V’ville grad working to help students in struggling school

Christner

— Photo by Dunc Stewart photography, courtesy of Evan Christner
Come on, ref! Christner is the head coach of the boys’ varsity basketball team at John J. Duggan Academy in Springfield, Massachusetts, which this season is 14-2.

VOORHEESVILLE — You’d have to be a political junkies’ junky — or Andrea Gleason — to be aware that Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker was delivering his State of the Commonwealth address this past January.

If, by chance, you did catch the address, then undoubtedly you would have been pleasantly surprised to hear Governor Baker praising Evan Christner, a 2008 graduate of Clayton A. Bouton High School.

Christner is a math teacher at the John J. Duggan Academy in Springfield, Massachusetts. He is also the coach of the varsity boys’ basketball team, which this season is 14-2

Duggan Academy is part of the Springfield Empowerment Zone, an educational model that is a partnership among the state, school officials, and the teachers’ union, which is overseen by a board of seven members — four appointed by the state and three local officials. Schools in the program are given a more free hand when it comes to budgeting, scheduling, curriculum, and hiring than would be possible in a school district with a more regular union contract.

“The Springfield Empowerment Zone gives teachers and administrators a chance to share decision-making on professional development, curriculum, budgets, the works,” Baker said during his address. “And it seems to be working for kids. I visited the schools three times and every time I came away full of optimism for all involved.”

Baker said that the collaborative approach that is working in Springfield can be replicated in other struggling districts as well.

“Tammi Grimes and Evan Christner are teachers in the Empowerment Zone in Springfield,” said Baker. “When I visited with them they told me this is a game-changer – for them and for the kids they teach.”  

Baker then thanked Christner and Grimes, and then all the people present in the House chamber gave the two teachers a standing ovation.  

Being praised by the governor of Massachusetts is not what Christner was envisioning in 2012 when he graduated from Springfield College — with a degree in sports management.

“I originally wanted to get into coaching or scouting,” Christner said. He had played on the men’s basketball team at Springfield.

Christner said that his long-term goal was to be an athletic director, but to achieve that he had to get into a school system and so he began substitute teaching in the Springfield system.

It was the school’s principal where Christner had been subbing who told him that he should consider a career as a teacher. “He took me under his wing and really taught me a lot,” Christner said of the school’s principal.

(It also doesn’t hurt that teaching is a bit of a family business. Christner’s grandmother, Andrea Gleason, taught in Voorheesville for over 30 years, and his mother is a teacher in the Voorheesville middle school.)

“He got me my first teaching job; I’m still with the same principal now, in my fifth year,” Christner said.

That principal, Michael Calvanese, told The Enterprise that what makes Christner such a good teacher is that he is such a good student.

“He’s a learner,” Calvanese said.

This allows the kids to see him as a better and stronger teacher, he said.

Christner began as a science teacher at Duggan Academy, but there was such a need for math teachers that he switched subjects.

The process of not only re-learning the material but also learning how to teach it gives Christner a better understanding of his students’ misconceptions of the curriculum, Calvanese said; this in turn can lower the students’ anxiety and make them better learners as well.

“I tell the students that I’m a student too, and you always have to be constantly learning and want to learn,” Christner said. “So I think that is what is helping me a lot. You have to be open-minded and willing to learn something new, and take on that task.”

“He’s done a great job in two years to help close the achievement gap for the kids; he’s been a leader in that,” Calvanese said.

“The other thing about Evan is that he is extremely coachable,” Calvanese said.

Christner is able to take any offered suggestions and immediately employ them in his classroom, said Calvanese, and that makes a difference for kids.

Calvanese also said that Christner’s coaching background is an asset in the classroom because it he able to meet students at that different level and connect. Beyond that, Christner has the ability to provide kids with structure, Calvanese said.

“He is going to give them structure; the kids are going to respect him but they are also going to like him. In the end, some teachers have structure but no caring — Evan has both,” Calvanese said.

Christner attributes a lot of his success to the strong mentoring he’s had from Calvanese and other teachers over the years, but he said that his time at Voorheesville helped as well.

“I think a lot when I am teaching, ‘If I was at Voorheesville, what was I thinking or what was I doing in this grade? What was going through my head? What was my school doing? What was my community doing?’” Christner said. “So I feel like I subconsciously bring a lot of the ideas or my experiences at Voorheesville and apply them to my work.”

Teachers learn a lot about the way things should be run if they attended a good school district when they were students, he said.

Springfield is, in so many ways, far from Voorheesville.

Springfield’s school district has an enrollment of 25,633 students, while Voorheesville’s is 1,176. Springfield’s school district race and ethnicity make up is about 12-percent white, 20-percent black, and 65-percent Hispanic; in Voorheesville, it’s about 91-percent white, 1-percent black, and 2-percent Hispanic.

In Springfield, about 74 percent of students come from an economically disadvantaged home; in Voorheesville it’s about 9 percent. Based on student performance — measured on a scale of one through five, one being the best and five being the worst — Springfield is a level-four district, Voorheesville consistently ranks at or near the top Albany County school rankings.

Given the stark difference of where he was raised and where he is now, Christner was asked why not look for a job in a less challenging district?

The answer is in the question — he wants the challenge.

“It’s definitely challenging,” Christner said. “I just think it is much more rewarding — not saying that I would not want to work in a suburban school district — but there is a high need for male teachers in that area and a high need for good teachers and leaders in inner-city areas.”

For Christner, he’s not only trying to improve his students’ academic performance, he is looking at the bigger picture and trying to make them better people. He’s working toward making his students more successful for life, helping to build character that will make them good people who will give back to their own community.

“I know I could have applied to easier jobs in nicer districts, but working with the type of kids I work with, I love being able to teach them and help them grow as people is really the main thing,” Christner said.  

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