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Dedicated to Teachers

Podcast: Owning Your Story with Patrick Harris

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We all have stories that shape our lives, make us who we are, and are worth sharing.

Today on the podcast we’re pleased to introduce Patrick Harris. Heinemann’s relationship with Patrick began back in 2017, and last week we proudly published Patrick’s first book with Heinemann, The First Five: A Love Letter to Teachers. 

Through his writing and personal experiences, Patrick brings to light the realities of teaching, especially in the first five years.

Download a sample from The First Five


Below is a transcript of this episode. 

Brett: All right. So Patrick, one of the things I've been dying to talk to you about, I've spent a lot of time with your audio book and one of the great joys of listening to you read this book has been hearing your personality just shine through.

That laugh, hearing that laugh throughout the audio book was just a treat and a joy. So, I kind of want to go from just...

This book is you. It so captures your voice. And I think where we really want to start is, tell us a little bit about yourself. What do you want listeners to know about your teaching journey?

Patrick: Oh my gosh. Well, thank you, Brett. I owe so many thanks to you. I'm sure we'll get into it, but I'll say the audio book, it was such a joy to record because...

When we first had the audio book meeting, I told them, I said, "Listen, I listen to audiobooks for about maybe one or two chapters, but then I turned them off because I often find that even with the most entertaining people out there, it often sounds robotic.

And so I was just like, "I don't want a robotic sounding audio book. I am a podcaster." I wrote this blog post a while ago, talking about how much I learned about storytelling from eavesdropping on my mom while she was on the phone in the kitchen or in the bedroom or whatever. And so, so much of my storytelling is auditory.

And so, it was a joy to record. Another secret that I love to sort of share is that the book was written primarily voice to text. I didn't spend a lot of time writing on legal paths or typing because it was too much pressure for me.

A lot of it was like, "I am going to actually type... I am actually going to say this, I'm going to speak it." In some cases I got on Instagram Live and I would put my voice to text on while I told a story on Instagram Live and I would write the book that way.

So, it really helped me to find my voice. So being in the booth, the audio book was the most fun.

Brett: So, let's get into that. What is your teaching journey? What do you want listeners to know about how you came to this moment?

Patrick: Oh my gosh. There's so many starting points. We can start when I was four years old. And the fact that my cousin's preschool teacher allowed me to come into the classroom a little bit earlier, snuck me in, right, and I got a chance to experience the magic of education and teaching there. We could start there at four.

We could start at 11 when I wrote my first story and how much I loved that, and how incredible of an elementary school experience I had. We could start at 14 being at South Philathic high school. We could start at 18 going to Michigan State.

And so, there are so many starting points within my upbringing where I was surrounded by incredible teachers. And I mean that in the traditional sense, but I also think that I have been surrounded by incredible educators, right. And incredible storytellers.

I talk about in the book, right. Like my aunts, who oftentimes told me about concerts and music history, right. And my grandmother and I used to sit down and watch soap operas, and she used to talk to me about these like, "He..." You know what I mean?

So, there are so many storytellers that I had. And so, I knew that I belonged in a classroom despite all of the warnings that people gave me throughout my years and my trajectory. I said, "No, child. I will be in the classroom."

And so, I went to Michigan State. I thought I was going to have a very traditional career path. And then I graduated and I couldn't afford to student teach, which is kind of where things started to go, not south, but just squiggly; like, "This [inaudible 00:04:44], okay. We're a low diag... I guess, I'm going to do an alternative certification."

Because I knew I wanted to be like my own teachers. They were there 10 years, 12 years, by the time I got to them. But I'm most known for working in six schools in seven years, right, which was not at all the plan, at all.

I have seen education from every corner you could think of, traditional public, traditional charter, tuition-based private, tuition free private. I've seen it at an international school. I've seen it at home. I've seen it overseas. I've seen it homogeneous. I've seen it diverse. I've seen it from the wealthiest to beneath the poverty line.

I have been in every corner of this industry as a classroom teacher on the ground. And so, so much of what I want people to know about my teaching journey is just how nontraditional my experience has been, and I'm still here.

And so I knew that if I was going to write a book, it had to be about the first five, because folks talk about those first five years being crucial, right, to whether you're going to stay in the profession or leave.

Folks talk about the first five as being like 50% of teachers leave after five years, if you can make it past five years, baby, you are okay, you are good to go!

And I was just like, "Man," on a rollercoaster throughout all five of those. And so each of those schools...

Patrick: And I left for a variety of reasons, but in each place that I was at, each set of children that I was responsible for, I walked away with some incredible lessons about leadership, about teaching, about humanity, about myself. And so all of that kind of led itself to these stories that I told on my podcast, right. And folks were like, "Man, I love how real this is." You know?

Brett: Yeah.

Patrick: And so I literally told folks, I said, "Listen, there are a lot of books that come out that are telling teachers what to do, that are putting tools in a toolbox, but I'm going to just be real and honest and say that my toolbox is overflowing and I don't have no more room."

And so, I need to, in a sense, just absorb it. I need to reflect on all of the experiences I've had in the last five years. And I got some stories to tell, I got some truths to uncover, and it goes beyond horror stories. You know what I mean?

Because we got lots of those, but I mean, I'm talking about the depth and the passion and the ups and the downs. It's been a roller coaster. So, I'm excited to share that journey.

Brett: I think one of the lessons, one of the biggest lessons I take away from your first year of teaching is how you really compel us to think differently about the first five years versus that first year.

You write about, we really need to think about that first year as the most important year for teachers. I wonder if you can maybe just say a little bit more about, through your journey, why that was so important for... Why we really need to be looking at that first year differently?

Patrick: Well, the first year of teaching, oh my gosh, it reveals so much. Like, when you step into a classroom, you are essentially looking into a mirror, right, of yourself and what you have, sort of going on.

I think the first year of teaching, the way that I have was always sort of taught about that year is like, you're never going to master anything. You're never going to be good at it, right.

So, just take every blow that comes your way. And I think that teachers walk into that first year with strengths, right. And one of those strengths being our humanity, you know what I mean?

And so I think that the more that teachers can realize in that first year that this is not just about mastering a ton of strategies or mastering a ton of procedures, but it really is tapping in how can I be my most human self so that I can reflect that sort of to my students and they can reflect theirs back at me.

And so that first year, it's crucial because it sets up the next four or five years, just strictly out of a mindset.

Brett: What's beautiful about this is how you lay out your stories for us in each of these five years. And you really talk a lot about how sharing your stories and other stories that you've learned along the way is so important for what it is that you do.

Talk a little bit more about how our own stories can shape our lives and can shape our stories, and why sharing those stories is just so important for the work that you do.

Patrick: Oh my gosh. You know, when I was thinking about the best way to communicate this message, I knew that I wanted to take a storytelling approach. There's a reason why we binge Netflix.

Brett: Yeah.

Patrick: There's a reason why we binge on Hulu, and why there's a new streaming service every year or so. And the reason why is because that's just how we connect as human beings. We want to feel a sense of connection. We want to know that we are not in this by ourselves.

And so, I knew that I wanted to share these stories so that folks can know, out there in the teaching profession that you are not alone. And I know that sounds cliche, but when you really think about our profession, what I learned or what I thought back then was like, "Man, it's just me in my classroom, my four walls. And then it is just me, my school, my community, right." And I was like, "I'm..."

In a sense, it feels very isolating. You know what I mean? Because it's like I'm doing this work in a box almost, even as powerful as it actually is. And it wasn't until I used to go on Twitter and I used to say like, "Oh my God, I can't believe!"

I got to put on a headset and I have to listen to my principal talk to me from the back of the classroom and coach me on what to do and give students consequences for things that I would never give them consequences for in the first place.

Is this what we are about, right? Or... I am so confused on where to go, right. So I started to Tweet my journey, and to have folks out there saying like, "Oh my gosh, me too." Or like, "Oh my gosh, I can't believe this," right?

That sense of connection is crucial, someone outside of your school district, somebody who really needs to be there with you, right. It's almost like a teacher bestie in a sense.

And so, I knew that I wanted the storytelling approach. It's the most engaging method. I think it's accessible. You know what I mean? There are a lot of teacher books out there that teachers want to read, but they just don't have the time to read it because a lot of it will include pulling back the layers of dense theory, which is crucial. We need that.

But there are some books that he just want to pick up that are a little bit more accessible, a little bit easier to read, and that will take you through some emotions, right? There are a lot of emotions in the book.

Brett: Do you think that maybe through stories, we find our autonomy?

Patrick: I absolutely think that. And let me just be clear because I think that particularly in books that share lots of strategies, there are stories in there, but I often found myself struggling to connect to those particular stories.

I think, because I knew that it was a book of strategies, and so, I just was just trying to get me to the steps. You know what I mean? I don't want to read the story. And so it almost felt like the story was just one step to the strategy, but this book is sort of different because the story is the meat, you know what I mean? It's the bulk of the book.

And so, I often said... And I told my good friend this the other day, I said, "I want to know the strategies, but I think I'm more interested in why you even wanted that strategy in the first place," right?

I want to know that moment you went to the copy machine and you had an idea for something in your... and you had a conversation with your colleague. Maybe I don't want to know what the strategy is, but maybe I want to know what inspired the strategy. You know what I mean?

Because in our system, there's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution, which I think a lot of companies and a lot of folks try to sell to teachers. If you just do this, then this will happen. If you just plug in this for X, then Y will be this and your students will behave, then your test scores will increase and your engagement will increase. And students will magically independently read when you go to the bathroom, or all the fights will stop and things will be... parents will be more engaged if you just do this, right.

But I think that there is something special about following a teacher's journey. There's something special about saying, "Oh, that's what inspired that. I connect."

There's something to say, "Oh, they made a mistake there," right? "I'm going to do something different." And so in a sense, you do find your autonomy because you're finding yourself through those stories, as opposed to trying to put the strategy on, right.

You're finding yourself and creating strategies for yourself because I believe that teachers have strengths, right. And I think that stories do a good job at unlocking those.

Brett: Yeah. And we want to amplify those strengths and we want to amplify those stories because you're right, it'll make a huge difference. It'll help more teachers.

To that point, what is keeping you today in the classroom, especially now as pressures continue to mount on teachers? The burden is so heavy on your shoulders. What's keeping you going? What's keeping you in the classroom?

Patrick: Oh, man. A big part of it was finding a home. Finding a right school is so important, Brett. I can't even explain to you how crucial that is to a teacher's journey and how long they will stay in the classroom.

You got to be in the right building, under the right leadership or with the right leadership. You got to have the amount of autonomy that you think is appropriate to do your best artwork.

And so, I finally have found a school that appreciates me in a way that I feel is genuine and authentic, that allows me a ton of autonomy. And that I have found a school where I think I fit right in, and my personality in, my quirks, and all those kinds of things.

And so, finding the right school has definitely been helpful for me. I would also just say that I don't want to spoil chapter one, but I think that that story in chapter one that speaks to my mission that is larger than life is something that also keeps me there. In a sense, this like inner child who is like, "You got to do this for me, Patrick." You know? You got to do that.

And so in a sense, I am healing the younger Patrick who needed the teacher Patrick by creating the lessons that he would've needed, by creating the courses and the classes that he would've needed.

And so, a part of that is like healing work as well. And then teaching is a daily protest. It is daily protest. There is not a ton of professions where you get the opportunity to protest in such a profound way to such a variety of issues on the spot. And so, I enjoy pushing back against the system in this way.

Brett: When you were writing The First Five, was that inner child, that younger you, who was in your head when you were writing, is that who you were thinking about as you were going through those years?

Patrick: He was there and he was saying a whole lot. In some cases I'm like, "You got to go away." One thing that I heard my inner child say was like, "You're not the writer you think you are. You're not that good of a writer." I heard that a lot in my head.

And so, I'm like... Because there's a piece of advice that writers give to each other. Like, "Well, you can't think of anything to write. You need to go read."

So, I used to pick up books all around. I mean, you see there, all around here and I used to say, "Okay, I'm going to read Toni Morrison. I'm going to read Chezare Warren. I'm going to read José Wilson. I'm going to pick up Lorena's book. I'm going to listen to Liz's book on the audio book. I'm going to pick up Cornelius." I'm going to pick up all these great authors and I'm going to read them. And then I would go to my page and I used to be like, "Man."

And so, the little scared Patrick used to be like, "Yeah, I don't about that one, Patrick. This might... The words are just not coming out."

And so I had to tell him, "Listen, you got this." And I had to say, "You won't sound like Toni Morrison because you're not Tony Morrison," right.

What does your voice sound like? And then I used to say, "Okay. Let me hush him for a little bit," but what made it, what made me confident in my voice in the first place, and that's podcasting. Let's sit right in front of this little blue ice mic I'm sitting in front of now.

And so, yeah, there's definitely some insecurities that I didn't realize I had until I started writing. But yes, I also thought about that younger Patrick as well, who is wrestling through trauma and who needed his story to be told, right.

One of my favorite chapters that I listen to all the time is chapter two. You know what I mean? Just talking about what it meant to walk home and pass the bus stop, and with the first generation IPI. Y'all got to listen to that one. That is one of my favorite stories, but giving him justice, right.

And there's something powerful about putting your story into print. It's a certain validation that you give to yourself and to your own humanity. And so, I definitely had him in my head.

Sometimes he was a little bit louder than I needed him to be, but I definitely think that I gave my younger self the justice that he deserved.

Brett: U-N-I-T-Y, that's a unity. I just...

Patrick: Okay.

Brett: When people reach chapter two, they'll get it. They'll get it, but I was right there with you in chapter two. I was right there with you.

Patrick: Listen, if you know, you know. Listen...

Brett: If you know, you know.

Patrick: If you know you know

Brett: It may have been a first gen iPod for you, but for me it was a CD Walkman in the '90s, listened into the Queen, right?

Patrick: Yeah. Yeah. I love Queen Latifah.

Brett: Well, let's end on this. What is currently bringing you joy?

Patrick: Oh my gosh. What is bringing me joy right now? The sun right now is bringing me joy, and the fact that the sun is out, the trees are starting to bloom. I live in Detroit and so it has been a very long winter. That has been bringing me joy. Seeing people's reaction to this book is bringing me a lot of joy.

Releasing a book can be very isolating because it's just you spend a lot of time with your words and yourself and you're like, "I just am ready for it to be in the world."

And so to hear your thoughts, Brett, and to hear other people's thoughts and I sent an early copy to my younger cousin and she was one of the first people to finish it and read it. And I was like, "Oh, okay. Okay, cuz."

And so, seeing people's reactions is bringing me so much joy. Oh my gosh! What else? Bubble tea always brings me joy for sure. What can I say, large Taro for me.

And my students keep me on my toes. They bring me the ultimate joy. Even when they're having meltdowns, I can see how much I, or how much they've grown and in turn how much I've grown throughout this year, throughout these past seven years that I have been a teacher, which just makes me incredibly happy.

When I think about what younger Patrick who wanted to be a teacher, that four year old, he wanted to be in this moment right here. There are so many times in our lives as people, but especially as educators, where we are over consumed with the next day, the next lesson, the next unit, the next semester and year that we oftentimes don't spend time reflecting and spending time in the present.

And so, being here in the moment is bringing me joy. Oh my gosh, just sitting here in the moment, not worrying about what's going to happen next or next year, or my grandmother asking, "When's the next book come?"

I said, "Listen, I'm on this one, this first one. I'm going to sit in this moment and I'm going to bask in." And so, that is bringing me a ton of joy for sure.

patrickharris-1Patrick Harris II is a Black queer writer, storyteller, and middle school humanities teacher. He has won multiple national teaching awards for his leadership and innovation in the classroom, including recognitions from NCTE, ASCD, and ILA. Teaching and creating is only part of who Patrick is. He is a big brother, a cat dad, lover of all things horror, a WWE fanatic, and is obsessed with scenic hikes.

Find Patrick on Twitter & Instagram @PresidentPat


Topics: Podcast, Teachers, Heinemann Podcast, New Teachers, Patrick Harris II, The First Five

Date Published: 05/19/22

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