"I want students to understand that some spaces or plays may not have been written with people like them in mind, but that they have every right to make a space theirs and to make a play their own.”
Educator Kylie Webster-Cazeau’s approach to teaching “Romeo and Juliet” is to make it real, make it relevant, and give it all she’s got. The teacher-in-residency at Dearborn STEM Academy in Boston didn’t want learning the Shakespeare play to feel daunting or confusing. Instead, she encouraged students to get creative.
“What I wanted students to gain from the Romeo and Juliet unit is that they can be actors and that acting is something that they can do professionally or as a career,” says Webster-Cazeau, who teaches seventh-grade ELA (English Language Arts). “I want students to understand that some spaces or plays may not have been written with people like them in mind, but that they have every right to make a space theirs and to make a play their own.”
As a class, ELA is designed to push students to think critically and analyze texts in a way that they can then apply what they’ve learned outside of the classroom. So for this project, students were tasked with rewriting a scene in the play with at least two scene changes related to language, setting, or character identity to make it more accessible to their audience—in this case, their classmates.
Students got acting tips from a local nonprofit called The Actors Shakespeare Project plus a special performance: Webster-Cazeau and her co-resident wrote their own scene to perform. And when they did, Webster-Cazeau did not hold back.
“It’s a really hard thing to put yourself out there to do the play,” says Rosaphae Bruton, a student who cites this as a time when Webster-Cazeau went above and beyond as a teacher. “I feel like she did a really great job with kind of showing how to do it, step by step, and putting emotion into the play.”
Like in other lessons, Webster-Cazeau wanted to make sure that the material in this curriculum was meaningful and that her students saw it as interesting and valuable. To do that, she needed to model it and make it exciting.
“She’s very, very good at what she does,” Rosaphae says. “The way she teaches and bonds with people—she’s a very amazing person.”
"Our students are people—they're people first before they're students who enter our classroom community. We need to remember their humanity and their agency as young people in this world."
But, this is the only kind of acting anyone will ever catch Webster-Cazeau perform in a classroom. It’s authenticity that she values as a teacher, and she encourages her students to feel comfortable to be themselves.
“I want my students to be as authentic as possible, with who they are as a person and with who they are as a learner. That’s the only way that I’m really going to be able to help you grow and learn in the way that you need to, if you’re real with me and if I’m real with you,” she says.
Webster-Cazeau’s students relate to her realness. They feel like she treats them the same as she would treat anyone—because she does.
“She already shows it all through her actions and the way she expresses herself,” Rosaphae says. “I think she has really good expression: how she expresses herself to other people, no matter what age.”
As a Boston Public Schools graduate, Webster-Cazeau never felt like she had teachers who looked like her. And now, she’s part of a program to eradicate this problem. The Black Educators Initiative at the National Center for Teacher Residencies launched in 2019 with a goal to help 750 Black resident teachers.
Tabitha Grossman, NCTR’s chief external relations officer, says the initiative reduces barriers for Black educators to enter teaching by providing scholarships, stipends, emergency funds, testing support, affinity groups, and mentors. Grossman says this initiative is important for many reasons, but helping add more Black teachers to the workforce makes a very specific, very targeted difference in the lives of children of color.
“Teachers who have been trained in a residency model stay in the profession longer, and for children of color, that’s really important—that the teacher that you have is committed to the profession and can be counted on to stay in it,” she says. “So many teachers leave the profession, but for Black teachers that number is exponentially higher.”
"I think she has really good expression: how she expresses herself to other people, no matter what age."
Student Rosaphae Bruton
As a star resident in the program, Webster-Cazeau recognizes her opportunity to always set an example for her students, to become the type of teacher she wishes she’d had.
“I never had teachers who dressed how they dress in their real life at school,” she says. “Students are going to look at me and they’re going to know who I am, what I stand for, and what type of person I am. I show up to work just how I show up to see my best friends, because those are the people that I love, and I love my students.”
To Webster-Cazeau, loving her students means thinking about their well-being past the statistics that public school systems often value such as test scores and rankings.
“Our students are people—they’re people first before they’re people who enter our classroom community,” she says. “We need to remember their humanity and their agency as young people in this world. And I feel like that’s something that was not really acknowledged during my schooling experience.”
For Rosaphae, Webster-Cazeau’s personality allows her to stand out. And, it allows students to easily form strong relationships with her.
“It’s almost like she becomes best friends with the kids,” she says. “She has such a good bond with people.”
Before diving headfirst into education, Webster-Cazeau envisioned a completely different career.
“For a while, I wanted to be a lawyer,” she says. “I wanted to be a game changer, I wanted to be down in the nitty gritty, like changing the law.”
But that all changed the summer after her sophomore year in college when she managed a summer program for students ages 13 to 18 at her local NAACP chapter. The students’ project was to pick an issue that was impacting their lives in the city and then come up with solutions. She was in awe of them.
“I remembered being young and feeling so underestimated by the adults in my life,” she says. “But it’s like, here I am working with this marvelous group of students and I’m not underestimating them. And, look at this amazing thing that they put together at the end of the summer. It was really that moment for me where I [realized] I can do both: I can work with young people and still have an impact on the world.”
Noel Reyes, Webster-Cazeau’s instructional coach, says she teaches with a comfort and confidence that’s rare for newer educators. And that, he says, is tied to her values and mission to treat students with respect.
“She has a very deep understanding of why she believes in this work,” Reyes says. “So I think that shows through, especially in the way she interacts with kids with just so much care.”
"Teachers who have been trained in a residency model stay in the profession longer, and for children of color, that's really important—that the teacher that you have is committed to the profession and can be counted on to stay in it."
Tabitha Grossman, Chief External Relations Office at National Center for Teacher Residencies
Even as the global pandemic has forced teachers to consistently adapt to the unknown, the past year has only re-emphasized Webster-Cazeau’s desire to be there for students and focus on what’s important.
“Every possible challenge that can be thrown at teachers has been thrown at her this year and more, and she has really just responded so tremendously,” Reyes says. “Her ability to deal with that, but then also not lose sight of the fact that these kids are kids, and they deserve to be kids and to be treated like human beings, and to be cared for, I think she always has that kind of at the forefront. So that’s just a wonderful thing to see.”
In today’s virtual and hybrid learning environment, Webster-Cazeau has ramped up her focus on students as individuals. She knows every student learns differently, so she allows them to work in ways that best suit their needs: Sometimes that means letting them work independently, sometimes it means giving them one-on-one attention, sometimes it means being available by text at any time to answer questions.
“I think the biggest thing for me is with my students, we’ve just got to communicate,” she says. “Tell me what’s what, tell me what you need, tell me what’s working, tell me what’s not working. And if you don’t know, well, let’s take the time to figure it out together.”
Rosaphae says this communication and willingness to adapt truly helps, especially now.
“She’s always there if you need anything: emotional support, a person to reach out to in general,” she says. “And she’s also a good teacher if you ever need help on anything.”
Even with the uncertainty of the times, Webster-Cazeau is sure of what she’s most proud of: the resiliency of her students.
“Our students are still showing up every single day,” she says. “They’re still coming to class prepared, they’re doing their work, they’re engaging, and these are young people who have truly yet to experience the world and all the world has to offer for them. And they can still be so hopeful.”
And, not surprisingly, her students are just as proud of her.
“I admire a lot about her,” Rosaphae says. “I admire that I get to have a bond with her and I admire that she’s really going places in life.”
Photography by Cristen Farrell
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