BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER DARLENE SCHAFFER
“Do you really know what dyslexia is?”
I can remember the day this question hit me like a ton of bricks. A colleague and I were chatting in the main office of our school prior to the first bell of the day. She asked me a question about dyslexia and how I, as a special education teacher, supported our students with reading disabilities.
An innocent question in what started as a casual conversation between colleagues, but a question I actually experienced difficulty answering as the conversation continued. What I didn’t know until that very morning was that both of her sons lived with dyslexia and struggled in school. She was simply curious as to what strategies and interventions we used not only in our school but in schools across our district. Her curiosity was based upon her perspective as both a teacher and a parent. What I also didn’t know that morning was that this conversation would become a turning point in my career.
My take-away from our chat that morning was that I had LITTLE TO NO CLUE how to provide effective instruction to students who were diagnosed with dyslexia, what strategies worked, or what programs might reach them to help “break the code.” What I thought I knew about supporting kids with reading disabilities was now in question. This prompted my long journey into becoming a more effective practitioner in supporting students who are dyslexic.
One of the first things I learned that I didn’t know previously was that as many as 20% of students (20 PERCENT) sitting in our classrooms may suffer from a language-based learning disability. This brought me to a troubling realization: in the largest school district in Pennsylvania, are we really providing targeted, appropriate instruction to students whose reading disabilities require such instruction? While we do provide reading support and deliver targeted interventions to students who struggle in reading, are they always the right ones? Unfortunately, I believe the answer is no.
Another wonder: what legislation is in place in the state of Pennsylvania, if any, to support dyslexic students? With a quick Internet search all I found was Act 69 from 2014 that established a Dyslexia and Early Literacy Pilot Program “to provide evidence-based early screening and multi-tier support systems, using evidence-based intervention services for students with potential risk factors for early reading deficiencies and dyslexia.” A link to the report outlining the results of the 3-year pilot is HERE.
Unfortunately, there are currently no further mandates or legislation in place to provide assessment and/or appropriate interventions in the state of Pennsylvania for those who are dyslexic. How can this be? How many students are sitting in our classrooms who may be dyslexic and are struggling with decoding print as well as writing?
It is imperative that we do our best to meet the needs of ALL students seated in front of us EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Dyslexia needs to be recognized as more than simply another way children struggle with reading. Schools should be able to not only identify, but provide targeted, structured literacy instruction that meets the needs of not only dyslexic students, but all students. I am hoping this happens during my teaching career.
I am grateful that there are resources available for teachers and parents who want to learn more about dyslexia and encourage my fellow educators, parents, and community stakeholders to take a moment to learn more. A few are below:
International Dyslexia Association PA Branch: https://pa.dyslexiaida.org/
Pattan: Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network: https://www.pattan.net/Dyslexia
The Reading Well (contains a list of schools in PA that service students who are dyslexic): https://www.dyslexia-reading-well.com/dyslexia-in-pennsylvania.html
My journey, two years later, brought me to finally learn how to deliver intensive, systematic instruction to students who so desperately need it. Am I making a difference in helping students read, write, and spell? I think so. The journey is not over, however. It will never be over until every student receives the type of instruction that helps them discover the joy of reading that many of us enjoy.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER JANE CORDERO
Thirty years ago, I stepped out of my bachelor's program in special education ready to take on the world, but I landed in the basement. My first assignment was teaching students with significant intellectual and physical disabilities in a multiple disabilities support program. My room was the only classroom in the basement of the school. All I wanted to do for as long as I can remember was to help other people. I had some learning problems with spelling myself in school so I thought I had picked the perfect profession in teaching others with learning difficulties. Most of my coursework in special education was related to students with mild disabilities; it did not prepare me for teaching students with significant disabilities basic life skills. However, in a very short time, I knew teaching individuals with complex needs was my life’s path.
Despite being in the basement, I loved every minute of that first year. Teaching students with more severe physical and mental difficulties taught me so much as a teacher and person. I learned patience to accept students at their current levels and design accommodations and modifications to meet their needs. I had to get to know each of them and to begin where they were, which for some, meant just responding to something in the environment. A lot of work was done with hand over hand prompts and involved self-care like toileting and feeding. It was all new to me, but in the end, I was able to help them all achieve a higher level of independence such as holding a spoon and bringing it to their mouth instead of being fed. Other than a special education supervisor from the district’s special education department who taught me all about a life skills curriculum, no one else seemed to know much about educating students with severe disabilities. I learned about different pieces of equipment, augmentative devices, picture schedules, data collection methods and adapted learning materials.I spent a lot of time getting the students out and about in the school and the community outside of the school.This was so different than the education I had been taught in college but so rewarding. I have remained committed to students with more severe disabilities ever since.
During the last 30 years working in various roles as a special education teacher and district-level administrator, I was able to see students with significant disabilities through various lenses in elementary, middle and high school programs. I have witnessed how hard teachers work to educate youth, but many students are still not prepared for their lives as adults. My current position has brought me full circle from the basement to help prepare students with complex disabilities for competitive, integrated employment. Bridging the gap between a student’s final year in high school and living as an adult in the community has become my passion.
Since my first year in the basement, much has changed for individuals with disabilities based on federal and state laws; however, implementation of those laws differs greatly from school to school. On February 7, 2018 Clyde Terry, Chairperson for the National Council on Disability wrote a Letter of Transmittal to the President stating, “In enacting IDEA, Congress sought to end the long history of segregation and exclusion of children with disabilities from the American public school system. IDEA requires that students with disabilities be educated to the maximum extent possible with students without disabilities. However, many students with disabilities remain segregated in self-contained classrooms or in separate schools, with limited or no opportunities to participate academically and socially in general education classrooms and school activities. Many do not have access to the same academic and extracurricular activities and services provided to other students. Frequently, these students leave school unprepared for adult life in the community.”
Due to the changes in federal and state laws over the years, students with complex disabilities have better integrated into school communities, but there is still a long way to go in our educational systems in order for them to be included from the start as true members of the school environment. Laws dictate that students with disabilities be within the ebb and flow of the school environment leaving behind the days of special education classes in the basement of schools. Students with disabilities should be placed in the least restrictive environment to the greatest extent possible. Interpretation of laws can vary greatly and enforcement of a law often can take years to finally implement.
Educating students with significant needs does not typically get much attention in a school system. There is a lack of training in teaching students with significant needs from administrators to special education administrators to teachers who were like myself, brand new to teaching in autism, life skills or multiple disabilities support classrooms. So often my students with significant needs were left out of special school events such as assemblies or field day. Changes in the bell or lunch schedules occurred without notification or consideration of complex needs classes. Grade group trips were planned without inviting the grade-band special education classes. It felt as though the students with complex disabilities were often forgotten about or intentionally left out because it was easier.
In order to improve inclusionary measures, federal and state agencies need to fully fund IDEA to better cover the cost of educating students with disabilities. This will allow necessary supports and services to be available to students with complex disabilities to ensure full participation and learning. Full participation of students with disabilities in settings and activities with peers without disabilities is needed. All staff need better training about educating students with significant disabilities. This should start from the top down because administrators play an important role in the lives of students. They set the tone for the rest of the school. Unfortunately, many don't have a strong background in this highly-specialized area of education, and it becomes one of the biggest struggles they face. In order to serve students with more significant disabilities effectively without ignoring the needs of others at school, principals need to have a basic understanding of their role in the process. I have witnessed first-hand in my current school the positive outcomes of having a principal who is able to support and understand the educational needs of students with significant disabilities and the impact it has on the entire school community. My school has a large population of students with more significant disabilities because it is a combination of two schools; a highly recognized magnet school for more gifted learners and a school for students with more challenging educational needs. Because of my principal’s motto of “all means all” our school has integrated these two programs to form a successful school that meets the needs of all learners. Our school expanded from a middle school to include a high school program mainly from a parental request of a student in the life skills class. The principal fought for the expansion because he wanted to offer a high school program for students with complex disabilities that would prepare them for a successful adult life.
I believe I started in the basement so that I could learn and in turn teach others the importance of educating a population of students that often goes unnoticed in schools. I am no longer in the basement but on a journey pushing and moving forward to advocate for individuals who need support to voice their own thoughts, feelings, wants and desires for their lives. I look forward to the day when all environments such as schools and workplaces and all activities are unified and supportive of all people.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER MELISSA-ANN PERO
The first day of school, I asked my students what was their biggest source of anxiety about school. Their answer: grades. The stress of the numbers attached to their learning. Some students are worried about the numbers not being high enough. Other students are worried about the numbers being too low. The idea that numbers cause students distress disturbed me, and so I am making a conscious effort this year to focus on student learning - not numbers, but instead feedback and growth.
My classroom mantra for the last three years has been Try. Rinse. Repeat. The best way to learn is to make mistakes and adjust from them. So students need to be encouraged to try things and fail at them - sometimes repeatedly - in order to achieve great things. Over the last few years, I’ve allowed essay re-writes and test re-takes at every turn in order to allow students to see their errors and learn from them.
But this year I am adding a whole new component. Instead of assigning a grade right away, writing assignments are getting positive, constructive feedback first. Drafts are being looked at through the lens of revision - not for grades but for growth. We’re all working together - students and teacher - to talk to each other. We are using questions instead of corrections. We are asking “why” and “how” instead of assigning numerical amounts. Students are engaged in conversations about their intentions and are really grasping an understanding of audience and purpose without feeling tied to an assigned grade. It is amazing to be a part of it.
My classes have been running as writing workshops. I’ve been using Google Docs so students can make comments and ask questions on their writing and on others. We’ve been conferencing one-on-one. Students who used to look for numbers are now looking for better. And it is amazing.
Not sure how to begin? Talk with your students about using and giving feedback. Equate it to coaching. As their teacher, you are their coach - giving tips and pointers to up their game. Ask them for feedback about what you’re doing as their teacher - as their coach. Check out Laura Reynolds’s article on TeachThought entitled 20 Ways to Provide Effective Feedback. Reach out to your Professional Learning Network and ask around.
Deciding to use feedback-based assessments in my 11th and 12th grade English classroom has changed the way I look at learning. Helping my students understand how to give and take constructive criticism has changed the way they look at learning, too. The growth and maturity I’ve seen from my students has been nothing short of incredible. What happens if we bring feedback-based assessments to all grade levels? Imagine what it would look like if we stop asking students to reach for numbers and instead ask our students to reach for better.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER KATONA MILLER
I’m a freshman in college and for the last three weeks the experiences I have had were awesome, until today. We were assigned our first project in Computer Science 101 and only two days before the due date, my lab partner dropped the class, leaving me to do all the work alone, not that he was much help. I mean, he didn’t even know what he wanted to major in, just that he “liked computers”. I, on the other hand, have known I was going to be a Robotics Engineer since I was in middle school.
Middle school was the first time I got to take a robotics class. It was one of my favorite related arts classes, along with coding, well... all the STEM Technology classes were great even Hydroponics and Fish Farming. By the time I was ready for high school, I was already taking Intermediate Coding (I even knew three different coding languages) and Basic Engineering Classes. In my district there is a special high school dedicated to STEM. They even offered college level classes for credits at a reduced cost! I wanted to take Organic Chemistry and AP Chemistry in high school too, but they didn’t fit into my schedule (I wasn’t going to miss out on AP Physics I and II). I pretty much finished all my high school requirements by senior year, so instead I took college classes online, since our school gave you a free period to work on the material for those classes. Plus with three different colleges offering classes, there were plenty to pick from. High school flew by and before I knew it, I was paying to keep the computer I had used for all four years and graduating with 12 undergraduate credits before I even stepped onto a college campus!
I thought college was going to be fun, instead I think it was a mistake. I was always fascinated with computers (probably because we never had one at home) which is why I picked that as my major, however I just dropped my Computer Science 101 course and I might change my major too. I thought I was prepared, but I guess not. By day two of the class, I had no idea what was going on, nor did I know what they were saying (it felt like they were speaking another language). My lab partner wasn’t even using the computer the college gave us, he was using the computer his high school gave him, and my school didn’t do that. I’m not worried about him though, he will be better off without me.
In middle school, I got to take a typing class once a week for half the year, as part of our related arts classes in 6th grade. It was the first time I got to use a computer. Unfortunately, there were budget cuts and she was furloughed (which I guess means fired, because we didn’t get to take any computer classes again until 9th grade). I occasionally went to the computer lab when the teachers took our classes to type papers, but it wasn’t often. I do remember building a bridge in class and a robot in our after school program the one year, which was cool. The teacher even explained that coding could be used to tell fancier robots what to do (our robots just ran on batteries). High school was better, there weren’t any robotics classes, but my science teacher used Code.org in her class on occasion, and I finally got take a Python coding class sophomore year (it even counted as a math class)! Then again, there weren’t enough students interested in the class, so it didn’t run my junior or senior year. Still, many kids didn’t even take the Python class but I did, so why wasn’t I ready for my college computer science class?
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER BJ ENZWEILER
Recently, I found myself in a rideshare, Lyft if you must know, with a chatty driver. He asked what my job was, and I told him I taught 11th graders physics. Normally when strangers hear what I teach they go on about how they either loved or hated high school physics, but this guy went a different route. He asked me, “Is teaching your calling? Did you always want to be a teacher?” The way he asked if teaching was a calling got me to thinking about that terminology and the expectations that often come with it.
It seems that everyone has their own perceptions of teaching and education, and well, that makes sense because we’ve all had teachers in our lives. But the vast majority of people don’t know what happens in the hours before classroom instruction. The world outside of education has some expectations about our field that are often contradictory and wrong, for example:
The item from that list that frustrates me most is the first one. Teaching is a calling for some in our field but not all. I think that this expectation of the “calling” of education sets an unhealthy precedent for all. Ask anybody in any career, and I think you’ll find that most people seem to just fall into what career they are in. The same goes for teachers. Only a small percentage of the colleagues that I work with every day wanted to be teachers when they were in high school, and I don’t think any of them were divinely inspired to take on this career.
The toxic expectations that I want to focus on in this blog post are the ones that often come to those new to teaching. First and foremost, I have seen too many of my colleagues dedicate so many of their waking hours trying to be the perfect teacher. The fear that comes with letting students down often leads to unhealthy work hours, sacrifices at home, and self-destructive behaviors. In my experience, those with the most unhealthy work hours are those who have the idea in their head that good teachers just work long hours. Again, these expectations are coming from a naive and often over-zealous understanding of excellence in our chosen career.
Second, we teachers know that we didn’t get into education to get rich. It is likely that most people think this about their intended careers, but a teacher who already has the anxieties of their job should not have to worry about money so much that they need another job during the school year. During the school year, roughly 18% of teachers have a second job, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (Scheaffer, 2019). A teacher, just like any other professional, should expect that their career allows them to make ends meet. We should feel more comfortable complaining about this transgression.
Third, the teacher feels responsible for the successes, and especially, the failures of their students. I and many of my peers have had students act up in class, only to be later asked by an administrator or someone else, “What could you have done to build a relationship with this student which could have prevented this?” as if our students are only in the bubble of their school and nothing outside of it affects their behavior. Nevertheless, we internalize these ideas and think about what we could have done. Those moments in the classroom often seem to distract us from anything outside of work.
The effect of these expectations of sacrifice from our teachers is, I think, at the root of our difficulty in keeping teachers. According to the Learning Policy Institute, 8% of all teachers leave the profession every year, and a different 8% of teachers move from one school to another (Carver-Thomas & Darling-Hammond, 2017). These rates of education retention are unacceptable and preventable. The expectations that are placed on teachers by society, their administration, and especially themselves contribute to teacher burnout beyond that of many other careers.
At the risk of being pedantic to the pedagogical, here are some suggestions which should help teachers identify their expectations and find more healthy sustainable practices.
1. Figure out your own efficiencies. For example, many teachers, especially new ones, put too many hours into grading because they want their comments to be useful to the students and agonize over the wording of what they have to say. Stop yourself and examine how long your comments are and how many annotations are you actually going to write out for your students’ work? Only you can figure out that efficacy.
2. Not every lesson needs to be super exciting. Sometimes the students just need to listen to you and learn. Not every day is an adventure on the Magic School Bus, and you’re not Ms. Frizzle.
3. You’re not the teacher of the year… yet. New teachers should not expect to design and/or implement the best version of their curriculum. Recognize that it takes years to build up your personal curriculum and make you amazing.
4. You don’t have to be in charge of everything all the time. What repeatable routines and procedures can you put into place to make your classroom run without you directing everything? How can the students help you with time consuming but easy administrative tasks?
5. Know who you are and where you are. Teaching is a career and that’s it. Yes, you can put some of your self-worth into that career, but if all of your self-esteem is in your job then you’re setting yourself up to burn out.
I eventually told that Lyft driver that I fell into teaching. I didn’t plan on being in this career since I was 11 years old. I do, however, enjoy my job. I think I’m damn good at it, and I want to make sure more people find joy this incredibly rewarding profession. In my opinion, by consistently naming education a calling, we do a disservice to ourselves and disregard the struggles of our chosen career.
Carver-Thomas, D., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2017). Teacher Turnover: Why It Matters and What We Can Do About It. Teacher Turnover: Why It Matters and What We Can Do About It. Learning Policy Institute. Retrieved from https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/sites/default/files/product-files/Teacher_Turnover_REPORT.pdf
Schaeffer, K. (2019, July 1). About one-in-six U.S. teachers work second jobs – and not just in the summer. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/07/01/about-one-in-six-u-s-teachers-work-second-jobs-and-not-just-in-the-summer/.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER DOROTHEA HACKETT
Since my first venture onto the stage as a child, I have loved performing and all things theater. I even approach teaching as theater. I need to get into character to enhance the different personalities of each of the students in my classes.
Twenty-two years ago, I was asked to take over, develop, and teach Theater Arts I and II my high school. I welcomed the opportunity, of course. In developing the curriculum, I had to ask myself, “Who is my intended audience (students) of this elective?” I focused on the students who had an interest in theater and performing. I soon found out I was wrong.
As the class progressed through the years, I found the students who opted for the course to be those on the fringe - the students that had not found their niche, their community, or academic classroom success. In this class, students were hands-on - performing what they had prepared as “homework.” They learned to demonstrate both proper decorum as audience members and appropriate respectful methods to critique a performance not a performer. Students with all abilities - even those with a variety of special needs - were able to gain confidence and succeed in the class. One particular student took the next step to venture into the realm of our theatrical productions.
David [not his real name], a student on the spectrum learned to love the theater. He auditioned for all shows and earned roles in each. David was very fixed in his thinking and in his routine. If it were Wednesday, it was Burger King on the way home, his mother would tell me. Any diversion from this routine would cause stress and/or a complete meltdown. Rehearsals benefited him since he always knew what was going to happen and when. On stage, David had a scene in a café that required him to pull out a cellphone and tell his acting partner, “I’m just going to scroll through this screen looking at girls much hotter than you.” During each rehearsal and for the first night of the show, David came through comfortably. On show two, this changed. David entered the scene, sat at the café, reached into his pocket for his phone and discovered it was not there. Ordinarily, this unplanned occurrence, like missing Burger King on Wednesday, would initiate great stress and a meltdown. I held my breath. Without any break in character, David pushed back in his chair, crossed his arms, looked into the sky and said, “I’m just going to sit here and daydream about girls much hotter than you.” The scene continued without a hitch.
His mother and I were in tears at the rear of the auditorium. She explained to me how monumental that moment was for him to think on his feet and make an adjustment that worked. My tears were of joy and pride for his ability to adapt to the moment which was groundbreaking not only for his development as an actor but also for him as a person. Mom continues to believe that without theater, that would not have happened.
This is just one story of how theater can enhance students’ life experiences. Much empirical data exists to support the importance and benefits of theater instruction; however, nothing has a greater impact than a personal experience like David’s to advocate for inclusiveness and necessity of theater education. I would encourage all teachers in all content areas to find ways to incorporate theater skills into their lessons to reach all of our students and all stakeholders to keep theater education in the forefront of school curriculum and funding decisions.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER ADAM GEBHARDT
My 8th grade class filed into the multipurpose room to sit at the lunch tables for art class where everyone would be working on perspective drawings, except for me. I had a separate table where, for the past few weeks, I had been carefully working on an acrylic painting of two blue jays. Mrs. Nalepa had recognized my interest and talent in art and offered me the opportunity to take a different creative approach to her class with self-guided projects while the rest of my classmates completed the prescribed assignments. After hours of painstaking work, I carefully shuttled the painting home where my parents proudly displayed it for years.
Taking a break from the oil painting in my small studio space with a window overlooking the Tiber river in Rome, I turned around to make a sincere proposal to my painting professor. She had recently laid out the curriculum requiring a finished painting to be turned in each week of the semester. Knowing that my style of painting, which tended to be realistic, would not allow for such a pace, I respectfully asked if I could complete a painting every three weeks with in-progress critiques completed weekly. At the end of the semester, I disappointedly rolled up a dozen unfinished canvases which remain incomplete to this day.
Class after class pours in and out of the art room with barely enough time to transition activities and plan for the next lesson or project. The pace of the curriculum, need for measurable grades, and pressure of presenting a high quality end of the year art show drives the classes onward toward another summer break, yet it is only September. Now that the roles are reversed, I, the teacher, am in the driver’s seat, but I have to stop and wonder if I should be. Who, or what, should drive learning in my classroom? Will I follow in the footsteps of Mrs. Nalepa or my college professor?
This dilemma confronts every teacher as we, the gatekeepers of our students’ education, make daily choices that either permit creative freedom and inspire intrinsic curiosity or conform students to a standard benchmark with rigid learning goals. More than ever, culture and society demand the former from students in the real world while standardized testing, teacher evaluations, and school assessments foster the latter in the educational environment.
Certainly, there is validity in regulated testing and achievement goals, but these should not erase the flexibility of teachers to merge student creativity and interests with quantitatively measured learning progress. Creativity, inspiration, engagement, excitement, interest, passion, and fascination have no numerical score, but they are what fuels intrinsic, life-long learning.
As a student, I experienced the joy of being given the freedom to explore my creative interests as well as the frustration from being denied the same liberty. As a teacher, cognizant of the effect that these experiences had on my education, I have the power to similarly affect my students with my decisions. I hope that I will have the courage to let go of control, refuse to let learning be conformed to predetermined standards, and let my creative, unique students take the wheel.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER DIANA COLE
If you have ever been on a flight, you have heard the same safety drill: Put your own oxygen mask on first, then help others around you. Unless you are taken care of, you cannot effectively help others. In a time where teacher turnover rates are increasing and educators are feeling exponentially stressed, teacher self-care continues to grow in importance.
According to a 2017 study by the American Federation of Teachers, 61% of educators find work "always" or "often" stressful, twice the rate of other workers, while 58% of US teachers reported poor mental health. Outside stressors from administrators, students, parents, and our own personal lives take their toll. However, as educators, we also put a ton of internal pressure on ourselves to perform well and help all our students. Teaching is a mentally and emotionally demanding profession where the weight of our students’ problems are often brought home and are on our minds long into the night. So, what can we do about it? How can we save our sanity while still helping others?
We must start to make our own mental and physical health a priority. Who else finds it easier to just go to work sick instead of calling off, hoping there is a substitute available, writing lesson plans, and praying the work gets completed? However, who does that really help? Nobody. We need to change the culture, guilt, and negative perceptions about taking a sick day to recover.
The first step is to be mindful and accepting that stress is going to happen. We can only control what we can control. How we respond and take care of ourselves should be the focus. We can be agents of change to shift school and personal culture toward wellness and self-care.
Individually, we can incorporate short mindfulness activities in our classrooms with students or during our lunch periods. Mindfulschools.org and the Calm App both have great personal and classroom resources. Even YouTube has a plethora of mindfulness activities. Take time for a short walk outside, a breathing exercise, or five minutes of stretching. It might not seem that we have time for this, but taking a few minutes for ourselves can reset our mind and positively influence the tone for the rest of the day.
As teacher-leaders, as we focus more on our own self-care, we can model this for new teachers as well. A recent poll by the National Education Union shows that more than a quarter of teachers with less than five years’ experience plan to leave the profession by 2024 (The Guardian, 2019). Self-care should be part of university education preparatory programs and school districts should include it in new teacher induction programs to increase teacher retention and reduce burn out.
Recently at Edcamp Central PA, I attended a session on Teacher Self-Care. One participant shared that at her school, a new teacher created an anonymous teacher tip line. Through a Google form, teachers could anonymously report another staff member if they knew they were struggling personally or professionally. Then, this teacher wrote a note of encouragement with a treat and surprised that teacher to brighten their day. To this day, the majority of the staff do not know who is doing this, but it has had a huge impact on the culture of the building. You could even create a TLC or Sunshine group so teachers can tackle this together!
We also need to learn to better balance work and our personal lives. Remove work email from your phone and limit the nights you grade or lesson plan. After having my daughter, I have tried to be more strategic about what I assign my students and how I grade, while still keeping things challenging for my students and providing timely and constructive feedback. Can that quick formative assessment be swapped and peer graded together as a class? Could some assignments incorporate student self-assessment instead? By setting at-home work boundaries for myself, I find I am more focused and productive during my planning and lunch periods.
School districts can support self-care by offering mindfulness or team building activities during in-service and staff meetings. Stress-free times during in-service to decompress could include learning mindfulness techniques, wellness fairs with local health professionals, and team building activities such as escape rooms, board games, or even a friendly ping-pong tournament. Something fun to shift the mood! A quick meditation or breathing activity at the beginning of a faculty meeting can make it more productive.
For some additional ideas regarding teacher self-care and mindfulness, check out the following resources:
Remember: You can’t pour from an empty cup. Fill yours first, then give to others. Also, it’s ok to ask for help with tasks. Less guilt, and more self-care. You’ll find that not only are you happier, but others will be, too.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER PAM GREGG
Most people who know me today could not possibly imagine my student self, trying to be invisible in the classroom throughout my K-12 school career. I have trouble remembering that person myself.
I can remember awesome teachers who tried to reach out to me, but when your condition is chemical and not situational, there was only so much they could do. My anxiety/depression was invisible. I suffered in silence. I didn’t learn coping skills until, when I was in college studying to become a teacher, I was forced to come out of my proverbial shell and perform.
Where did I get my inspiration for my coping skills? From the students who have entered my classroom since the beginning of my career. And I have spent the last 30 years honing and refining these skills while acknowledging the fact that my students could be suffering from any type of invisible and silent condition as well.
I have taught social/emotional learning courses at the graduate level so that teachers can embrace the concept of teaching the whole student, not just the curriculum. Sometimes, especially at the secondary level, it was a tough sell. The social/emotional piece to teaching is huge but often not emphasized as much as it should be.
Let me share a situation that presented itself this past year in my 11th grade Level 1 Composition class. In this class are high level students who opted not to take an AP English class their junior year. I had previously taught middle school, and this year’s juniors I had possibly taught in 7th, 8th, and 9th grades. The rapport established early on was a great starting off point for my juniors. However, one of my juniors this year who is a highly gifted writer suffered in silence as we began to tackle the research paper process which consumes two months of the semester-long course.
This student had mastered the art of looking busy. I had remembered her as being a perfectionist and a hard worker from having her in class before. I also knew that writing was one of her strengths. To read her writing reminded me of high-caliber writing at the university level. So, when I conferenced with her after the research portion of the project, I was shocked to discover that she had lots of sources and no note cards. She was easily a week behind her peers. She, of course, said she was fine and would catch up over winter break.
Fast forward to January, no progress was made on the paper, and the final due date was looming. Here was this brilliant student with a ton of potential in danger of failing my course. She hadn’t started her paper because she had no outline. She hadn’t started her outline because she had no note cards. She was frozen in the process and helpless to find a solution. That’s where I stepped in. She was already in the habit of popping into my classroom at the end of the school day, so I wasn’t surprised when she showed up on my doorstep the day before the paper was due. What I wasn’t expecting was for her to be “fine” one moment and burst into tears the next.
I sat with her and shared my own experience of suffering in silence. She agreed that she had indeed been suffering in silence but had no idea what to do about it. She was overwhelmed with things that were going on at home and not being able to keep up with schoolwork. I stressed the fact that she needed to take a step back, make a plan, and ask for help, none of which would be easy for her to do.
That afternoon marked a turning point for her. Did she have to share everything that was going on in her life? No. She kept asking me, “What about my paper???” To which I responded, “Are you finished suffering in silence? Will you let me help you?” She agreed that she was and she would. I spent the next couple of minutes showing her how easy it was to do one note card electronically using NoodleTools.
She looked me in the eye and said, “That’s it? It’s that easy??” We discussed that it could have been that easy all along and that by allowing herself to suffer in silence she was torturing herself unnecessarily.
So, what is my point here? I now have a mantra that I repeat incessantly. “Don’t suffer in silence.” I share my past experiences in school. I also share situations where a student was frozen, feeling like it was impossible to succeed, and some strategies we worked on together to cope with what seemed to him/her to be an insurmountable situation. There was no one right answer, but by talking with each student, and backtracking to where they shut down and why, he/she was able to start to come up with a plan for success. We should not be afraid to pull from our own personal experiences to show our students that they are not alone.
I am not a guidance counselor, nor would I ever try to “diagnose” my students, but I am an organized problem-solver (to a fault), and I never give up on my students, no matter how many brick walls they try to erect between me and them. We, as teachers, need to acknowledge the fact that that quiet kid in the back of the classroom, who may come across as an underachiever or someone who doesn’t care, needs to know that we are here to help with the roadblocks and that coping skills do exist for those who may suffer in silence.
Blog Post by PTAC Member Denise Williams
Welcome back! I’m excited about the possibilities this year has in store. However, my optimism has required mindfulness and hard work.
Teaching isn’t always rainbows and puppy dogs. Education can be a minefield with long hours, difficult parents, needy students, demanding bosses, and competitive coworkers. It’s easy to focus on the negative. Teaching is also incredibly fulfilling. Recently, I found myself anxious and focusing on the negative. My anxiety was so high that my physical health was adversely affected. I also found it extremely difficult to focus and to be creative. I wasn’t being the best teacher I could be.
This had to stop. I owed it to my students, my family, and myself. Therefore, I sought out a therapist. This was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done. I learned to embrace uncertainty and to focus on the positive.
One of the many resources that helped me is a book entitled, The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. It is as my therapist put it, “A little woo, woo.” It is very spiritual, but the wisdom behind the four agreements is life changing.
The Four Agreements is a practical guide to personal freedom by revealing the source of self-limiting behavior that steals joy and creates suffering. The Four Agreements are a code of conduct that transforms fear into freedom.
The first agreement is to be impeccable with your word. We tell our students to tell the truth, and we need to as well. As Ruiz puts it, “Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.” If a child is told they are stupid, and their mind is fertile for this belief, then the child will formulate this agreement. This agreement will remain until someone captures the child’s attention and convinces them that they are in fact intelligent. The child can then form a new agreement, and as Ruiz puts it, “The whole spell is broken.” This year let’s do this for our students, our colleagues, and ourselves.
The second agreement is to not take anything personally. As teachers we put so much of ourselves into instruction and our classrooms, so this is a tough one. Ruiz makes the point that what others do is not because of you, but because of themselves. It is their reality. Become immune to the opinions and actions of others, and you won’t be the victim of needless suffering. This is especially true when people are trying to send poison your way. If you accept it, their emotional garbage now becomes yours. Our students can also benefit from this agreement, especially when peers are being ugly toward them.
The third agreement is to not make assumptions. Ruiz writes, “Find the courage to ask questions and express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama.” I said in a recent podcast that I would be the worst reporter. I nod to be polite then stew in my own misunderstanding. I have vowed not to make assumptions and ask more questions. I started with my family this past Christmas. My initial interpretations were often incorrect. Asking questions, and learning the truth strengthened my relationships and limited misunderstandings. As educators we can model this with our students and colleagues. Think of yourself as a reporter or detective and have the courage to ask questions. Despite what Jack Nicholson’s character says in a Few Good Men, you can handle the truth.
The fourth and final agreement is to always do your best. Keep in mind that your best is fluid. Your best will be better when you are well-rested and focused as opposed to when you are exhausted and distracted. Basically, don’t under-do it ,and here is the tough one for teachers, don’t over do it. Both take away from your best. Ruiz states, “That simply doing your best under any circumstance, you will avoid self-judgement, self-abuse and regret.” Be a wonderful role model and share this wisdom with underachieving and perfectionistic students and staff. Always do your best with the four agreements. You may not be impeccable with your word one day. Pick yourself up and start over the next. The same is true for the remaining agreements. By the way, always doing your best fits perfectly with promoting a growth mindset and grit. You got this!
Be impeccable with your word, don’t take things personally, don’t make assumptions, and always do you best. Make these four agreements with yourself and encourage your students to do the same. Fear and anxiety will be transformed into freedom and happiness. I wish you the best on your mindful journey. Take care and have a wonderful school year.
Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee