Some days, his students can’t sit still. First, they get up for a tissue; then it’s another trip to sharpen a pencil. Even when they’re sitting in their chairs, they’re fidgeting.
This is when Brandon Nattress, a sixth-grade global-studies teacher at Weeks Middle School in Des Moines, stops and remembers to keep perspective. As a kid growing up in northwestern Iowa, he wasn’t allowed to mess around in class like that. But some of the children in his classroom didn’t come from a sleepy heartland town—they grew up in refugee camps after fleeing strife-torn countries such as Myanmar, Nepal, and Sudan. After years living in camps, they weren’t accustomed to the structure of the classroom, and a quick punishment wasn’t going to change their mentality.
“I can’t sit there and talk and expect students that haven’t had any formal-education setting, where they have to be in a classroom, to just do what I tell them to do,” he says. Instead, he tries a more active version of the lesson, pairing half of the students with cards bearing a vocabulary word and the other half with the definition. They can move around the room and match the cards, learning and burning off energy at the same time.
Nattress, now 37, has immersed himself in the shifting demographics of Des Moines since becoming a teacher there in 2012, signing an alternative contract the city’s public schools had just started offering. It came with a higher starting salary and the promise of a no-cost master’s degree. In exchange for the free degree, he had to commit to working for the school district for eight years or repay the cost of the classes. Last summer, Drake University in Des Moines announced a partnership with the city’s public schools. The well-regarded liberal-arts school began offering the first classes this month toward a reshaped master’s degree that will focus on “cultural competency” and on instruction for children new to English.