Chris Mason, Fourth-Grade Teacher
Story by Kathy McPherson
Chris Mason remembers a piece of advice his father gave him: Figure out what you love to do and then find someone to pay you for it.
When he was 15 years old, Mason began working with kids each summer, serving as a camp counselor and what have you. “Every time I reflected on jobs that I loved, it was always with people in that 9- to 12-year-old age range.”
He found his niche 22 years ago teaching fourth and fifth grades at an inner-city Catholic school in West Baltimore, equipped with a B.A. in history from Elon University but no teaching credentials, and he’s never looked back.
“It was a lot of blue-collar families that were doing their absolute best to get kids out of what was then — and I don't know if it is today — a really struggling public school system. The expectations were incredibly high. … That school represented an enormous financial thing for those families. It was terrific. I taught there for four years and really did love it.”
Mason taught school and worked a retail job at night while his wife, Leslie, was in nursing school. “Before payday, we would have like $7 in our bank account. Are we having cereal for dinner tonight?” When an opportunity opened to teach fifth grade at Friends School of Baltimore, Mason’s independent school career began. Five years later, with a family that included two young sons and facing high housing costs in Baltimore, the Masons decided to move to North Carolina, a state they knew and liked from their college years at Elon.
Mason is in his 15th year teaching fourth grade at Durham Academy, working with his favorite age group. “I like the honesty of kids this age. I have a preference to [being with] kids this age than to adults. I would much rather spend my days with 18 10-year-olds than I would with 18 40-somethings.”
Teaching runs in Mason’s family. He grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, with an attorney father who taught at Baltimore’s McDonogh School before he went to law school, and “he always said that he wished he had stayed in teaching.” Mason has three siblings, including a younger brother and sister who are teachers.
Mason values the finite nature of teaching and the opportunities that it presents.
“I really like that there's a beginning and an end to every school year, then you get to kind of rethink what you do. The kids you get in August, they don't know any better, they just assume that's how you've always done it, so you just kind of reinvent yourself and figure out new ways and better ways of doing things. And then you say goodbye to them.”
He appreciates the resources available to teachers at Durham Academy and that the students are here to learn.
He also likes the freedom that comes with teaching in an independent school.
“If I've got a group of kids that are into a certain topic or into a certain aspect of content, I know that I've got the freedom to veer a little bit for a day or two. We [teachers] are not in lockstep with each other, all writing the exact same objectives on the board and doing the exact same thing. There is a license for us to create an experience for the kids that's mine — the Mustangs [Mason’s class is called the Mustangs] get an experience that I want to be unique to me. … I like that that's embraced and celebrated.”
A “Low Key” sign hangs on the wall of Mason’s classroom, signalling an expectation that his fourth-graders will work hard but also enjoy and have fun with what they’re doing.
“I want them to know that perfection is not something that's expected. I tell them all the time that their parents would send them to work if they knew how to do everything. … I have them get comfortable with saying things like ‘I don't really know.’ Let's find out together rather than kind of posturing and pretending like they know everything, or this urgency to be perfect in math or in their written pieces or whatever, to have them appreciate that it's OK to take the work seriously, but not necessarily take themselves quite so seriously. It's OK to laugh at themselves. It's OK to embrace mistakes and kind of just poke fun at yourself. I do it all the time in my room, they see me just kind of make fun of myself all the time.”
Mason also wants his students to value their classroom community by “taking care of each other, showing gratitude, saying please and thank you, generally appreciating the things that people do for them and put in front of them so that they've got this insane opportunity. Pausing, appreciating it and knowing that it just doesn't happen out of nowhere.”
Durham Academy has had to make changes during the coronavirus pandemic, with teachers and students following protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“I think the thing that I'm having the hardest time with is how siloed all the learning is. It's very independent. Carrie [Fitzpatrick, Mason’s teaching assistant] and I relied heavily on partner work or ‘turn and talks,’ on really organic sharing. … All of that in-the-moment kind of learning is done in the context of socialness, and that's really hard to replicate when you've got to stay 6 feet apart.”
Mason earned a master’s degree in literacy from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2010. “I was really interested in how kids learn to read and that whole process, understanding literacy better.” It was the first time he had taken an actual education class. “I think there's a lot of teaching that's common sense, so when I learned that much of what I was doing was supported by research, that was affirming.”
He believes technology should be woven into the fabric of what students do, that fourth-graders benefit from using technology in much the same way as adults use it. “It's just an organic part of my room, and I've always tried to make it as such. … You reach for [technology] when you need it and you put it aside when you don't.” Mason wants his students to realize they are establishing an online presence “and understanding the impact of that, putting good things out into the world and onto the web.”
He has concerns about screen time, including for his own sons, who are a sophomore and a senior at the Upper School. Spending time with his family is important. Though Mason played soccer in college, he never coached or committed to after-school activities so that he could be with his sons.
Fitness is also important to him — “Going to the gym and exercising is my church” — and Mason also loves reading and spending quiet time at home with his wife. And then there are the toy soldiers.
“I spend probably 10 to 15 hours a week painting very small toy soldiers. It's meticulous. I can put on my headphones and that's the ultimate ‘me time’. My mom [who is an interior designer] calls it the creative gene. If you have the creative gene and you go a couple of days without making or building or creating something, it can make you a little nutty. … I've got to do something creative with my brain.”
A hobby that requires creativity and great painstaking is fitting for a teacher who fights against instant gratification, who believes it’s important to pause and reflect.
“One of my little catch phrases is 'embrace the struggle.' I think that that's a big one for us. I'll say to kids, ‘I'm not really ready to help you with that yet, I'll be back in five minutes’ kind of thing. I want them to get used to kind of wallowing around, swimming in the gray and trying to figure things out for themselves.
“You know, sometimes there are things that are unknown. Not everything is 4x2 where there's one specific answer, an exact answer. Sometimes you just kind of have to understand that there's nuance.”