For Carly Nichols, success starts with a strong culture—and that means making sure her students at Fox Chapel Middle School have the space to explore their interests and reach their full potential. In their rural community, where families often don't have cars, she reaches out with text messages to help get parents involved. And now, with the support of educators and families alike, their school is turning its climate around.
Did you always know you wanted to be a teacher? As a kid, did you sit your neighbors down with pencils and teach them?
I grew up in a very rural area in the middle of the woods, so I didn’t really have neighbors—I had one friend who lived so far down the road that it took all afternoon just to ride my bike to her house. But I did have a chalkboard on the wall, and I did dress up as a teacher. My stuffed animals were my pupils.
In high school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I thought, “Oh, I’ll be an actress or a teacher.” It takes a bit of that personality to act or teach: You have to be willing to experiment, and you can’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself. But by the time I went to college, I knew I wanted to work with children. I started in child psychology at the University of Florida, and then I transferred to the University of South Florida to go into teaching.
I spent some time working at a daycare, which convinced me that I was going to teach secondary. It wasn’t until my final internship that I finally went into middle school, just so I could say I gave it a shot before I decided it wasn’t for me. But then I loved it—and that was actually the first middle school where I started teaching.
It takes a bit of that personality to act or teach: You have to be willing to experiment, and you can’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself.
And now you’ve been at Fox Chapel for seven years. Tell me a little bit about your time here.
When I came to Fox Chapel, it was rough around the edges, so to speak. This was the school with the worst reputation in the county. The teacher turnover rate was very high, and the eighth-graders had never had the same principal two years in a row. There was a lot of uncertainty and a lot of inconsistency, and our behaviors were terrible. Many days, I’d leave in tears—I’d never been treated with so much disrespect.
Our principal, Mr. Ray Pinder, came in my second year here, and he’s a fabulous administrator. The year after he joined, he invited a few of us to a symposium on The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens and we decided to take it on. Changing school culture has been a gradual process, but I love the direction we’re heading, the message we’re sending, and what we’re trying to instill in our students.
What have some of those changes looked like?
We’re still growing, but there’s more of a sense of community and respect. It’s the simple things: Before, a student would never open a door for another student or a teacher, and they wouldn’t say hello, much less greet someone by shaking hands. There was just a feeling of gloom and doom. Among faculty, there didn’t seem like there was a lot of camaraderie—people were very isolated, doing their own things.
We were a “D” school at the time, so the reason for adopting the Covey curriculum was to give students the tools they needed to be successful. But first, we had to get teachers on board if we were going to pass it on to the students. And that’s been part of the change. The faculty who didn’t buy in are beginning to leave, and when new teachers come in, we’ll say, “This is what we’re doing. Can you be committed to this? Will you embed this in your lessons? Can you use the common language?”
Now, we’re seeing a shift. Students have parents or siblings who went to Fox Chapel, and they’ll say things like, “I don’t even recognize this school.” Compared to where we were seven years ago, it’s not the same school at all.
Apart from school climate, what are some of the other challenges that you deal with in your community?
The lack of resources. For example, our schools aren’t all where we need to be to keep up with the demands of technology. Everything’s going paperless, but that’s money the district can’t necessarily spend. Or, older schools in the community like ours don’t get things like iPads for every student.
It’s also hard to get people involved when everything’s so far away. We don’t have much public transportation around here, so students can’t just walk or take a bus somewhere—parents need to bring students to school or volunteer events, which is a bigger commitment. You can’t really get around here if you don’t have a car, and a lot of our families don’t have cars.
How do these limitations affect your students?
As a Title I school, we do struggle with parental involvement. We send out a 5Essentials survey, and that always comes up as one of the biggest issues. I was on the PTSA one year, and only one parent joined. Just one.
Some of it has to do with parents’ abilities, but some of it also has to do with desire. I’ve called parents who make it abundantly clear that they do not want to speak to me. But when parents are involved, they ask questions. They know what’s going on. If parents are signed up for Remind, my students will tell me things like, “Ugh, I wasn’t allowed to do something because my mom got a message from you.” The more involved the parent, the more successful the student.
Speaking of Remind, how did you first find out about it?
I actually heard about Remind from our principal’s wife, who was the head of the language arts department at another school in the county—she’d used it in her classroom and really liked it. I needed a way to get things to my kids and didn’t want to start emailing them, so I just decided to commit to using Remind for a year. I printed out the class code, shared it at our open house, and got parents to sign up.
I started with weekly vocabulary because my students kept losing their handouts or their passwords to Edline, so I’d take a picture of the list or type it out and send it on Remind. Then, I realized I could schedule them all at the beginning of the term. That was something I really liked—I didn’t have to set reminders for myself. I started sending other kinds of messages too, like letting students know they could still turn in late homework for partial credit.
I use Remind primarily to have a dialogue with my students, because that’s the world they live in. Through their phones. Through technology.
Have parents responded the same way to technology?
They’re already used to texting. People are very attached to their phones; it’s almost like an appendage. When parents come in for back-to-school night or a meeting with teachers, everybody has a cell phone in their hand. I’m talking to them about my class and my expectations, and they’ll just be looking at their phones the entire time.
A lot of the parents who don’t call back will respond if I text them through Remind. They’re more willing to communicate with me through text message than they are through a phone call, or in person at a conference.
So your message helps facilitate a conversation.
There’s a flexibility with texting that you don’t have with phone calls. If a parent picks up my call, they’re committing roughly fifteen minutes to our conversation. If they see the school calling, they might think, “I don’t have time to talk to a teacher right now.” Sometimes there are kids screaming in the background. Sometimes they’re at work and they’ll tell me, “I have to step outside and call you back.”
With texts, parents can get back to me whenever they can, and it gives me the opportunity to set up phone conversations that are convenient for both of us. Plus, it’s not as formal. I don’t have to say, “Dear Mr. Smith, I’m Carly Nichols, and I’m your child’s teacher”—they already know that. Texting is less of a commitment, but people are more committed because of it.
Remind is my way into their family; it’s how I communicate with them. If I didn’t have Remind, I would lose that connection completely. Parents don’t go to the school website, but if I send them something directly, they have to make the decision to ignore it. If they get a message, they have to actively say, “Nope! Not going to look at it.”
When parents are involved, they ask questions. They know what’s going on.
It’s not a very big ask. At least you made the attempt to reach out, right?
Some parents do turn off notifications on Remind. I’ll think, “Oh well, I got them at one point. I tried.” It’s especially helpful to have documentation I can share with my administrators. If I’m having an issue, I can pull up Remind and find the announcements I’ve sent or conversations I’ve had. In the past, I’ve had to show interventions I’ve used that a parent claimed I never did—it was nice to be able to say, “Well, I sent you this, and here was your response.”
I also have emails, but I really love having an easy way to document things I need. Even when they’re not quite as positive.
In your classroom, what’s been the impact of getting your students and parents involved?
I see it in student grades, like the number of failures at the end of nine weeks or at the end of the year. If I have a parent-teacher conference about a student who’s failing, I’ll ask, “Well, are you on Remind?” That’s the first question. It’s an effective way to communicate; it’s how we all communicate. It’s completely relevant.
Students also ask me questions that they might not otherwise. There’s a level of comfort and security on Remind—their peers have no clue that they’re reaching out to me. It’s a little more laid-back, which fits the culture I establish as a teacher. I try to open the doors so they feel safe enough to engage.
Once families put me on their phones, they’ve welcomed me into their lives.
How do you create that kind of space to engage while maintaining boundaries, especially since you’re in a small community?
I do try to keep my work and my personal life separate, so I rarely bring my work computer home. Our district doesn’t have formal policies, but interacting with students on social media is definitely discouraged. They can follow me on Instagram—I’m not going to stop them if they want to see pictures of my kids—but they have to wait until they’re seniors to friend me on Facebook. I always tell them that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Give me enough time to miss you.
But my kids from my very first class are all 21 now. One of them is a firefighter and works for my husband on his shift. When I told my husband, he said, “Yeah, we’re going to go and have some beers!” Him hanging out with a former student of mine—that’s so weird. My husband was like, “Wait ‘til the Christmas party.” I don’t know if I can wrap my head around that.
A lot of my former students work around town. They’re old enough now that I do miss them, and it’s always nice to catch up with them when I have the chance.
Interview by Karen Murphy, who taught reading and English at Title I middle and high schools before transitioning to edtech. Photography by Patrick Michael Chin.