We Asked 4 Portland Teachers—What’s Your Secret Sauce?

When we profiled Oregon Teacher of the Year Matthew Bacon-Brenes this spring, we asked readers to tell us about the teachers doing amazing work in their community.

That’s how we found Kaitlyn Duffy, a fifth-grade teacher at Kelly Elementary, Addy Kessler, a ceramics and product design teacher at Lincoln High, Sarah Lansing, an English language specialist at Bridgeport Elementary, and Nichole Watson, a fifth-grade teacher at Rosa Parks Elementary.

Here’s our Q&A with these four inspiring educators:  


🙃 The real me. “I am honest about who I am as a person when I teach. I share my own passions, discoveries, and mistakes with my students. I want my students to know that our class is a positive learning experience where together we search for knowledge and truth and laugh at ourselves in the process.
Kaitlyn Duffy

👐 Getting hands dirty. My goal is to get my students engaging with their environment, thinking about the objects they encounter every day, and noticing the details. I teach Ceramics and Product Design, I want my students to get their hands dirty, I want them to learn how things are made, I want them to have the skills, ability, and confidence to take things apart, to fix things, to discover and develop their voice, to be critical, and to value a well made product or piece of art. I also want them to be happy. Art can build confidence in our young people through skill building, creative problem solving, using our minds and bodies together, and creating meaningful connections with others.
Addy Kessler

👉👈 Building relationships. My secret — which isn’t really a secret — is cultivating relationships. I don’t think anyone could do this job without them. The more I know about my students, the more able I am to meet them where they are and provide what I can, because every child learns differently and I am only a brief part of their education careers.
Sarah Lansing

❤ Teaching is about love. “If we are hurting, can we really engage in fractions or long division? I don’t think so. So I lead with love first by creating a classroom environment that is open, compassionate and intentional about love. This takes a great deal of effort because it means assessing each student, examining their character, personality, strengths and challenges. But most of all, it means giving of yourself. It means modeling inclusion, vulnerability and equity. This is the secret sauce. It is a profession of loving and healing and protecting and THEN teaching, which comes easier when the student trusts that what you are offering is good for them because you are good to them!”
Nichole Watson

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😄 The power of a smile. “At my school, teachers stand at their classroom doors to great students individually as the walk in first thing in the morning. It is a quick way to connect with a smile and set a positive tone for the day.”

🎨 Respect for the arts. I was recently able to add a CTE (Career and Technical Education) endorsement to my teaching license, and there are a handful of other art teachers in Portland Public Schools that have done the same. This is exciting because it means the federal government and the State of Oregon both recognize that the skills our students are learning and the work they are creating in our art classes is important. (The state only allows CTE programs of study for courses that meet their criteria of “high wage” and “high demand” career paths.) The message this approval from the state sends to our students and families is ‘YES, you can make a living as an artist, and we value and need your creativity.’ For so long, this has not been the message we have been giving our young people, and I happily welcome this shift in perspective.

🍜 Melting pots. My school does this thing called ‘Friday Surprise’ which is essentially a rotating monthly staff potluck. But it is more than just food! Food is culture, food is love. I have learned so much about my colleagues through their food and around the staff table. Again, it comes back to relationships.

🏊🏿 Swim for success. “Our building administrator realizes that black and brown children who live in poverty often never get the opportunity to learn how to swim as children. Ironically, I was one of those students. But my students will never share that experience because at Rosa Parks we provide all of our third-, fourth- and fifth-graders with ten swimming lessons embedded into our spring curriculum. Also, another amazing aspect of Rosa Parks is our year-round calendar. We break in the summer for five weeks and return to school in July, and every nine weeks we get a three-week break to rest and recuperate. It’s amazing! The students’ retention is better, teachers are not so stressed out, and families are not forced to find childcare for three months in the summer.


😂 ‘He exploded with laughter.’ “One of my proudest moments was my first year of teaching. I was teaching 5th grade and one of my students was severely autistic. He would not look at me, acknowledge me, or respond to anything I said. One day I said something funny and he exploded with laughter to the point of almost falling out of his chair. The class was immediately confused, but quickly joined in on the laughter. After that he started talking to me. It was really special, and I’ll never forget him.”

💪 Brave for days. Our phones and computers are taking over so much of how we work, learn, and interact. I feel lucky to be the person that gets to offer my students the opportunity for hands-on experiences. It is incredible to see our young people dig in and explore new things. Learning new techniques and skills is really hard, and to do that in the open in front of 30+ of your peers can be pretty intimidating. I am inspired by my students and their willingness to try, fail, and try again until they get it right-and always with an audience surrounding them. I think as adults it can be easy to forget what it is like to be vulnerable like that.

😊 Eureka! I’ve had countless funny and tough moments in this profession. It’s hard but worth it. My proudest moment is actually more of a feeling. The moment when I see students finally get something they’ve been struggling with. I mean, really get it. And I’ve had some part in that… it’s such a cool thing to see.

🔔 Beyond the bell. There are so many funny moments. Today, we had field day with our students (as did most elementary schools in the district), and I have horrible allergies. I sneezed so hard that snot came through my mouth and my students all doubled over in laughter. I joined them and we just laughed until our stomachs hurt. We have so much fun every day that it’s hard to pick just one.  

My proudest moments are when my students feel safe enough to come out to me as their teacher. Every year that I have been in the classroom, I have served a student who is either transgender or exploring their sexuality. It makes me proud to know that they trust me with their identity and it gives me the opportunity to help create a classroom of inclusion by modeling what allyship looks, feels and sounds like as a cis-gendered woman.

Lastly, my hardest moments are watching my black boys struggle with an education system that is designed to “break” them of their creativity, rowdiness, competitiveness, sensitivity and culture. It breaks my heart to see how we police children and vilify black boys around their behavior. It’s hard to create an atmosphere of safety in my classroom only to release them to a hostile environment when they leave the classroom. It means I must teach them to be vigilant. It is a common occurrence for me to hear one of my students say, ‘…be careful. Make it back to the classroom safely.'”

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