Time is a valuable commodity for Derrik Wiggins and his third-grade students at Kansas City’s George Washington Carver Dual Language School.
And nobody is wasting any of it in his classroom.
“There is a bit of urgency to make sure I’m teaching my lessons and to make sure the kids are learning,” said Wiggins. “There is some urgency in making sure students are academically, socially and emotionally prepared.”
Wiggins plans each lesson right down to the minute. He keeps track of the time using flashing red and green lights and timers he punches when each lesson begins and ends. He’s constantly multitasking technology — his phone, a laptop — to control timers, lights and music that plays softly in the room. If he finishes a lesson early, the time saved goes to the students. When they have accumulated enough time, the class gets free time to do something fun.
If his lesson has to go over, because students were fidgeting, not paying attention or misbehaving, then Wiggins, who is comfortable pausing to wait until everyone is doing what they should be doing, steals time back from the students’ stash.
It works for Wiggins, who earlier this month was named the Kansas City Public Schools’ Teacher of the Year. This year was the first time in recent history the provisionally accredited district has picked a teacher of the year. Kansas City Public Schools is on track this year to regain full accreditation from the state.
Wiggins, 27, has been teaching for four years, all at Carver. He was nominated for the honor by his fellow teachers and then chosen from among three districtwide finalists by a committee of district educators.
“He is one of the best young teachers I have ever worked with, and I have been doing this work for 27 years,” said Mike Coulter, principal at Carver, which is a district signature school with 97 percent of the students coming from homes that qualify for free and reduced-priced lunch. Many of the students live in poverty.
“But not all,” said Wiggins, who wants to make a point of letting people know that not all urban kids come from poor or troubled homes.
Eighty-seven percent of the students are Hispanic, and many of them have parents who are immigrants. In Wiggins’ morning class of 20 students, all but three are Hispanic.
Less than 10 minutes after the 9 a.m. start bell rang on this Wednesday, Wiggins and his students, most of them 9 years old, were already deep into a story about the life of César Chávez. On large paper clipped to an easel propped next to Wiggins, the lesson of the day was written: “How do we create the world we want?”
Wiggins read. Other than his voice, the room fell quiet. Attentive students sat around him on a blue rug in the front of the classroom waiting for him to ask — in the fast-paced, energetic way that he speaks — for someone to talk about what they’d just learned about Chávez’s life and what he did to create the world he wanted.
Hands shot straight up in the air. A broad smile crossed Wiggins’ face. He had connected.
Students took turns reading, then chose a fellow student to pick up where they left off. Wiggins emphasized that no one would start reading “until everyone is tracking our reader” — by looking at them attentively.
The class, led by student responses and guided by Wiggins’ prodding, talked about how the farmers in Chávez’s world were treated unfairly and how Chávez dedicated his life to change. A reading comprehension lesson.
“Search your papers for evidence in the story about how Chávez changed the world,” Wiggins told the students. Hanging on the wall behind where Wiggins was seated on a stool was the class dictum. “Organize, Agitate, Educate Must Be Our War Cry,” the poster says.
Chávez’s story is a good example of what it is that Wiggins wants his students to leave his class having learned.
“Change doesn’t happen just because we want it today,” he said. “You have to do something. But the most important message I want to teach them is to know and care for themselves and how to know and care for their community.”
Students, even as young as his, get the message.
“Mr. Wiggins is a good teacher because he treats us all fairly,” said 9-year-old Allisson Ceniceros. “You can talk to him about everything.”
Wiggins, who wears a big curly afro that he sometimes pulls back, flashes a broad smile when he hears students repeating his lesson.
“I light up when they make a connection,” said Wiggins, who explained that it is important for the students to get affirmation from him. “I use my whole body and language teaching. Sometimes I hear them talking like me saying, ‘Oh yeah, that’s bomb.’ ”
Aaron Hernandez, 9, says he wasn’t surprised his teacher was chosen teacher of the year. “He teaches us older kids stuff, to treat people how you want them to treat you. How to make the world better.”
But the honor did surprise Wiggins, who grew up in Independence then moved with his mother to Olathe, where he went to high school.
“I was shocked,” Wiggins said. “There are a lot of great teachers here who I look up to. I’m still trying to acquire a lot of the skills they have.”
Wiggins is happy teaching and for now sees himself in the field for many years to come. But, he said, “my biggest goal is to be a father.”
For now, Wiggins said, as a teacher, “I have kids to spare at this point.”