Sunday Conversation with...Christopher James

In August, the 32-year-old special education teacher from Marietta’s Osborne High School was named Cobb County Teacher of the Year. He will compete in the statewide contest for outstanding teacher.

At Osborne, James co-developed a study skills program that reinforces math and reading, as well as social skills. But he says his real strength is motivating students.

Q: Can you describe the range of disabilities that walks into your class?

A: Most of my kids have some kind of learning disability. I have a concentration of students with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). My second biggest population is kids with emotional behavior disorder, who may have outbursts in class. Those are the kids I gravitate toward.

Q: Why?

A: There is just a connection I make with those kids. They calm down when they are with me. I don’t let them get in their own little world. They have to have a conversation with me even when things are going badly.

Q: You say you don’t allow a student to use a disability as a handicap. What is it then?

A: I tell my kids that a disability just means that you have to learn a different way. If that means you have to read a sentence five times in order to process it, then you have to read it five times.

Q: What kind of student were you?

A: Smarter than the average bear but I was a lazy kid. If no one challenged me, I didn’t do anything. I want to make my class so engaging that kids want to be there. Most will tell you that my class is the hardest class they have. But they love coming.

Q: You describe your teaching style as unorthodox. How so?

A: I find out where a kid is and set an expectation for that kid. Once they reach that, I raise the bar. They are always trying to outperform themselves, especially with me. “Clear your mind of can’t” is one of the signs in my classroom.

Q: Your study skills program has yielded higher tests scores. What do you know that others don’t?

A: I don’t think I know more than other teachers. Because I have a little more flexibility, I can drill those skills a lot harder. I tell my kids, “You can do this.” I give them the skills and I give them the confidence.

Q: You see your class as a safe haven. What are you protecting students from?

A: Some kids need protection from themselves. Sometimes they get very upset -- something has happened in the classroom or at home. A lot of kids don’t have peace at home. You can come in my class and get a little peace.

I tell my kids that I am the alpha dog. The alpha dog is going to take care of everything in this classroom.

Q: Do you think public schools get a bad rap?

A: I do. There are certain things that we do well. There are certain things we do badly. We are educating the masses. When you are educating the masses, there are going to be gaps.

Q: You believe the biggest issue in education is complacent teachers. Why causes complacency?

A: Certain teachers feel unappreciated. If you put in everything you have and you continue to hear that the tests scores are not good enough, you start to get frustrated. You lose that fire and passion.

Q: How will you keep from becoming complacent?

A: Spending time with the kids, learning from them. They are always giving me ideas. There is an old saying that the only thing that becomes old in a school is a teacher.

Q: Did your undergraduate degree in music help prepare you as a special ed teacher?

A: It did. Part of my music degree is therapy, learning how music moves people. Depending on what we are doing in class, one day we could be listening to something classical, the next something Caribbean. I may sing a concept. The saying that music soothes the savage beast is true.

Q: What is your favorite music?

A: Jazz is my favorite. Joe Sample is my favorite jazz musician.

Q: Can you name something about yourself that would surprise people?

A: I am really an introvert. I am very shy. But you put me in a room full of kids and I am the life of the party.