, and the respect were making a difference. She felt more comfortable, more focused, and more relaxed. What was the way, I ask her, that Ms. Evans helped the most? “By not saying, ‘Speak up loud,’ or, ‘Speak up,’ ” she answers. “Instead, she would come to your desk and help you with the words you couldn’t say, or she would give you a microphone.”

All of this was done in constant communication with Zoë’s parents. Gradually, Nilvia realized it wasn’t just Zoë who was getting this kind of attention. The day she decided to write to Honored, she says, was when she was talking to another parent of a struggling daughter, and realized that that mom, too, was getting intensive support. And so were other parents.

“We’d joke that we get emails at 10 or 11 at night on a Friday or early in the morning on Sunday.” That kind of dedication, Nilvia realized, needed to be recognized, and rewarded.

“I’ve moved around a lot,” Nilvia says, “and I’ve had my share of good and bad teachers.” Artiera Evans, she says, is the kind of teacher “I would have wanted for myself, and what I want for my kid.”

For Evans, this all goes back to those days, even before kindergarten, when she knew what she wanted to do when she grew up. “Teaching is not just what I do, it is truly who I am.”

Even so, it’s not something she can do alone: “What gives the power in my teaching is relationships. I don’t think you can accomplish as much without student buy-in, without them knowing that you care about them, as people and not just as students.”

Steve Drummond, senior education editor, NPR News for Honored.