This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
One in an occasional series about some of the 2019 Lindback Foundation award winners for distinguished teaching.
When she approaches teaching, Dr. Elana M. Evans says, “I don’t see labels. What I see is a student who thinks and learns differently. My job is to connect with the person.”
Evans, a literacy coach and school-based teacher leader at Paul Robeson High School, is one of 60 educators who received a Lindback Foundation Distinguished Teaching Award this year.
A Mount Airy native, Evans attended both public and private schools in the area, including the now-closed Cecilian Academy, before graduating from Roxborough High School.
Evans then attended community college, and one day she went to the library to search for a major. She applied to Chestnut Hill College, but, she said, she intended to withdraw her application. However, the college still sent her an email, so she decided to attend and pursue an education major. As a student teacher, as soon as she stepped into a 4th-grade classroom, her mind was made up.
“When they said, ‘Good morning, Mrs. Evans,’ I was hooked,” she said.
After she graduated, there were no jobs available in elementary schools. However, given that she had also earned a master’s degree in elementary education with a special education certification, she landed a position in 2006 at University City High School. With that school facing closure in 2013, she followed her students to Benjamin Franklin High and in 2017 moved on to Paul Robeson High School.
She tells the story of how she interviewed at Paul Robeson but left the principal’s office without committing to the job. Outside, she encountered several students.
“Are you our new teacher?” they asked. “We’ll be here to help you.”
She turned around, went back into the office, and accepted the position.
To teach to the whole student, Evans says, she keeps in mind Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs, which says that different levels of needs must be met – physiological, safety, belonging, self-esteem – so that a person can achieve self-actualization.
“I remember being the student that struggled,” she said. “I remember teachers not pushing me to my full potential, and I want to do that for my students.”
Evans strives to support her students in many different ways. She said she likes to sit down and have a conversation with them to learn about them in ways that they do not even realize, so she knows how to support them more effectively.
Evans also plays a huge role at Robeson by creating multiple programs for the school.
“My gift is to take a program that is non-existent and breathe and infuse life into it so that there is a structure that becomes sustainable in the school environment,” she said.
Working with the Netter Center at the University of Pennsylvania and the 21st Century Learning Community Center, she created the Keystone After-School Program and Academic Tutoring Assistance. it is designed to provide homework help and improve student grades, as well as provide support for the Keystone exams (in English Literature, Algebra, and Biology) that teachers find hard to address directly in class. Since it started, the program has expanded to Saturdays, with as many as 30 students coming in on weekends to work on test prep.
The program has added cultural enrichment, with a chess club and a Green Team, which is partnered with the National Wildlife Federation and is working to make Robeson an eco-school. Tutors from Penn also come in to provide one-on-one support.
“These children are gaining confidence,” Evans said. “And that’s one thing I didn’t have, since [when I was a student] I was told how to think. I want to make sure the students are confident in how they think, and that there is a process.
“I’m watching them grow and it’s really cool.”
Evans has also created a project called, “Hands On, Mind On,” through the Master’s Educator Program at the Franklin Institute. The focus was student engagement, and Evans said she went into the program thinking: “How can we do something different?” She created something that she had never seen before – a program in which students were trained to teach their teachers. Eight students were assigned a partner teacher, and they worked with the teacher to figure out how to engage students. Later, the students would actually conduct sample classes for the teachers.
“If you involve students in their learning process, they’re going to get involved,” Evans said. “Learning is fun. It’s not chalk talk, it’s not compliant-style teaching. It’s comfortable. I can make mistakes, that’s OK. That’s how we learn.
“The question is, what do we need to engage the student? But we’re getting them involved in the how and the why.”
Evans said she is very self-reflective and is always assessing what worked and did not work. She also discussed the holistic approach she has to everything.
“[My team and I] sit down and discuss how to approach everything holistically,” she said. “We sit down and talk about how we’re going to do everything. Not just for the individual student, but for the student body as a whole.”
The human aspect of teaching is important, Evans said.
“I don’t just support the students, I support the family as well,” she said.
She related the story of a family who was concerned about a student who had learning challenges. They feared sending the child to college because they did not want to see the child fail. In response, Evans told the family that the student can do whatever they wanted to do.
“My hope is to give students what I received through my education,” said Evans, who has earned a doctorate. “I had no idea I would be called Reverend Doctor Elana Evans. … I honestly had no idea I would be called doctor, even. But I had people who supported me. I had people who sat down and helped me be ready for college. And that’s what I want for my students. I want to help everyone go wherever they want to go.”
Of her students, she said: “They call me mother, they call me auntie, they call me favorite. And I am. They are my children, and I want for them the same as I want for my own. I cry with them, I look at their anger with them and help them understand it. I help them make wise decisions for themselves. … This is what teaching is.”
Even after they graduate, students reach out to her.
“I don’t stop being their teacher because they leave us,” she said. “Students know that I am approachable and I will help them. They will seek me out. … If I don’t know, I will find out the answer.”
The key, she said, is maintaining the value of honesty and authenticity in her teaching.
“As my father said, ‘a closed mouth won’t get fed.’ Tell me what’s going on so I can help you.”
Stories about the influence of outstanding teachers are made possible by a grant from the Lindback Foundation.