In middle school in California in 2005, Erica Strong sat in classes with 35 kids, as crime escalated to the point that children had to wear see-through backpacks and pass through airport-style security. “It felt as if our school’s main concern was our safety,” she recalled.
As she finished eighth grade, her parents took drastic action. Strong's father, a machinist for Dow Chemical Co., arranged a job transfer 3,000 miles East to Connecticut, a state that spent almost twice as much per child on public schools. The family moved to the historic town of Ledyard, where Strong kept noticing Revolutionary War markers and cemeteries. “You brought me to a place where people go to die!” the unhappily uprooted teenager protested.
Her school experiences soon flipped her view. “In Connecticut, I thought teachers were the coolest people in the world. They were like celebrities. I could choose different learning options in a class of 15 when I was used to 35. I wasn’t sharing books. I could build relationships with teachers who would know my name. I got to see in Connecticut this phenomenal system we call public education,” she said.
“When I saw what school could offer, I said I want to do that. I want to be that person.”
Strong, now 28, grew up in a family of teachers – including her mother, grandmother and an aunt – and her favorite childhood activity was instructing a “class” full of dolls and her little sister. But she traces her real passion to her first-hand experience on both sides of America’s educational opportunity gap. Her mission as a teacher is to help close it.
For six years as an eighth-grade Language Arts teacher at Lebanon Middle School, she customized her teaching to address each child’s individual learning style, creating a student-led, “Socratic classroom” now used by teachers throughout the school. She adapted The Diary of Anne Frank as a play in which 90 students participated during the pandemic. She took her students’ calls and emails well past midnight when they needed her.
When kids’ energy flagged during the long lockdown, she sometimes turned to social media, performing their favorite dances on TikTok, tossing her long, braided ponytail in all directions. She used a white board to keep track of ideas for engaging her students – even if they occurred to her in the middle of the night. “My husband would say I was a teacher 24/7 during the quarantine,” she said.
For all this and more, Strong was named one of four finalists for the title of 2020 state Teacher of the Year.
“I really, really strive to make our kids involved,” she said. “I think sometimes I go crazy to do that. I walked into a classroom and wondered if I should use test prep packets and I said heck no, we need to teach them to be thinkers and learners for their whole lives.” This is when she started Socratic seminars, posing open-ended questions that sparked conversation and debate in which students responded to each other, using evidence from the text.
These eighth graders have these thoughtful talks about our novel,” she said. “They can speak and use evidence and defend themselves. When we give kids opportunities like that, they thrive.
"My colleagues asked, ‘How did you do it?’ and I said, ‘I didn’t. I let them. I let them take charge of their learning.’”
With a master’s degree in teacher leadership and an administrators’ degree, Strong is poised for more influential roles, and this fall she will become her school’s literacy coach, with a particular focus on helping teachers reach children who lost ground during the pandemic. “The gaps are going to be all over the map,” she said.
Lebanon, a largely rural community, has little in common with Strong’s school district in California. Crime is almost nonexistent, and 89 percent of students are white, but almost 20 percent are low-income and many parents had to work outside of home throughout the pandemic, unable to supervise their children’s learning. Some children worked, too, waking at dawn to help with the chickens, coming to school – when it opened – with dirt on their boots.
In a town strongly divided on the pandemic, Strong keeps politics out of her classroom. Nonetheless, she has taught children far removed from the Black Lives Matter movement about George Floyd and racism, while including the modern-day rise of antisemitism in their study of Anne Frank.
Navigating the vaccine debate has been trickiest of all. A student came to Strong last spring in despair because the student wanted to be vaccinated, but couldn’t because their parents were at odds. Strong, as ever, focused on the child—not telling the student what was right, but assuring them that their feelings were valid and important. “I’m here to listen,” Strong said. “Every time you walk into my classroom and we make eye contact, just know that I’m thinking of you.”