Interview with Sarah Ballard, R7CC Advisory Board Member representing the teacher population in Mississippi
Sarah A. Ballard, an English ll and AP Literature and Composition teacher at Murrah High School in Jackson, Mississippi, started her teaching career in Belzoni, Mississippi, as a member of the Mississippi Teacher Corps. Thereafter, Humphreys County High School and Murrah High School named her Teacher of the Year. In 2018, Ballard renewed her National Board Certification, and in 2019, she received the Mississippi Excellence in Education award for High School Teacher of the Year. Ballard is most proud of working with students to resurrect The Pleiades, Murrah High School’s prestigious literary magazine.
Tell me about yourself, including what brought you to your current position.
I am a teacher at Murrah High School in Jackson, Mississippi, and I’ve been at this school for 16 years. Before that, I was in the Mississippi Delta in Bolivar County at Humphreys County High School. I’m a Grade 10 English and AP Literature teacher, but I came by it indirectly. I didn’t really set out to become an educator. I went to school as an English major, unsure of what I wanted to do, but I knew I was really interested in writing. I ended up doing many projects in the Mississippi Delta focused on Southern history, which led me to get a master’s degree in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi. I learned all about Southern history and spent a lot of time talking about the Civil Rights Movement… I had a moment of clarity when I heard about a program called the Mississippi Teacher Core. It’s a program run out of the University of Mississippi where you apply to teach for two years in a critical-needs school and get your master’s degree after. At the end of my Southern Studies degree, I got into the program, and that’s how I ended up in the Delta. I just wanted to be there and see what the schools were like. From the moment I stepped into the classroom, I knew I was in the right place. I loved it so much, but it was a really hard first year. I’ve always been interested in not just being a teacher but also making sure that I was a part of equitable education. It was important for me to advocate for my students, and at that point, I knew I was going to stay in critical-needs areas.
Can you give us a rundown of what the initial transition to virtual learning looked like for you last year during the onset of the pandemic?
I was really proud of my school district because we were quite proactive. They went ahead and called it early and said, “We’re not going back until the foreseeable future.” They said, “It’s too dangerous for our community, and so we’re going to be virtual.” So that part was good, but the transition was intense. It required me to, basically in a week, completely learn entire new platforms and programming. By the end of it, I felt like I was a coder or something. I had to take everything that I had spent years creating and turn all that into something that would work digitally. I had to learn simple things like: How do I take this Word document and turn it into a Google Doc? I was learning how to use Google Slides, embed things, and how to operate Canvas. I was getting up at 5:00 a.m. and sitting at my computer until sometimes past 10 o’clock at night. I’d never done that before in my entire life. There were a lot of tears, to be honest, and headaches. The good thing that came out of it is that my teaching community came together and helped each other. The national teaching community came together. Still, getting the resources organized was a challenge. Every school in the United States started ordering Chromebooks, so the backup to get Chromebooks was insane. The district took all the resources they had and tried to get them to the people who needed them, but that was one of the biggest challenges. One family may have one laptop, but there are four kids in the house. The internet service is super spotty in certain areas too. That kind of stuff didn’t really get resolved until November and December. I mean, there were just so many issues… It’s hard to even articulate at any given point. You know? You have students that are texting you that they are mentally not okay. At this point, grades were really struggling. I was faced with the decision: Do I try to hold some sort of arbitrary idea of what they should have done to pass? Am I actually going to fail a senior during this year? It was so emotionally exhausting trying to navigate all of that last year.
So, what’s different about this year? I know that I had this question prepared with a more positive tone a few months ago, but there’s a lot up in the air right now. What does that feel like?
We have a system in place for identifying COVID-positive scholars and contact tracing to notify other potentially exposed students. I was just working on getting Canvas set up with Zoom links again because Tuesday night I got an email from a mother of one of my students saying they’ve been exposed to someone positive, and they were going to get tested in the morning. I immediately notified my principal. Wednesday morning, we found out the student tested positive for COVID-19, and so we followed the appropriate procedures. The students are trying. They’re wearing masks, wiping down their desks. They don’t want to go back home. They’re just trying to make it through. I mean, they’re scared, but I’m trusting our system.
How do you feel supported in this time by your school, your administrators, your district? Are you missing anything that they could be providing?
We’re lucky. I mean, we have a strong principal who’s very community minded. This year at our professional development session, she used the analogy of the Apollo 13 mission: This idea of having one thing in mind that kind of blows up, so they have to rethink how they’re going to achieve their goals and make it out safely. Our administration has supported us by acknowledging that this is really difficult. They acknowledge that this is stressful, and teachers are the biggest resources they have. Their job is to support us, and they’re definitely trying to do that. There are just a lot of emotions right now. Summer was nice because we had a couple of months to sort of decompress from last year. I think that this has been even harder right now for people emotionally. Now we know the skills, so that part isn’t as stressful. However, it’s this emotional reaction that teachers are having, myself included. We thought things were going to be normal, and now we’re watching the numbers rise, and there’s this pit in our stomach. It’s going to be hard, but we have to choose how we are going to look at this year. The main thing is that they’re with us. We’re all one team, and it does not feel at all like the teachers are out here on our own. We’re trying to support each other.
You mentioned having some type of professional development before the year began. Can you describe what that looked like?
Yes. So, we have preparation time that’s just spent in our classroom, and then we have some time with our school community. We had three days of different professional development this year. There’s usually a theme to how we’re going to approach the year, and we’ll also talk about data. At the end of last year, our school administered a survey to all students, parents, and teachers to collect feedback. At this meeting, our principal went through that positive and negative feedback. Teachers said they did not feel supported last year. They felt like they were just kind of floating on their own, trying to make things work. The students said they did not get one-on-one help, which I think is pretty accurate. Students also reported that there were too many platforms and too many different things that teachers were using to try and make virtual learning work. Every single one of these platforms requires students to go to a different site, have some sort of login, figure out how to operate it, and they felt really overwhelmed by that. The teachers echoed this as well. So, the district is going to attempt to streamline everything this year. We looked at data, and we went through the norms of the school. We also had district-level professional development, which was geared towards curriculum and testing. Half of those sessions were through Zoom, and half were at a location in a cafeteria.
Excellent. Okay, we’re switching it up. Tell me about any moments of joy that you experienced through all of this.
There was a lot of joy! There were definitely days where something worked well, and I was like, “Gosh, that was amazing.” A couple of those were simple things that I tried that were super successful. For example, I found that we could all work on a Google Doc together and get and give direct feedback. It just felt super interactive after a few weeks of not feeling that connection virtually. The first time I ever did that, they really liked it, and it helped them become better writers. Another example is when we first conducted Socratic Seminars over Zoom. It felt like being a first-year teacher trying something big for the first time. I was able to give them complete control of the discussion virtually through Zoom. Everyone had their cameras on, and they loved it.
One last question for you, Sarah. Have there been any external resources, like a blog that you read or a website that has material to help teachers, that you would like to share with others?
To be honest, the best thing has been following all these amazing teachers on Instagram. I don’t even know how I initially learned about them–maybe through a website or a blog or something. They share free resources, and they’re really good at designing material. There’s this one particular group called Keeping the Wonder, and everything they post is about bringing magic into classrooms. It was comforting to follow them through the pandemic because they were going through the same thing I was going through. I got a lot of ideas and resources from them… My colleagues really supported me as well. I’m not very tech-savvy, but two of my co-workers are good at it! They helped me the whole year, especially in the beginning when I was trying to figure out so many different things. I’m grateful for them.
Thanks so much, Sarah. We are excited to continue to support Mississippi over the next few years.
Photo of Sarah Ballard (2021)