BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER ANN SCHMIDT
I sit here on April 1 and nothing about it feels like an April Fools’ Day. We are now in a shelter in place situation, schools have been closed down for two and half weeks and will remain that way indefinitely. What does indefinitely mean? What does that look like? This is all new territory for all of us. As teachers, we crave that normal routine, the interaction with students, the ebb and flow of the school day. Now we all sit here, in front of our computers trying to deliver instruction, continue and nurture our connections with students and try to process the ever-evolving information about COVID-19.
This past Monday, our amazing Digital Film and Video teacher had her students share their films documenting their daily lives during this shelter in place order. While many have been observing this order, our students have been adjusting to this new normal as best as possible. The sobering reality for me, was the students who shared their unique perspective during this time. Many lamented that their senior year was looking like nothing they recognized, others shared they were still reporting to work and even one who shared that their parents were laid off or had hours cut back. Their jobs vary from being food service workers at the retirement center, to the grocery store and other essential services that they are fulfilling. Many were asking for more employment to fill in the lost wages of a parent or guardian. One of my colleagues shared that one student apologized for not completing their work, as they were now working full-time to help supplement the family’s income.
As I reflect on these stories, it struck me that while so many remain home, doing what we can, we have students who are experiencing this traumatic time while their normal routine and social structures have been completely disrupted. What will be the emotional toll of this time, how will we as educators and school districts be prepared to address the needs of our students when social distancing is the new norm? Now more than ever, we need to put compassion first, strive to help students learn to grow and develop resiliency through this challenging time. Grades and content should be a far second during this national crisis we are all experiencing. Please don’t discount the perspective of our students and the lens from which they see all this unfolding. It is critical to keep this student perspective in the forefront of our planning as we move forward, not just now, but when that day comes and we eventually return to the brick and mortar school.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER HOLLIE WOODARD
Hollie Woodard’s piece is cross-posted from her personal blog, The Red Flag Parent.
From this point forward the word CAN’T can no longer be used in education. For those of us on the educational advocacy front line, the word CAN’T has proven to be our biggest adversary. In 6 short, yet seemingly long, instructional days, the word CAN’T has been pushed aside by the biggest educational decision-makers in the country and WE MUST has been replaced pushing all educators and educational decision-makers into uncertain and new areas of innovation.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not in any way downplaying the serious immediate and long-term health and economic issues associated with this virus, but as I sit at home contemplating an array of emotions regarding the field that I am most passionate, I can’t help but feel hope.
I’m a relentless educational advocate. I work hard to shine a light on the ways we are getting education wrong in PA. This is why if you are one of my colleagues or friends, you have also spent part or even most of our relationship mad or annoyed at me because I have unapologetically pushed you out of your comfort zone by identifying how you contribute to the problem.
The focus of my advocacy has been special education, digital equity, and 21st Century teaching practices. As the mother of a child with special needs, I have first-hand experience with the problems in special education, specifically in the way in which dyslexia is handled...or often not handled...by public education. I serve on the ACT Leadership Committee of Decoding Dyslexia PA and work with a group of amazing dedicated parents and grandparents of special education students who share my same experience. We work to use our collective voices and skills to try to change special education in PA. In addition, I currently serve as the Advocacy Chair of PAECT (Pennsylvania Association for Educational Communications and Technology) which is a team of dedicated Pennsylvania educators and administrators who work tirelessly to support educators in their quest for 21st century best practices. Because of the diverse economic and geographic demographics of students in PA, digital equity is an issue that PAECT passionately advocates for, and as the Advocacy Chair, I have taken the lead in the equity battle. Finally, I’m entering my third year as a KTI (Keystone Technology Innovators) Lead Learner. KTI Lead Learners are a squad of award-winning innovative educators in the state of PA who volunteer to work all year long and give up most of their summer vacation to prep and provide a week-long professional development with a focus on 21st Century Educational Best Practices for selected teachers in the Commonwealth.
I and my like-minded advocacy warriors have long battled in the educational arena, armed with tiny battery operated LED flashlights, tirelessly fighting to shine a light on these educational challenges. However, in one giant burst of lightning, COVID-19 has forced educational decision-makers into that same arena requiring them to not only talk about issues in Special Education, digital equity, and 21st Century teaching practices but to solve them as well.
My advice to those leaders who now find themselves in this new scary world of uncertainty, where decisions are no longer dictated by the proverbial WE CAN’T, is to tell them that they are not alone in this battle. Turn to those who have been screaming, yelling, whispering, posting, tweeting, and arguing WE MUST and ask them to collaborate. You know who we are...and we’re ready to help.
COVID-19 will no doubt serve as a notable marker in our human timeline in which we talk about what life was like before the virus and then after the virus. While it will challenge and stretch the resiliency and survival skills of mankind, it already has done the same for education. The innovation we generate to provide FAPE, digital equity, and virtual learning will no doubt generate much needed educational change, but most importantly what COVID-19 is doing and why I believe it is the Educational Advocate of the Century, is that it is showing us that WE CAN.
Blog Post by 2020-21 PA Teacher of the Year and PTAC member Joe Welch
Each week, PA Teacher of the Year Joe Welch will be sharing his experiences and thoughts as we all work through the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. His posts are cross-posted from his personal blog, Inclined to Teach.
As some teachers are about to officially begin their continuity of education plans and some of us about about to enter into our third week of distance learning, or some name thereof, I feel that the emotion that I have battled most for two weeks was the feeling of being overwhelmed.
For me, the most stressful time of the school year had been the first weeks of school. There would be level of wanting everything to be just perfect, long hours each day trying to learn about your new students, setting up locker tags to make students feel comfortable, answering questions, and never really knowing where the next meeting invite would come from.
After experiencing two weeks of virtual learning, the emotions that I personally have experienced have been very similar. You think that you have a handle on what the next day is going to look like and you may even have a task list ready to go. But, here comes the next Zoom invite. Here comes the next e-mail that will “just take a few seconds to respond to”, so you go to it and put down what you had been working on. Here comes that time when you sit down to relax and a student reaches out with an email. This has been the new first two weeks of school, when hours of when teaching time ends and when family time begins.
My own lists have gotten continually longer each day, and no matter what I complete, I replace a task with two more. It is a mix of the movie Groundhog Day and the feeling of running in quicksand. Having two children of my own learning at home has certainly compounded this, but, the first thing to be crossed off my list to manage tasks has been diet and exercise. Although essential to mental health, it is just too easy to say “I’ll deal with that later.”
So how have I started to manage this feeling of being overwhelmed:
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER DR. COLLEEN EPLER-RUTHS
Have you ever noticed what the scientists look like in the cartoons? You know - those crazy white-haired guys? Even better, have you ever done a Google search of “famous scientists” or “famous engineers”? Go ahead - I will wait…
. . .What did you see? Yep, for the most part you saw those same old white-haired guys. Stereotypes generally do come from somewhere. However, stereotypes lead to some problems with students who don’t fit the mold. Is STEM open to someone who looks different than the stereotype? Is there something we can do to intervene so that anyone can believe they can be a STEM professional? How can we encourage women and minorities to embrace science?
One program that seeks to encourage more women is the The STEP Up program, sponsored by the American Association of Physics Teachers. STEP Up is a research-based set of lessons and practices designed for physics teachers to incorporate in the classroom to help encourage more women to consider earning an undergraduate degree in physics. Many of the practices from STEP Up would work equally well to encourage other underrepresented students populations to consider any type of STEM career. The STEP Up project lays out “Every Day Actions for Educators” to give classroom teachers ideas on ways to make the STEM class more inclusive for everyone.
“Every Day Actions” spells out ideas about best ways to interact with students either individually or in a group. In addition, there are recommendations on best ways to facilitate group work and ideas to consider when planning lessons and assessing students. Together, these research-based actions will create a better and equitable environment for all students.
When planning lessons, the teacher sets the tone for positive attitudes towards STEM. Make sure everyone can participate, collaborate, and receive attention in the class. Find topics that resonate with students’ values, experiences, and interests. Unfortunately, female interests are less likely to be incorporated into STEM lessons, so find a way to add content about women’s sports or activities. At the same time, females tend to be more anxious about getting good grades. Help your students with growth mindset ideas that lower grades do not mean failure. Always ask yourself if your lessons have a wide variety of contexts and are equitable.
When interacting with students, always encourage and explicitly reinforce your students’ abilities. Recognize students when they work hard, even if they don’t quite succeed. I love to tell my students to “Fail Boldly” to help them overcome being discouraged by set-backs. Support new opportunities and learn what students value so you can tie your STEM lessons to your student’s values and passions.
Next, make the group work about equality. Make sure each student has an opportunity to be an active participant and contribute to group discussions. Research shows that female students are often marginalized in STEM settings due in part to having less experience with the various tools and techniques. Make sure you choose your groups wisely and scaffold group collaborations so that everyone contributes and has a voice.
Finally, be an advocate for your students outside of the classroom. Research shows that students who persist in STEM careers are influenced by others beside the teacher. Unfortunately, some students do not get an opportunity to build relationships with STEM professions because they do not have access through family or community connections. Reach out to other teachers, counselors and parents to leverage their help to find STEM opportunities to help build STEM relationships for your students. Look for activities for your students outside of school like coding competitions, Saturday science at museums, or open houses at observatories. Even visits to state parks might bring your students in touch with biologists and astronomers. Bring guest speakers into the classroom either in person or through the wonder of technology. These are just a few ways to advocate for your students.
If every teacher who interacts with students in math, science, technology and engineering would add these “Every Day Actions” into their STEM classrooms, we can begin to overcome some of those stereotypes about what a scientist looks like. If you are interested in knowing more about the STEP up lessons, go to the https://engage.aps.org/stepup/home to download the lessons and practices. Our goals should be to have the graduating STEM professional look more like the whole USA population spectrum. Then, we will know we have succeeded when the scientists in the cartoons are women and the Google search engine finds a kaleidoscope of engineers.
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.
Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee