Bryan Alvarez is a music teacher in Oakland who built his school's music program from nothing: no instruments, no room, and no budget to teach music. He solicited donations from companies like Spotify and Soundcloud, and the nonprofit Little Kids Rock, to outfit his class with instruments, music streaming subscriptions, recording and editing software, and other educational resources.
"I used to keep track of how much the stuff was worth, and at some point I just lost track," he says. "It's well over $100,000 of donated equipment."
Having a stocked classroom is great. But the key to building a music program, Alvarez says — and to being an effective teacher for these middle school students — is building relationships with each and every one of them.
The kids yelling, screaming, and laughing in the hallway are more than just his students, he says. They're his family.
Students now stop by Alvarez's music room at Frick Impact Academy during lunch and after school, asking, "Can I just come in to practice for a little bit? Can I take this home?" he says.
Science teacher, St. Joseph High School, St. Joseph, Mich.
Nita Nicholie — or Mrs. Nic, as her students call her — thought she'd only teach science for a few years when she started at St. Joseph. That was 32 years ago.
"I went into teaching because I love science, but I stayed in teaching because I love the kids," she says now.
Multiple students who have or have had Nicholie as a teacher wrote to NPR about her. Autumn Roth, who took Honors Physics with Nicholie before heading to college, told us: "On the first day of class she burst into the room singing show-tunes at the top of her lungs. I knew right then that this was going to be a good class."
Students mentioned that Mrs. Nic was known to open her home to students. When we got Nicholie on the phone, she told us that she and her family have taken in over 20 students to live with them over the years. "A lot of times they just needed a safe place to sleep, to have a warm shower in the morning and food before they go to sleep at night," she says.
Nicholie even has an alarm set on her phone to remind her to text some students to make sure they're awake and heading to school. It's all part of connecting with her students — asking them how they're really doing each day when they show up in class.
One project she can't stop talking about: a tutoring class, pairing up upperclassmen with students who need extra academic help. It's one of the most rewarding parts of her job.
"There's no formula about how to be a great teacher," Nicholie says. "If I really truly love what I do, the kids know it."
Social studies teacher, Humanities and Arts Academy of Los Angeles, Harbor City, Calif.
When Arinn Filer started teaching social studies at Humanities and Arts Academy in Los Angeles, she quickly noticed that many of her students were football players. One of them — a sophomore — already had an offer to play at University of Southern California.
During football season, many players didn't have time for homework between school, practices and games. Filer wanted to make sure these student-athletes had a point-person to guide them. She created a class for athletes to complete work, brush up on study skills, and plan out their classes to ensure that they're NCAA eligible — to ensure that they're be able to play in college.
"I like to work with the athletes because I feel like they finally have a place to go on our campus," she says. She checks their report cards, talks to them about their grades, and leads lessons on specific skills, like goal-setting.
One of her coworkers, LaNea Austin, who teaches English, wrote to NPR, "No matter what, she helps chart a future for these athletes."
Filer's football players won the state championship in the fall, and many have offers to play for big-name football schools. But she also takes time to present them with paths to college that don't depend on getting recruited to play sports.