Scout runs into a crowd of men with murder on their minds, as she always does in chapter 15 of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and Steven Gamache’s eighth grade students are all into it.
Even on the cusp of a long holiday break, their eyes stay glued to projected textural highlights of Harper Lee’s 1960, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about racial injustice.
Audio of the scene intensifies the moment that Jean Louise Finch – appropriately nicknamed “Scout” — unknowingly stops a lynching. The southern-accented reader presents the moment in matter-of-fact tones, but the significance of the action rings in the ears of the 20 or so modern-day teenagers following along.
Scout greets the leader of the mob with endearing warmth and forces acknowledgment of her connection to his son, an elementary school classmate. The scene concludes with him offering to say “hey” to his son for the “little lady.” Then he calls off the murderous crowd.
Only an innocent would confront such a hate-filled man at such a moment. Gamache asks his students to consider the importance of Scout’s unawareness of danger in literary terms.
“It’s dramatic irony,” responds more than one student.
“Snap it up,” Gamache says to the others to indicate praise.
Gamache’s lesson on dramatic irony is just another day in the classroom at Paul Habans Charter School in Algiers, but it’s the kind of instruction that recently won him a Milken Educators Award, one of the most prestigious national teacher awards granted. The award came to him unawares in November, but all the top brass knew of it because they had secretly built a written case for him with the Milken Foundation.
The award was presented by Lowell Milken, president of the Milken Foundation, at what appeared to be a routine Habans school function. Surrounding by colleagues who knew he had been recommended, Gamache was stunned.
“I felt like it wasn’t real,” he says. “Like a television show. Like a dream.”
This dream comes with a $25,000 check attached, money he will receive later this year when he attends a conference with other recipients of the awards. Gamache hasn’t decided how to use the money. He’s considering options: pay down student loan debt; visit Europe or use it as a down payment on a house.
The Milken is awarded to mid-career teachers who excel at their craft. Gamache’s own success shows up in clear terms at the release of student achievement test scores each year.
His students consistently achieve “academic growth” at the 90th percentile and above. One year, state data show his students scored at the 95th percentile, meaning only 5 percent of teachers statewide achieved more student progress in English.
In recommendation letters, Gamache’s teaching style is described as “calm” and “patient.” He commands a classroom like a benign drill sergeant, but outside it, his easy demeaner brings a reputation of “silent hero.” Nordic-looking and slight, his off-campus interests are biking to festivals, reading and participating in a Mardi Gras krewe.
That light-hearted side may explain a comment made in the student recommendation letter: “When Mr. Gamache teaches it’s like a fun bomb hit you.”
This “fun” includes — as one co-worker recalled — asking students to retell the ancient Greek myth of Athena and Arachne. Imagine a narcissistic, contemporary artist turned into a cockroach and scrambling for cover under a Sears appliance sort of story.
Gamache’s emerging talent caught Principal Elisabeth LaMotte-Mitchell’s attention several years ago when they both worked at nearby Harriet Tubman Charter School. LaMotte-Mitchell directed curriculum development at a time that Harriet Tubman was transitioning from a failing school to a C-rated school.
Gamache left New Orleans to teach in Boston for a while, but in 2016, when LaMotte-Mitchell was appointed principal at the all-new Paul Habans school, Gamache was her first hire. She says she admired his focus on academic rigor and the way he engaged with students.
“I called him on his birthday,” she recalls. “I know you miss” New Orleans, she told him.
Even though Gamache is a native of upstate New York, he says he was weary of snow, so he took the offer.
Two years later, Paul Habans, a K-8th grade school of 900 students, had also transitioned from failing to a C-rated school, LaMotte-Mitchell says. It has achieved the distinction of a top “growth” open enrollment school for two years in row in Orleans Parish. As is the case for Gamache’s students, the school’s overall LEAP scores showed significant gains in academic progress from 2017 to 2018 and 2018 to 2019.
LaMotte-Mitchell is also a geographic transplant. A native of California, she made her way here in 2010 via Washington D.C. and Chicago, where she says she didn’t feel her instructional efforts were “effecting change.”
“I was excited about what was happening in New Orleans,” she says. A challenge was her goal. She found it at Harriet Tubman and then later at Paul Habans. Both failing schools were reassigned by the state to the Crescent City Schools Charter Management Organization.
As principal, LaMotte-Mitchell was directed to “turn around” Paul Habans, a charge she found more challenging than expected. “Kids in 6th grade who didn’t know all their letters is what we walked into,” she recalls.
The school’s quick advance to a C state-rating was gratifying, but C isn’t good enough for LaMotte-Mitchell.
Nowadays, a wall-mounted plaque that exhorts “Get to a B!” hovers over her desk. It reminds her daily of the work that is still to be done. A yard sign that reads: “I scored Advanced on the LEAP at Paul Habans Charter School!” rests against an office file cabinet.
Such signs are staked into the yards of high achieving students each year to recognize them and encourage others to work toward top scores. The more “advanced” students a school generates, the higher the state’s assigned letter grade.
Turning around schools is her talent, she says, and she has developed a formula that she believes accounts for Paul Habans’ success. A school must be safe and orderly at a “bare minimum,” she says. Then, it must create a student mind-set that school is “awesome” with frequent celebrations, competitions, award ceremonies, publications of student creative work and music and dance instruction.
Staffing is the third ingredient. “We hire and look for people who are mission aligned,” she says. “This is not an 8 to 4 job. I look for passion.”
Passion is what she discovered in Gamache, who says he came to teaching through a love of literature. After the first two years of college in New York City, he found that his favorite classes were literature classes. He liked reading, analyzing and talking about books, even commonly taught classics such as John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”; George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” and Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.”
Knowing what he liked was the easy part. Then he had to face the looming question everyone faces when choosing English as the college major: “What am I going to do with it?”
Teaching seemed the obvious answer, so he did some tutoring and obtained a master’s degree in adolescent education. Of that turning point, Gamache says: “It was the best way I could work with what I love.”