Jermar Rountree, a preschool through eighth-grade PE and health teacher at Center City Public Charter School’s Brightwood Campus in Washington, D.C., is one of five finalists for the 2023 National Teacher of the Year award from the Council of Chief State Schools Officers. The winner will be announced in the coming weeks.
Rountree, who has been teaching in Washington, D.C., since 2012, also serves as the District’s teacher lead for the charter network’s PE and health department.
SmartBrief recently asked Rountree about how teachers can find simple ways to connect with and support their students, best practices for classroom management and the importance of physical activity for students, among other topics.
This Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity and space.
SmartBrief: A lot is asked of teachers in the US, often without getting a lot in return (whether pay, recognition or support). What can school districts and/or principals do to help teachers who are tapped out, retain educators and recruit new ones when the job can sometimes seem so overwhelming?
Rountree: One of the best attributes of being an educator is your passion, your passion to bring reading, math, social studies and other subjects to life for students. Providing students with tools to help them navigate the world with integrity, respect and being emotionally aware.
I truly feel if organizations spent a little time listening to teachers, and really listening, this would change the way that teachers feel. We know in any job having a voice is key,and when teachers feel heard, seen and respected this goes a long way.
SmartBrief: We hear so much about teachers who want to make all students feel valued and capable of great things, and the importance of connecting with them — learning about a student’s home life, going to their sports or extracurricular activities. Do you have tips for ways to do this that won’t encroach into a teacher’s personal time or have some out-of-the-ordinary ways to connect?
Rountree: Of course, we know that being a valued member in a student’s life helps shape our day and the way we interact with our students. One of the ways I try to stay involved is participating in running after-school clubs so I get the firsthand version of what students’ extracurricular needs are, although I know this is not [always] feasible.
One of the things I started doing this year, because I know as a teacher we are so busy, is a simple check-in task. I knew I couldn’t make my students’ soccer games or basketball games due to all of the “life happens” stuff. So I copied the schedule down and made a reminder to check in with students about their games or high-school interviews.
Sometimes we forget that a gesture, while it may seem small to me, can be a huge game changer for our students. So make those small reminders, and when you see your students, don’t hesitate to ask, “How’d it go?” or “Do you want to talk about this or that sometime?” These small tasks can be a bright light our students need to know that someone cares.
SmartBrief: Behavior problems seem to have increased among students since the beginning of the pandemic, but this issue has always existed. What are your classroom management strategies for dealing with disruptive behavior and regaining control of the room? Is it different now than in the past?
Rountree: I wouldn’t say that [it] isn’t different now. I think there are more pieces to manage. Students are coming to us with more traumatic experiences and challenges. We as educators sometimes forget how hard [the pandemic] was for our students, because it was hard for us as well. So we tend to expect that our students coming out of the pandemic have continued on the path of learning, but in reality, students took a few steps back socially and emotionally.
One of the main concepts I teach at the beginning of my classes is respect. We have a motto in our class: Respect yourself, respect others, and respect our space and things. This respect comes in many shapes and forms.
However, what truly helps me in my classroom is that I am not afraid to be vulnerable with my students. Once a student understands that they can be vulnerable in your space, you’ve opened so many doors for exploration and learning for that student. I’m not afraid to be real with my students and bring up real-world discussions.
In this day and age our students are gaining information so much faster than when I was growing up. It is literally at their fingertips. But some of it is real, and some of it isn’t. Although it may not seem like the job of an educator, what better way to build a relationship with your students than to be real with them?
SmartBrief: Collaboration with teachers and administrators seems like a thread that ties together all the National Teacher of the Year finalists. What does successful collaboration look like? What are your favorite collaboration tools to engage and learn with other teachers, whether in your school or district or beyond?
Rountree: When I was studying to receive my degree, my professor at the time made a small comment that sticks with me till this day: The concept of stealing — and not [in] the sense of harm, but in the sense of not having to recreate the wheel, but change what you made it for later.
The biggest plus for being a teacher is that we across the nation have so many things in common, besides our common goal of pushing students in the right direction. Even though I am a PE teacher, I still experience the challenges with students, families and sometimes colleagues.
Being a teacher, though, means we have a foundation that we can lean on, and that is each other. It is the biggest resource that no other job truly has, across state or district. I can ask any teacher if they have been through the things that I have been through, and they will say yes. But the beauty is [they are] giving you advice on how to deal with the situation at hand. As teachers, if we choose to use this platform, there are so many amazing things that we can do for ourselves but most importantly for our students.
SmartBrief: Beyond exercising for physical health, can you explain some of the benefits of movement in learning?
Rountree: Studies have shown that physical activity is essential for a child’s physical, mental and emotional health. Regular exercise helps to improve fitness, coordination and motor skills, and can reduce the risk of obesity, heart disease and other health problems. Physical activity also has a positive impact on mental health, reducing stress and anxiety and improving mood and self-esteem.
In addition to these health benefits, physical education also plays a key role in the development of other important skills and qualities, such as teamwork, leadership and resilience. While all those are true, physical education helps students learn to work together, to communicate effectively, and to develop a strong sense of sportsmanship and fair play. It also provides opportunities for students to take on leadership roles and to develop their confidence and self-esteem.
But perhaps most importantly, physical education helps to create a culture of health and wellness in our schools. It provides students with a safe and supportive environment where they can learn about healthy living, and where they can develop the habits and attitudes that will support a lifetime of good health.
Katharine Haber is an education editor at SmartBrief.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.