Your words matter.
These three words are how TPAC Teacher of the Year Joy Patton ends each of her English and Theater classes at Renaissance High School.
“So much of what we do is related to language and words,” Patton says. “It’s so important to me that my students know that what they say and write matters.”
Located 30 minutes south of Nashville in Williamson County, Renaissance High embraces that “every student doesn’t learn the same way” with smaller class sizes and a significantly smaller population of students.
“We get those quirky, out-of-the-box kids who have a hard time thriving in their zoned high schools,” says Patton, who teaches both the 11th and 12th grades. “What’s really nice about that is you get them for two years at a time, so I get to better understand their skills, what they need to work on and who they are as people.”
With just 180 students and 16 teachers, Renaissance High focuses less on the traditional college prep and standardized testing and more on real-world, project-based learning.
“High school is not an assembly line,” she explains. “Our education system places too high a value on what we can assess and test. We need to remember we’re not producing widgets; we’re producing human beings.”
Patton, who has been working at the non-traditional school for non-traditional students since its inception in 2014, has a mantra of fostering a sense of safety, while inspiring curiosity and creativity.
“I don’t want to teach them what to think.. I want to teach them how to think,” she explains. “You always have to keep students guessing — be just predictable enough so that they feel safe, but no more.”
While most high school students are preparing for the ACT’s, these students are building websites, writing code for video games, utilizing the underground recording studio and creating original works in the innovation lab (which Patton also coordinates).
The school offers three creative academies for each student — apps (web/app development, coding, gaming), audio (music industry, production) and arts (digital design/fine arts).
As the school’s theater teacher, the arts are the academy where Patton’s passion lies.
“I believe art changes the world,” she says. “What we put on stage has the ability to create real change in our society.”
With over two decades of experience as an educator, Patton says she has witnessed what the power of the arts can do for students’ self-confidence and social skills.
“When these kids get on stage, they come alive in ways that they wouldn’t normally,” Patton explains. “A lot of students are intimidated and afraid when they first come to my theater class because it can be really scary breaking out of your shell. But when we all look silly and stupid together, we break down those walls and become a community.”
Last fall, Patton strengthened this community by taking her students to TPAC’s Season for Young People to see The Code, a play by Vancouver-based company addressing the issue of cyber-bullying in schools.
After her students saw the show, Patton challenged them to write their own scenes addressing a social issue they’ve witnessed at Renaissance High. Then, they performed their scenes for the freshman class.
You may think creating inventive and effective learning opportunities like these would be challenging. For Patton, however, it runs in the family.
“I’ve always known I wanted to be a teacher,” Patton says. “Growing up, I would write it in my journal every year. I come from a family of teachers. My mom’s a special education teacher. It’s one of those things I’ve always known I’ve loved.”
Patton graduated college in 1997 and taught for two years before taking a break to become a stay-at-home-mom with her first baby — keeping her foot in the door by teaching ESL and bible studies at church.
Thirteen years and three children later, she decided to get back in the game.
“I honestly didn’t’ think I was going to return to the classroom,” Patton explains. “But when my youngest was going into kindergarten, the circumstances of life led me to find my way back and remember my love for teaching.”
Since then, Patton has found her home at Renaissance.
“I teach where I teach for a reason,” she says. “We allow for students to be different, to be individuals, to be themselves — and that’s the most important thing.”
Connect with Michael Aldrich on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter @michaelwaldrich.