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Teaching Greatest Hits: Tiffany Hamm, Most Engaging Classroom

By October 24, 2019February 21st, 2022Teaching Greatest Hits

We know teachers have a hard job to do with a limited amount of time. It makes us ecstatic to learn from amazing teachers that go the extra mile to contribute to making the world just a little better, one student at a time.

This is the first spotlight in a series of five, in which we feature the winning recipients of Kiddom’s inaugural Teaching Greatest Hits series. Look for the others over the coming months by signing up for our Teaching Community Newsletter.

In a day and age of high stakes testing and ever-increasing accountability, how do we embrace change? How can you thrive for something different, for something better?

In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, we held this award series for teachers who deserve recognition for their outstanding work in the classroom. We searched far and wide to find the winners of this year’s Teaching Greatest Hits, and see what makes them tick.

I sat down with Tiffany Hamm, an English teacher at Los Gatos High School in California. She’s been teaching for 27 years and as the winner of the “Most Engaging Classroom” award, she has managed to push for the change she wants to see in the world with amazing grace.

The interview below…

Q: What do you currently teach?

Tiffany Hamm: I have a freshman English class. And then I have a social justice junior class piloting this year. And I’ve been teaching senior social justice for the last three years. They decided to have the juniors start and stay with me for two years. English eleven and in English twelve considered English class towards college credits. And so we’re piloting it have these courageous conversations.

Q: What brought you down the path to become a teacher?

TH: Well, I actually wanted to be so many other things. I wanted to work as a missionary for a while, then I wanted to work in the system with incarcerated youth. I thought, “well, I could be a therapist…” and then my mother said, “You know you can do all those things in college education and be impactful in the classroom,” – and she was right. Education has always been something that I just love because it’s never the same day twice.

Q: What kinds of connections to the world can your students make with the activities and assignments in your classroom?

TH: We tend to hold tightly to our norms. My students are never seated the same seat twice. This encourages them to talk to different people, and pulls them out of their comfort zone.  I got this idea from a Freedom Writer teacher down in Long Beach, CA. There’s about 500 of us who trained with Erin Gruwell from the Freedom Writer movie.

Q: In your nomination, fellow teacher Liv Johnson told us about the social justice Monopoly game you play in your class. Could you tell us more?

TH: The Monopoly game is a study of inequity, race, class, and redlining. The students will pick who they want to be (with game markers). And by accident, they will have a certain wealth category or not. Some students are impoverished from the start and they never catch up; some will always be in jail. And when they get out of jail, they realize that they can’t afford to live in the world. So oftentimes, they have asked to go back to jail because it’s easier and they don’t make payments. Doesn’t that emulate life?

We’re looking at just mercy and mass incarceration in the new age—how quickly are we to judge people. Some people are living this now.

Q: Tell us about the service trips you take with students!

TH: We went to New Orleans and worked in the Ninth Ward, studying inequity of race and also building homes with Habitat for Humanity. We have gone to Peru, built roads for students who did not have access to getting school. This year we’ve talked about going back to Peru, or Mexico to build houses. Something to get them out of their element.

Q: In your opinion, what defines an engaging classroom? Have your strategies changed from year to year to improve student outcomes?

TH: I want to give my students a voice, and make them feel comfortable to speak. We cannot really have these conversations about race, gender, and ethnicity if they don’t feel safe in the classroom to have it. These are difficult questions that I’m asking. Before they can grapple with them out loud, suspend judgment, and feel free to make a mistake, we have to work on creating that culture first.

You can never look at a different perspective until you feel comfortable enough to have one. 

Q: Can you speak to those structured conversations and how they establish a healthy environment for students?

TH: First, we find our commons. Commons happen a lot. My students don’t think they have anything in common with anyone sitting next to them until they start talking. Right now, we’re looking at our identity and how it shows up, and exploring what they’re willing to share with each other. There’s risk involved but they also need to know that they have boundaries and so they’ve drawn their own personal boundaries.”

Q: What is your favorite thing about teaching?

TH: Honestly, I look forward to seeing my students every day. Each of them brings something to the table that’s new—a different outlook on life. I love it when one student doesn’t really think that they’re being seen and then they have a moment like: “Hey, I see you. I’ve seen you all along.” And they don’t know that because I think they see themselves as just one of many in the class.

At the start of the school year, we put up all of the pictures on the wall and everyone has a saying and we look at them and celebrate the fact that we’re all in this together, It wasn’t by accident. And so that’s it— my students really.

I’m very glad I was able to interview Tiffany Hamm in person and see her inspiring classroom. Every inch of it is covered with quotes and utter kindness. She has shown me that if you have passion, you can love what you do every day, inspire students to ensure their success and encouraging them to fulfill their potential.

Recap: What Makes Up Teaching Greatest Hits?

Each of the categories were scored on a different rubric. But as we saw from the nominations (and personal experience), teachers can shine in a myriad stands on three pillars, hanging from one common theme of empowering students:

  1. Fostering inclusivity by supporting and uplifting students of all abilities, cultures, and beliefs.
  2. Impacting students beyond the perimeter of the classroom, by delivering culturally relevant curriculum, opening doors to new interests, and teaching the whole child.
  3. Upholding equity in education by providing scalable, dynamic, and personalized learning experiences.

Visit the 2019 Teaching Greatest Hits announcement page to learn more about the winners, and subscribe to our newsletter for more uplifting content by teachers, for teachers.