Looking for tips to foster engagement in your classroom? Join us in conversation with Delise May of Atlanta Public Schools to hear how she creates a positive classroom climate with the power of peer encouragement.

Delise May in Classroom Conversations

Looking for tips to foster engagement in your classroom? Join us in conversation with Delise May of Atlanta Public Schools to hear how she creates a positive classroom climate with the power of peer encouragement.


Ashley Mengwasser: Good day. Good day. I'm Ashley Mengwasser, and this is Classroom Conversations, the platform for Georgia's teachers. Classroom Conversations is an award-winning podcast series for educators presented by the Georgia Department of Education and Georgia Public Broadcasting in partnership. If you're new to the show, I encourage you to go back and listen to earlier episodes for uplifting conversation and universal instructional strategies. Peer encouragement, that's our topic today. One thing encouragement experts love about encouragement in the classroom, it focuses on effort. Not on achievement. No, that's what praise is for. Encouragement is process oriented. It unlocks success, boosts motivation, and instills self-confidence. And moreover, encouragement is catching. It's one of my favorite words to utter, encourage. Such a mellifluous grouping of syllables. On encouragement's etymology, if you're wondering, it comes from the 15th century Old French "encoragier". En meaning to put in, and corage meaning heart. To put in heart. Today's guest puts in heart all right. Her whole heart. Delise May taught elementary school for 10 years before moving on up to seventh grade math intervention the past two years at Sylvan Hills Middle School in Atlanta Public Schools. Delise modeled encouragement for middle schoolers, thereby empowering them to take the lead and encourage each other. Essentially a professional encourager for the classroom. Delise is moving on up again, having just been awarded this promotion: instructional coach for mathematics. Now Delise is going to encourage teachers. Welcome, Delise.

Delise May: Thank you. Thank you. I'm so excited to be here.

Ashley Mengwasser: Are you happy?

Delise May: Oh my God.

Ashley Mengwasser: I can tell.

Delise May: I cannot contain it.

Ashley Mengwasser: You have such a positive spirit. You're bursting at the seams.

Delise May: I know.

Ashley Mengwasser: Have you ever done a podcast before?

Delise May: No.

Ashley Mengwasser: This is your first time?

Delise May: Absolutely.

Ashley Mengwasser: How would you rate the environment thus far?

Delise May: I'm blown away.

Ashley Mengwasser: You are? What do you like?

Delise May: It's all the stuff. It's all the cameras, and the buttons, and the lights, and all the people that help this happen.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes. There's a whole crew in there, for you, here today.

Delise May: All for me?

Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah, all for you. Tell us the story of how you got here. Not to the studio today. I'm sure you took the highways, unless you have an airplane. But how did you get into the profession of teaching?

Delise May: Oh my God. My grandmother taught in Atlanta Public Schools for like 31 years.

Ashley Mengwasser: Did she?

Delise May: Yes. And she's like my soulmate. She was. She passed.

Ashley Mengwasser: My grandmother was my soulmate too.

Delise May: Right?

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes.

Delise May: So I think her just being such a kind human... And I wanted to be like her. And so I was like, "I'll either be a teacher or a lawyer." And I knew in elementary school that I wanted to be a teacher or a lawyer.

Ashley Mengwasser: You knew that?

Delise May: I knew it. And so I was like, "No, not going to be a lawyer. You have to be in school for seven years, eight years."

Ashley Mengwasser: Yep.

Delise May: And then I went on to get an EdS.

Ashley Mengwasser: So you were still...?

Delise May:

So I was still in school for seven years.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's really funny. People often mistake me for an attorney, actually.

Delise May: You got that vibe.

Ashley Mengwasser: Thank you. I went to traffic court this week and the security guard was like, "Attorney, right?" I was like, "Unfortunately, sir, no. I'm here with a citation." But don't worry, I was immediately dismissed and I got to ride off in the sunset in my Acura.

Delise May: Oh, wonderful.

Ashley Mengwasser: So yeah, that was nice. But I know what that feels like to be torn between two professions.

Delise May: Yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: I knew at the age of five actually that I was going to go into hosting. I wanted to work in television.

Delise May: What?

Ashley Mengwasser: But I had a big pull towards psychology, actually. And I thought I was going to go into counseling as well. But the larger passion won, like for you. Right?

Delise May: Yeah. Yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: Your larger passion won, teacher.

Delise May: Yeah. You're really good with people, so I'm so glad you chose this route.

Ashley Mengwasser: Thank you. And so are you. I'm glad you chose your route.

Delise May: Thank you.

Ashley Mengwasser: And we're about to hear just how good you are of an encourager. Encouragemer?

Delise May: I'll take it.

Ashley Mengwasser: Okay. What is the professional word to encourage people? It would be an encourager, right?

Delise May: It has to be encourager, right?

Ashley Mengwasser: An encourager. Yeah, exactly. I was an English major, you think I'd have this all figured out. Who is your encouragement idol? If you've had a celebrity or dignitary that you look up to?

Delise May: I'm just going to have to go with Michelle Obama.

Ashley Mengwasser: Great.

Delise May: My oldest sister, she calls her Mich like she knows her.

Ashley Mengwasser: Mich? They're buds.

Delise May: She's never met her in life, but we call her Mich in my family.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's an excellent choice. She's so kind, and she leads by example.

Delise May: She does. And she does it with poise, which I'm not great at yet. Still working on that. But I love what she says about, "When they go low, you go high."

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes, go high.

Delise May: And it's always like, just be kind anyway. That's what I take from it.

Ashley Mengwasser: Be kind anyway.

Delise May: And so you're going to inherently encourage others because you're just going to give them grace.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's right.

Delise May: And be kind anyway.

Ashley Mengwasser: Okay. I like that message. Was there a pivotal moment for you, Delise, when you saw positive results yourself from maybe an encouragement mentor in your life?

Delise May: I would have to say I'm probably the most encouraging person that I know. Sometimes it's annoying because my siblings will be like, "You know, this happened and this happened." I'm like, "Well, the bright side is..." Or, "The glass half full is..." And they're like, "Not right now, Delise. I just want to vent."

Ashley Mengwasser: "I just want to vent. Please commiserate with me."

Delise May: Yes. So I think it's really me, I was born with this innate drive. I'm just determined, and so I don't give up easily. And so I encourage myself like, "You can do this. You've got this."

Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah. So you've just got an encouraging spirit.

Delise May: It's just who I am.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah. I love that. Okay. And you sound a lot like an athlete.

Delise May: I was.

Ashley Mengwasser: Maybe because you were one. Tell us about some of your hobbies and interests.

Delise May: Oh my gosh. So my mom used to run a lot. And I was eight years old and we walked to the track in the neighborhood and I just kept running laps and laps and laps. And I just kept going, miles. And a track coach saw me and he approached my mom. He's like, "I want her."

Ashley Mengwasser: Recruiting?

Delise May: Recruited me. And so at eight, I learned all the techniques about how to run, and I kept going. And then it took me to college, and here I am.

Ashley Mengwasser: Here you are. You ran your whole life?

Delise May: Yeah, my whole life.

Ashley Mengwasser: You are admirably tall. You have just such a beautiful, tall physique. So were you tall for your age at that time too?

Delise May: I was.

Ashley Mengwasser: You must have been.

Delise May: But I didn't feel like it because my sister, who's younger than me, 18 months younger, she's six feet tall.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, wow.

Delise May: So she caught me when I was like 11. So I never felt tall.

Ashley Mengwasser: But you were?

Delise May: But I was.

Ashley Mengwasser: And that recruiting coach probably felt the same way.

Delise May: Oh my God, he knew. And they teach you to never give up. I am guided by a coach. If I join Orangetheory, I'm like, "Whatever the coach says I'm going to do. I have to."

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes. It's the encourager in you. You spend a lot of time outdoors as well, you say. Where is your safe place? Where do you like to go in the city?

Delise May: Piedmont Park.

Ashley Mengwasser: We'd find you there on any given afternoon?

Delise May: Oh my God. Especially in the spring when it just becomes nice enough to be outside. I just love running and walking in the park and just watching people. I just smile all the time.

Ashley Mengwasser: Piedmont Park in Atlanta?

Delise May: And it's green. I love the greenery.

Ashley Mengwasser: It is beautiful.

Delise May: It's my safe, happy place.

Ashley Mengwasser: And you like games.

Delise May: Oh my God.

Ashley Mengwasser: You said you're a big game night person.

Delise May: So competitive.

Ashley Mengwasser: What kind of games?

Delise May: Any games that I can win. Okay?

Ashley Mengwasser: Definitely an athlete.

Delise May: I love the games you play, like game night with your friends and family.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, yeah.

Delise May: That's the best thing for me. So Heads Up! or Taboo.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, Taboo. That's my favorite board game.

Delise May: Wait, no. Not the board game.

Ashley Mengwasser: The board game.

Delise May: Whoa.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah. Well, I put it in the board game family.

Delise May: Family.

Ashley Mengwasser: Because it's not really one of the modern ones. It's one of the classics, I would say.

Delise May: Yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: I would choose Taboo any moment. I'm a words person.

Delise May: I was an actress in my former life, and so it gives me life.

Ashley Mengwasser: In your former life? There are two pressing cultural matters I'd like to discuss with you before we dive into your approach to encouragement. The first is your family is from Bermuda, you've said?

Delise May: Yes, my mom is from Bermuda.

Ashley Mengwasser: Tell me about that. Have you been?

Delise May: Oh my God, I just came back. So the family goes usually once a year in the summer and they either go to Carnival or they go to Cup Match.

Ashley Mengwasser: What's that?

Delise May: Cup Match is like their Super Bowl, but it's cricket.

Ashley Mengwasser: Okay. I wondered why I hadn't heard of the Super Bowl in Bermuda. Bermuda, cricket Super Bowl.

Delise May: Yeah, it's huge. It's like one half of the island against the other half. And my mom is crazy about it. Somerset. So yes, I still have aunts that live there. I have some aunts that live here and uncles and stuff. Yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: So you go there? So I need to know, where do you stand on the Bermuda Triangle?

Delise May: OMG!

Ashley Mengwasser: Or have you stood in the Bermuda Triangle?

Delise May: No one. No Bermudian even travels to that part. And they actually hate when people say... They ask them about the Bermuda Triangle. They're like, "We're more than a triangle."

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh yeah, of course.

Delise May: Yeah. They get mad at it. I was like, "I'm an American in real life. I didn't know."

Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah. So what were you taught about it? Were you taught anything about it?

Delise May: Basically, they describe it as just really rough waters.

Ashley Mengwasser: Okay.

Delise May: And it's just not safe to be out there, and so they just don't go near it.

Ashley Mengwasser: Okay. That's a simple explanation for something way fishier going on out there.

Delise May: Right? I think it's something else.

Ashley Mengwasser: We'll get to the bottom of it. And over the summer you witnessed a cultural icon, Usher, from right here in Georgia.

Delise May: Oh my God.

Ashley Mengwasser: You went and saw Usher. Where did you see...?

Delise May: In Vegas last weekend.

Ashley Mengwasser: In Vegas? He has a residency.

Delise May: Yes, he does.

Ashley Mengwasser: Okay. Now did you know Usher is actually a graduate of Atlanta's own North Springs High School?

Delise May: No, I didn't.

Ashley Mengwasser: So he himself got an education here in Atlanta.

Delise May: Wow.

Ashley Mengwasser: And what was your favorite part of his performance in Vegas?

Delise May: The roller skating.

Ashley Mengwasser: Roller skating?

Delise May: He roller skated with the dancers while singing. Simultaneously.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, man.

Delise May: It was amazing.

Ashley Mengwasser: For sure.

Delise May: Never seen anything like that.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's really impressive.

Delise May: Yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: I'm surprised you have any heart left for your students and you didn't leave it all out on the floor for Usher that night. I love your encouraging positive personality. Thanks for sharing it with us, Delise. But let's look firsthand at your classroom encouragement practices, shall we?

Delise May: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: What is your philosophy of teaching students? I know encouragement is a big part of that, but let's start there.

Delise May: I really believe that you have to first empower students. I think empower people in general because it's not just with students that I do this. But if you empower students, then they have that sense of agency. And then they believe in themselves. And once a student believes in herself, she's unstoppable.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes.

Delise May: And so some ways I do that is just model what that looks like. For example, one of the things I say at the beginning of the year is, you have to make mistakes in order to grow and to learn. And so that's part of the philosophy. You have to make mistakes. I bring up Einstein. I bring up LeBron. I bring up Michael Jordan. All these people that I think that they might idolize to show them that they've actually said making mistakes is the only way to get better.

Ashley Mengwasser: Is good.

Delise May: And so I'll say, "Guys, if I came in and I taught you two times two and you already know how to do two times two, you're just smart. Right? But if I teach you a challenging thing that you've never done before, you're going to be smarter." And so I put the emphasis on the -er. And they're like, "Whoa." And so that kind of thinking over and over and over throughout the year, it lets them know that in this class we're going to get smarter. And I was like, "Guys, so if you come to my class and you don't get smarter, I'm not doing my job. And so I've got to fix that." And so I put it on me too. It's not just about them, it's about me helping them to see how smart they really are.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes.

Delise May: I'll even tell them... Because some students, especially in math, are so discouraged. They feel like, "I can't do this." Or their parents are like, "I wasn't good in math, so she's not good in math either." And I'm like, "I've never taught a student who was dumb ever in my life. Never." And I'm like, "Never." I was like, "There are some students who need multiple opportunities, but you're still going to get it."

Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah.

Delise May: "That's okay. And some kids get it fast, and that's also okay. But I've got to challenge you all at your proper level so that you grow." And so they take on that vibe.

Ashley Mengwasser: It's a different mindset.

Delise May: Yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: It's an arena of growth in your classroom. So encouragement is part of that practice, it sounds like.

Delise May: Oh my God.

Ashley Mengwasser: How does peer encouragement foster confidence in them, in terms of their academic achievement? They're challenged. Like you said, you're forcing them to grow beyond and reach. What does it do for their confidence and their achievement?

Delise May: Well, okay, I'll give you this example. So I love math, and I love seeing them grow. And I like to show them that they grow. And so they took this test that tracks your fall, winter, and spring. And so the kids were so tired at the end of milestones testing. It was just testing season, they're over it. Map testing, milestones testing. And so I said, "Hey guys, I really want to see how you've grown, but you do not have to take this final one for me, for this intervention growth test." And only a handful of kids out of the entire seventh grade opted out.

Ashley Mengwasser: Really? They wanted to.

Delise May: They really wanted to see. I had some students who actually asked to take it twice because the growth goal was at least one year's growth. Most of them grew two, three years.

Ashley Mengwasser: Incredible.

Delise May: But just one. And so that really goes to show you when you build a classroom full of encouragement and students who encourage each other, they're like, "No. No. No. You should. You should." They do it on their own. It becomes innate for them.

Ashley Mengwasser: They're encouraging each other?

Delise May: Yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: What about when a student is struggling? Is there a peer intervention piece of this? Do they get involved in lifting each other up?

Delise May: Yes. But I will say, you first have to model it. This is not something that they're just come to class with. And so every year I've always got students who don't believe in themselves and who feel like they can't. And so I'll say, "Okay. Well, you got to try first before I give you any help." And so if they're still persistent with that negativity, "I can't do this. This is too hard." I say, "Well, you mean you can't do it yet? So you mean to tell me this new idea that I'm teaching you, you don't get it on the first day that I'm teaching it. Well, isn't that normal? Did you know how to ride a bike flawlessly the very first time, or did you fall off maybe?"

Ashley Mengwasser: I fell off a whole hill and scraped my body head to toe, and didn't get on a bike for a few weeks. So yeah, it can come down hard.

Delise May: Exactly. So when I use that kind of example, they're like, "Wait a minute. She's kind of right." And so I'll say, "Why don't you try a different approach? Why don't you try to model the problem with a picture and just try to make sense of that? And then I'll come back around and either maybe myself or another peer can help you, but you will not receive help until you help yourself."

Ashley Mengwasser: You need to have tried first.

Delise May: You have to try.

Ashley Mengwasser: And so your students actually, of their own accord, will see another student struggling and let them try, and then step in and...?

Delise May: Yes. And they'll also do the opposite. So if a student hasn't tried and the teacher helper comes around to assist, they're like, "Wait a minute, you didn't even try it. You need to try first." And they'll go back to their seat and wait.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's some peer accountability right there.

Delise May: Yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: I want to hear about other cool strategies you have in your class or used to have in your class now that you've got this promotion, Ms. May. But you're getting your students to encourage each other. More on what we're talking about here. Let's start first... I know about your shout-out. Tell me about your classroom shout-out.

Delise May: Oh my God, I love shout-outs. So the very first week of school, I'll model shout-outs. It may be the class was a little rocky the first day they saw me that week. And then the next class I say, "You know what? I'd like to give the class a shout out. I noticed that everybody was engaged today." I'll call a student's name, "You know, last time you gave up and you just persisted today. You did not give up." And the class claps. And on the first week of school though, they're like... I'll say, "Does anybody else have a shout-out?" They're like, "This crazy lady. What does she want? She wants us to say nice things about each other?" But by the end, after a few weeks, few months in, they are raising their hands because they want to shout each other out. And some will even shout out themselves for the growth that they've made that day.

Ashley Mengwasser: Really? Oh.

Delise May: Mm-hmm. "Ms. May, I was talking. And I wasn't doing math talk only, and I know we're supposed to, but I got back on track and I was focused the rest of the time." And kids will clap. In seventh grade.

Ashley Mengwasser: How supportive.

Delise May: Yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: What about you're using student leaders in the classroom and you're using iPads and you have these accountability practices? What's the accountability piece with peers?

Delise May: I tell them I'm not the only teacher in the room. I'm the teacher who facilitates everything.

Ashley Mengwasser: Mind blown right now.

Delise May: Yeah. I'm like, "I cannot do this without you. So because I'm one, if you got it, you are now a teacher leader." And so when I'm doing a small group or I'm doing a one-on-one, a student can simply say, "I need some help." And a teacher leader, who I've identified because they're proficient that day, will go and assist.

Ashley Mengwasser: So you name the teacher leader?

Delise May: Yes. So everybody knows. So before I go to small group, the expectations are set. I have my open and closed sign in the back of the room by the small group area. And once it's closed, they know you may talk to the teacher of the period who's the one with the iPad, or you can ask for support with actual math help from a teacher leader. Yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's incredible.

Delise May: Yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: How do they respond to that?

Delise May: Well, at first it's like, "Who is this teacher? Teachers normally make us sit down in our seats. We're not able to talk to each other. They want a super focused and quiet room." And I'm like, "If it's quiet, it makes me uncomfortable. You have to collaborate."

Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah. You want to hear the den of conversation.

Delise May: And it has to be math talk only.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, math talk only?

Delise May: I want it to be serious talking.

Ashley Mengwasser: MTO, math talk only.

Delise May: I should call it that.

Ashley Mengwasser: You should. Yes.

Delise May: And so while I'm doing this small group or helping a student one-on-one, the teacher of the period or of the day if you're in elementary school, is walking around doing laps. About every seven minutes or so, they just check the timer on the board and they walk around to see if students are engaged and talking about math only. And they either give or take points depending on...

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, there's a point system?

Delise May: Oh, yeah. I choose to use a platform called ClassDojo. But there are several platforms you can use. But they know, you must give a warning before you take points. You can always give, but you can't just take. You have to give a warning first. So that makes the students feel like it's fair, and it usually runs itself. And so they only call me if they disagree.

Ashley Mengwasser: Okay.

Delise May: Yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: So you settle the differences?

Delise May: I settle differences only.

Ashley Mengwasser: Like a referee, to use the athletic metaphor.

Delise May: I stay out of it as much as... "Oh no, you guys need to handle that."

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, wow.

Delise May: Or it's super democratic. Some other kids might jump in and say, "Well, actually that wasn't fair." Or, "That was. You really were off task." And they handle it.

Ashley Mengwasser: Look at that. That takes a little pressure off you as well.

Delise May: Oh my God. It allows me to do good teaching.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes.

Delise May: I don't know how other teachers do good teaching without using the students to be teachers.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah. What surprising effects...? I'm amazed by all this. But what surprising effects do you think peer encouragement achieves in your classroom?

Delise May: I think the best thing is providing them the opportunity to have that agency. Some students, they may be the oldest at home and they're really in charge. And then you're trying to tell them, "Hey, sit down here. And this is when you go to the bathroom." No. You let them be because they can handle it, if you just set the boundaries. And so what happens is administrators who come in, they're like, "May, they don't even need you. They don't even need you." I've had my assistant principal come in and sub for me for 15 minutes or something because I had a parent meeting. He's like, "I didn't do anything. They knew what to do. They knew how to do dojo. They knew how to move to the next task. They knew how to wrap up the class." It really shows you how smart and how efficient kids can be, if you just let them. Teach them and let go.

Ashley Mengwasser: The ship runs itself with your practices in place. Do you think the results will be similar with teacher peers as you're moving on to a math instructional coach?

Delise May: Oh yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: You do?

Delise May: Because I'm an empath. And so I think if you come in trying to understand a person first, then they respect you more. And they feel like you're actually for them. I'm not trying to be like, "Ooh, I'm the boss. I'm the big bet." No. What are your goals as a teacher? So you tell me what yours are, and I'll observe and I'll tell you what mine are for you. And let's talk about that. And I think that's how you get better buy-in. You don't just go around waving your magic wand like, "I'm good at this. I'm the best." No.

Ashley Mengwasser: You let the magic happen. You let it occur.

Delise May: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah.

Delise May: You help them bring it out of them, because it's there.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah.

Delise May: Yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: So you probably have the same success with your teacher group that you're moving on to. Do you have a story in your mind that exemplifies the beauty of peer encouragement for your students?

Delise May: Oh my God. So my first year teaching seventh grade math. First of all, if you know anything about middle school... First of all, I love it but...

Ashley Mengwasser: I remember it.

Delise May: Everyone thinks middle school is the worst. It's actually not, I love it. However, seventh grade is the most difficult grade to teach within middle school. And then that was my first experience in middle school. And so there's this kid, and I'll call him Kenny. And in sixth grade, it was right after the COVID year so not everybody came to school, but this kid did.

Ashley Mengwasser: You go, Kenny.

Delise May: And he made a name for himself. A kid who skips and is disrespectful and defiant, and also the most popular student.

Ashley Mengwasser: Is that right?

Delise May: Yes. So I get this kid seventh grade. First week of school, I'm being kind, giving grace. And when you teach in inner city, they're used to a different approach. And so they're looking at me, "Who is this Ms. Frizzle? Who is this Ms. Frizzle? We don't get her. And why is she nice? But she's also firm. But she's also firm. But she's also fair." This was so new for him. He said to me, because he was being disrespectful and I had given him chances... And then eventually, he earned attention because he was super disrespectful. And so he's like, "I've never met a teacher like you." And I said, "Well, I'm glad. And I take that as a compliment." And I was like, "I love you and I know that you don't like me right now, and that's okay. But we are going to do this." And so I went to the principal to explain to her why he had detention. And she goes, "Ms. May, no one does detention here." Then I talked to his mom and I said, "Hey, mom. I really want to build a good relationship with this student. And I feel like if we just got to know each other better, if we got to talk, I think it would really help." And so of course she says yes. And so she lets him stay. And so he and I have this great conversation. And I was like, "Who do you want to be?" And dah, dah, dah and all these things. I was like, "I see you being a star like Kevin Hart. You have the energy. You are a natural leader." And he started to look at me like, "This is detention. Right?" So we have that moment. Fast forward weeks later, actually a couple months later, I was like, "You know what, Kenny? The kids really listen to you. I want you to be the facilitator of the math warmup today."

Ashley Mengwasser: Work at that.

Delise May: "I want you to do it." So I stood back and he tried to mimic me. It was so cute. He was doing great. He's an excellent leader, but he was a little rough around the edges. So he's like, "Shut up. Somebody, she's over there talking." I was like, "Kenny, remember we don't say shut up. We say be quiet or tell them what you want them to do." He's like, "Oh, my bad Ms. May. My bad. My bad. Okay." So he fixes it or whatever. And I go to tell the other teachers, they're like, "That's not him. He would never do that." I'm like, "No. No. No. But in my class, he's a really good leader."

Ashley Mengwasser: He did.

Delise May: So I tell the other students. Of course he's the most popular kid. They're like, "Ms. May, he doesn't even go to class." I was like, "No. But he doesn't skip my..."

Ashley Mengwasser: "He comes to my class."

Delise May: I was like, "He's the best teacher leader I've ever had in my entire career."

Ashley Mengwasser: Wow.

Delise May: And so at the end of the year, I met with him and my principal. And he was part of my evidence for... I was trying to get a level four, which is above and beyond for classroom positivity. That's one of the things we are rated on. And he spoke about how he changed, in front of the principal.

Ashley Mengwasser: As a result of a positive classroom climate?

Delise May: As a result, yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: Look at that.

Delise May: It was amazing. I love that kid.

Ashley Mengwasser: So would your other students consider Kenny to be an encourager then, and you created that?

Delise May: I'll be honest and be within my classroom setting, absolutely. I can control...

Ashley Mengwasser: That's all you can control. That's all you can control.

Delise May: Yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: What tips do you have for other teachers, Delise, if they want to set up a classroom where students are encouraged, and then thereby encourage each other? Are there resources? Are there practices you haven't shared that you want to share as a kit and caboodle to get teachers started?

Delise May: You have to be the model. You can't do that... What my dad used to say, "Do as I say and not as I do." No, you have to be the model of the expectations that you want to see. So if you want the kids to treat each other fairly, you must be a fair teacher. If you catch two kids off task and you just get the one who you saw last, you didn't even dive in to see what happened. And so that's not really fair. I would pull them aside or go talk to them to find out what actually happened. They start to see, "My teacher's fair. Well, dang, that's how we're supposed to behave in here." You've got to be consistent. You can't be that teacher who's like, "Well, I'm going to call your mom," and then you don't. Or, "You're going to get silent lunch," and then you don't do it.

Ashley Mengwasser: Follow through.

Delise May: You've got to follow through. And not just on negative consequences. You've got to follow through. I do Fun Fridays because I just love celebrating.

Ashley Mengwasser: What's Fun Friday?

Delise May: Fun Friday? Okay. The kids use their dojo points as money. And so I have this closet and I call myself like the gas station lady. I don't know. So I have a closet full of snacks and treats. And so with their money, they can buy a positive phone call. They can buy 10 points grade boost. They can buy chips and drinks with their money.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh.

Delise May: Yeah. And so if I say I'm going to have Fun Friday every Friday or however many Fridays I want, I have to do it. You celebrate them. You are consistent. Whatever you say, you have to do. And do it with grace. You got to have grace too. They're not going to be perfect, just like I'm not going to be perfect. So I have to give grace. You have to forgive them every day.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh.

Delise May: You have to forgive them every day because there are teachers who are unable to let go, and the kid knows. There are students, I'm not going to lie, that I haven't liked. But they won't know it. They'll never know it because I love them, and I tell them that I love them. I don't have to like you every day, but I love you every day. And so I'm going to give you that grace when you need it. And I ask them to give me grace. So it's being vulnerable. They need to know that I'm a human. If I have a really bad headache, I'll say, "Guys, I'm going to need some grace today because I'm just not feeling myself, so I'm not going to be as energetic as I normally am. But I am here and I'm going to do my best." And they're like, "Ms. May, it's okay. We got you." Yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: So in your encouraging classroom, they give you grace.

Delise May: Oh my God.

Ashley Mengwasser: Because you have prioritized the humanity in them and you. And you connect in that.

Delise May: Yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's a beautiful thing. And you know mentioned the... Was it Classroom Dojo?

Delise May: Mm-hmm.

Ashley Mengwasser: You use that platform. Are there any others you use for your peer encouragement practices?

Delise May: Actually, no. It's my favorite right now. I didn't think it was going to work in middle school. I thought they were going to think, "Oh, Ms. May, it's so lame. We're not babies anymore." But because I used it basically as money, they don't mind. And they like seeing when they earn positivity points, they're like, "Oh yeah, I got five." And I do Star student. I didn't mention that. I got to mention Star student.

Ashley Mengwasser: Please do.

Delise May: So one of the ways I let the teacher of the period or the teacher of the day be the teacher is they get to select their favorite star student of the day.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, wonderful.

Delise May: And so that student couldn't have gotten any deductions. But if they did, they can still get a shout-out. But they can't be star student.

Ashley Mengwasser: Star student of the class?

Delise May: And so I hate selecting because I love all of them, and it's really hard to pick one. So I'm like, "Guys, I hate doing it. You do it. Star student, who is it?" And you'd be surprised. They provide evidence like, "Well, Jamie was really... She was really struggling, but she didn't give up. And she could have because in other classes, she does. But Ms. May, she really kept going and she even asked for help." And the class claps and so... I don't know. I'm getting all gooey right now just thinking about it.

Ashley Mengwasser: Me too. I've had a smile on my face this whole time.

Delise May: Oh my God.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's wonderful.

Delise May: Yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: Thank you so much, Delise. You are a true, natural-born encourager.

Delise May: Thank you. Thank you.

Ashley Mengwasser: And you show up like this in your own life, it sounds like, with your family.

Delise May: Yes. Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Everywhere we go.

Delise May: I can't help it. It's who I am.

Ashley Mengwasser: Thank you for being who you are. And I know you're going to go on to great success with your teacher audience during the school year, so best of luck to you.

Delise May: Thank you.

Ashley Mengwasser: Thanks for being here. And that is our episode. Now, off we go to make an encouraging everyday gift to our students of our time, our presence, as we encourage our peers and our loved ones in our lives. We leave you with Delise's mantra to be a nice human. Show grace. You're already a great teacher. I'm Ashley. Returning soon with another good for your ears episode. Goodbye for now. Funding for Classroom Conversations is made possible through the School Climate Transformation Grant.