Three years ago, as Chris Morris was celebrating the end of his third year as a teacher, he could already feel the dreaded burn-out taking hold of him.
It wasn't that his students weren't capable, he said. It's that they weren't motivated. And many of his East Ridge High School kids were dealing with serious issues at home — others didn't have homes at all.
"There's a huge disconnect between what you learn in school and then being in that classroom," Morris said. "... I felt like what the policymakers were telling me to do to change things wasn't going to work with these kids. It wasn't about the math for them, it was a lack of motivation. Some of these kids were homeless. Sticking our head in the sand and ignoring such a big facet of [their struggles] just didn't seem beneficial."
One night of television and relaxation changed things for both Morris and his students, when a commercial for an upcoming award show gave him an idea.
"People love award ceremonies," Morris said, recalling his initial epiphany that evening. "Celebrities work to get nominated, they work to get to the show, to applaud their colleagues; and the rest of us just love to watch. ... And I said, 'There's got to be a way to take that idea and bring it into the school setting.'"
That night, the weekly Math Morrissey Awards were born. The next day, when he pitched the concept to his class of juniors, he had no idea how they would react.
"I was thinking these kids would think they were too cool for it, they would pretend they didn't care," he said. "But that couldn't have been further from the truth."
Morris still remembers the first week afterward and the changes he saw in even his most difficult students. A group of girls went out of their way to be nice to another who was bullied. Another, who slept in class several days a week, stayed awake.
And a validated gang member who frequently made no attempts in class went up to the board and spent half an hour teaching complicated inverse logarithmic functions to the rest of the confused class.
"He was a rockstar that day," Morris said of his former student. "I let him teach part of the lesson because my jaw dropped and I was also just so excited to see that side of him. He was brilliant, and what I realized was even he needed that recognition. He wasn't getting that anywhere in his home life."
At the end of that class, Morris continued, that student asked what he needed to keep doing to win a Morrissey Award.
Moving beyond the classroom
Now, Morris is taking his concept, which awards character growth versus just academic achievement, to teachers across Hamilton County. He also runs a consulting business, called The Morrissey Model, to help other teachers feel empowered to individualize their classrooms and celebrate achievement beyond test scores, while proving to their students that they are paying attention and understand the issues they face.
In addition to coaching other teachers to create changes that focus on the positives, instead of the negatives which allow them to control the class, such as write-ups, Morris puts out a podcast for teachers called "Teacher Talks."
And beginning Tuesday, April 25 at 5:30 p.m., Morris will host a monthly, free "Teacher Talk" at The Camp House.
"What I started doing in my classroom three years ago just changed my entire experience and especially changed the experience for those kids who weren't even really invested," he said. "So many people say these words at [kids], like 'Have discipline' or 'Be this,' but the kids have no connection to what that action is actually like."
The outcomes stretched well beyond Morris' classroom.
Recalling the girl who had been bullied until his seemingly simple math award came into play, he shared an example of just how far.
"One day I walked in the lunchroom and saw her sitting with [girls from my class] at lunch, and I said, 'Hey, you guys didn't tell me you were doing this.' And they just shrugged and said they didn't do it to tell me and win an award, they just wanted to protect her. And all the way through the end of senior year, they did."
To find out more about The Morrissey Model and future "Teacher Talks," find the business on Facebook or email firstname.lastname@example.org.