Topher Kandik, 44, teaches at SEED, a public charter boarding school in Washington. He was named the District’s teacher of the year for 2016. Kandik lives in the District’s Petworth neighborhood with his wife and son.
What makes you such a good teacher?
It’s hard for me to talk about myself as a teacher, but I do a lot of reflecting, and one of the things that I really try to do is destroy the classroom experience. Kids enter into a classroom, and they think, This is a dead zone. So I try to get them out and do things that you don’t normally do in a classroom, so it doesn’t seem like they’re learning. I like to sneak learning in.
What surprises you about your students?
Probably the biggest surprise is every kid does want to be successful. When I first came to the classroom, I thought, Well, there are going to be some kids who just don’t care. And that’s not true. Even the ones who struggle the most, when they have their successes they light up. And it begets other successes. Just to see kids who have struggled and are angry at being in the classroom switch things around when they have a couple of easy wins, it’s nice to see.
So you’re teacher of the year. Where do you still need to improve?
I don’t want you to print where I need to improve and then have it show up on my performance report.
You’re the teacher of the year! Why are you worried about your performance review?
[Laughs.] No, I’m not worried about my performance review. I think I could do much better communicating with parents.
Is there something you wish you had learned as a 10th-grader?
A lot of people ask me if I had a great teacher. And I never really did. I wish I had been empowered to bring my ideas more. With my advanced classes, I’ll tell them I’m going to be a student and you’re going to be a teacher. And it’s been a neat strategy and fun for me to see kids really perk up and take that into other classes, too.
What brings you your greatest frustration?
This is really an inelegant response, but there are times when you’re not reaching somebody. Your tool belt or strategies aren’t reaching that kid. And that is frustrating because you want to think that you can reach anybody.
If you could assign everyone who reads this a book to read, what would it be?
When I first worked at SEED, I had never read Zora Neale Hurston before. I read and taught “Their Eyes Were Watching God” for the first time my first year at SEED. It was such a moving experience, and it really shifted the way I thought about teaching. It was in dialect, and I didn’t really know much about [Hurston], and I was struggling with it myself. We did some reading in class, and my students just nailed it. That dialect was perfect. And I was like, Whoa, there’s a way to read this book that is not the way I was taught to read. It really changed me. I went down to Eatonville [Fla.], and I got to study Zora and her life and got to see where she grew up. That was a sea change for how I thought about literature. And she had so much fun as a writer that it gave me license to have fun.
What’s a common characterization of young students that is wrong?
That they’re disengaged. Last year I started a unit on the news topics of the day. This is when Michael Brown and Eric Garner were in the news. So we read articles, we did research. From the jump, everyone was up; there was eye contact. We read Colbert King writing about his grandmother and Deep South justice. And they started connecting everything from Emmett Till up until today. Sadly, right around that time, Tamir Rice was shot and killed. Every person is genuinely engaged in this because it affects them. And my goal is to tell them that the stuff they are learning should affect them. I’m not going to teach you something that has no effect on your life, that you’re just going to forget about.
For stories, features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit WP Magazine.
Follow the Magazine on Twitter.
Like us on Facebook.
Email us at email@example.com.