I’m Here To Learn

A little about me in the month before my first year begins

To be perfectly honest, I’m nervous about my first year of teaching. I’ve spent the summer
reviewing learning theory and teaching strategies, reading radical books about equity and power dynamics in the classroom, building an elaborate teacher emergency kit filled with everything from pepto to a tiny hair straightener, and trying to find the courage to refresh my memory of physics. Yes, physics – the subject that sends shivers down the spines of rising high school juniors and, for many others who have taken the course, flashbacks of nightly fifty-problem homeworks straight from the textbook.  Physics has a bad reputation of being isolating and difficult. As someone who struggled through physics courses in both high school and college, I know first hand how true that can be.

Early in my college career, I was determined to become a math teacher through the more common route of majoring in physics with a minor in education but I quickly became overwhelmed by the independent lecture/homework structure of learning in college level math classes. In hindsight, it seems like fate that I took my first education course during my second attempt at Calculus II; the more I suffered in math, the more I ached for a learning environment that used research-based strategies and theories to ensure the understanding of its students. I was introduced to the idea of learning communities, classroom structures that encourage students to learn collaboratively towards shared goals, and I constantly imagined how such communities could improve my
experience in math. I continued taking Calc II until I passed it on the fourth try, having changed my major to Philosophy and taken on a fifth year of private university to do so. By then, I was hell-bent on teaching math with learning theory in mind so I pursued a Master of Arts in Teaching.

I took a long, difficult, and less travelled road to becoming a teacher and I believe that I’m
personally the better for it. I’ve learned how to work hard and recover from failure, I’ve met a network of creative and intelligent people through talking about my own passions, and I’ve been given many exciting opportunities like this one by being willing to take risks with people I trust.

How I’m going to make my teaching intellectual my first year

My experiences in education and philosophy over the last six years have instilled in me a love of research and self-reflective learning. It seems that the natural progression of this would be to participate in some scholarly exploration in my first year of teaching. Similarly, it seems natural that I should continue to be mentored by a faculty member who guided me through academic and professional quandaries in the past. With Heather’s encouragement and knowledge of the process, I’ll be improving my teaching this year through action research.

I believe that the best way to become good at anything is to study it. I don’t want to just keep my head above water this year; conducting action research will allow me to hone my craft and provide my students with a thoughtful and intentional academic experience that considers their social, emotional, and academic needs through community-based learning. I’m still nervous but I know exactly where to channel that excited energy: becoming the best teacher I can be.

Now some things I want to know from you!

How are other first year teachers reflecting on their practice?
What are other first year teachers reflecting on? (parent communication, reading instruction, etc.)
Can action research help me be a better teacher?

First year teacher – passionate about community and equity

We Need To Talk About Punishment

Recently, after working with teachers on shifting our approach from punishing to teaching, a teacher in attendance emailed me saying, “At first, I wasn’t sure I was going to “buy in to it.”But the more I thought about it, the more compelled I felt.”  Such a powerful statement and one I’ve thought about since.  Let’s talk this through.

Everything we do has consequences.  Every decision we make has consequences.

Punishment, however, is not a natural consequence of an action or decision.  Punishment is enacted upon us “as retribution for an offense” (Merriam-Webster).

Kids make mistakes.  They do things that don’t make sense, that we don’t understand, that we can’t explain.  There are consequences for those mistakes.  If you forget your lunch, you eat whatever the cafeteria gives you.  That is a natural consequence for forgetting your lunch.  A punishment for forgetting your lunch would be a teacher taking away recess or imposing detention on you in addition to the natural consequence of a fruit cup and carrot sticks for lunch.  Is that necessary?  Does it teach?

The thing we’re selling – that the above mentioned teacher was unsure about buying, was the belief that, as teachers, we must teach.  Teach the behaviors we want to see.  Teach them again.  Reteach.  Reinforce.

Punishment doesn’t teach.

I have a tendency to drive too fast.  Rarely, I get speeding tickets.  It stings for a bit.  I pay the fine (punishment) but it does not have a lasting effect on my behavior.  I still speed.  I just hope I don’t get caught.

Our learners approach our punishments similarly.  Okay, think of the last kid from whom you took five minutes of recess.  Was it a one-time consequence?  Did the behavior you were modifying disappear?  Probably not.  Generally, kids who miss minutes of recess, miss those minutes of recess frequently.  Which is all the evidence we need that the punishment is not changing the behavior.

Maybe we are not intending for it to change the behavior?  Maybe we just want to show the learner who is boss.

Either way, the single most important factor in any teaching/learning dyad is the relationship between the teacher and the learner.  Kids do not learn from people they do not like or people whom they perceive do not like them.  We must like kids!  (I know you’re rolling your eyes at me right now but this is a critical characteristic of strong, persistent educators!).  Tell kids the things they do that you like!  Ask them questions about themselves and listen to their answers!  Be intentional about this.  Make note of the learners you’re most likely to miss and plan your connections with those students.  Document your connections each day to make your patterns visible and give yourself some insight into where you may need to put more effort.  Not every learner comes to us naturally so make it a priority to identify those on the fringes.  Build your community from the outside in.

As the teacher, you get to decide your role in your classroom.  You can be the police officer, the warden, the guide, the zookeeper, or the facilitator.  You can catch kids making mistakes, breaking rules, being noncompliant or you can gain their cooperation through intentional relationship building, empathy, and understanding.

How do you build community in your classroom?  What challenges do you face in gaining the cooperation of your learners and how we can help you solve them?

Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??).  I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.

Embracing Failure

I am a big fan of mistake making.  Well, not the making of the mistakes part so much but of the learning from mistakes, expecting mistakes, embracing mistakes.  What if we flip the narrative on failure and, since we know mistakes happen, we anticipate them and respond to them with enthusiasm?

Okay, stick with me here.  Enthusiasm may be a little . . . enthusiastic?

Looking back on a 20 year career in education, I see so many mistakes, of course, and some outright fails.  I’ll never ever forget the time I, with four other teachers, took 32 4-year-olds on a bus field trip.  Left the school, counted everyone multiple times, went to find my seat with my buddy, only to realize he was still sitting in the exact spot – AT THE SCHOOL – where I asked him to wait for me.  We turned the bus around, of course, and raced back to him (he was still waiting patiently) but I could not shake that off.  Even now it haunts me.

Some mistakes are bigger than others. Every last one is a learning opportunity.

I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by mentors and colleagues and friends who embrace my failures with me, who lift me up, who help me see the learning opportunities presented in my failures.  I’m currently in the midst of my biggest professional failure yet.  In that failure, though, so many opportunities have developed.  Opportunities for growth, for challenge, for learning, for teaching, for building resilience, for growing my network, for failing out loud so maybe others can do the same.  Failure also, of course, invites self doubt, shame, embarrassment, to name a few.  So, as I reflect on my own mistakes, missteps, shortcomings, and failures, I often consider how our interactions with learners shape their relationship with failure.  How did I learn how to fail and how am I teaching others about failure?

Well, it’s a delicate balance, right?

We want to embrace failure as a part of learning.  Einstein said, (according to the internet) “You never fail until you stop trying.”  We want to build resiliency in learners.  We want our learners to always be willing and ready to try try again.  We know perfectionism puts limitations on learners’ willingness to take chances, ask questions, seek creativity. However, we also don’t want to embrace mistakes to the point where we accept failure.  Failure has to sting a little in order for it to motivate us, right?

I teach and learn with college students.  Say what you will about this generation of young people but I will defend their work ethic, their creativity, and their dedication to my last breath.  I see a fear of failure in them, a fear of risk taking, a fear of creative problem solving, though. Not because, they want their hands held, but because the consequences of any mistake have been so so steep.  My coursework is ungraded, due dates are flexible, engagement and iterative feedback is essential.  Students find this terrifying.  They struggle to trust that I won’t come with a guillotine on the last day.  Mistake making and embracing failure requires trust.

Teaching and learning depends on trusting relationships.  Full stop.

How do you build learning communities with high expectations, meaningful and trusting relationships, and a willingness to fail out loud?

We must be someone students can trust to launch them from failures into learning.  In what ways do you fail out loud with your learners and help them do the same?

 

Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??).  I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.

4 Ways You Can Take Action As A Teacher

As a teacher I want action. As a teacher I want to be able to tell my students that they are safe at school. I also want to tell my students they are safe at home. I want my students to BE SAFE. As a teacher I want this to be understood-gun violence is an issue that goes further than the classroom.

The heated debate for the call for teachers to bear arms has encouraged me to do two things:

  1. Take responsibility for understanding the issue of gun violence as a whole through research.
  2. Find ways I can access my voice and power to end gun violence.

How can we take action? How can we turn our sadness, our pain and our anger into change?

Get informed.

I am a teacher, but first I am a student. My research started with Everytown.org, this nonprofit is the largest gun prevention organization in the country. I encourage you to spend some time on this website, reading on the many facets that make up gun violence within our country. This is what stood out to me:

-In America, an average of 96 people are killed each day.

-7 of these people are under 19 years old.

-About 62% of firearm deaths are suicide.

-America has a gun homicide rate that is 25 time higher than any other developed country.

-Gun violence disproportionately impacts the lives of people of color.

In order to prevent gun violence, we must understand where it comes from.

As a teacher, I am enraged. I am frustrated that the issue of guns has turned into an issue of guns in schools.

I have created a new mantra:

Turn rage into action.

My steps to taking action thus far:

  1. Vote. Find out who on your ballot supports gun reform and head out to the polls!
  2. End political funding from the National Rifle Association. Use this link to Follow the NRA Money  and call members of Congress that receive funding from the NRA for their campaigns.
  3. Share your voice! March for change. Start a conversation with a friend or family member.
  4. Make your voice heard. Encourage Call, email, text your legislators encouraging them to keep our students safe by:
    1. Creating stronger and more thorough background checks for firearm sales.
    2. Increasing the age for gun purchasing and handling to 21.
    3. Creating red flag laws. (When a person is exhibiting warning signs that they will harm themselves or others, families have the opportunity to seek help from court to have firearms removed. After judge considers evidence they order an Extreme Risk Protection Order or Gun Violence Restraining Order. This prohibits possession or purchasing of firearms for up to one year. Currently 6 states have passed this law, while 22 states have introduced this legislation.)

Turn rage into action in the classroom.

As educators, we are responsible for molding our student’s perspective of our country and government. How can we demonstrate civic responsibility? How can we engage our students in government a meaningful and appropriate way?

What other ways are you getting involved? Share below!

Works Cited

“Fatal Injury Reports,” Injury Prevention & Control: Data & Statistics (WISQARS), accessed December 23, 2017 http://1.usa.gov/1plXBux’]

Teaching is Political

In teacher education programs, we have a responsibility to prepare future teachers for the civic profession of education.  For me, this means registering students to vote in my classes, advocating for political activism, and encouraging them to see themselves as agents of political change (and to act accordingly!).

Teaching is political.

I’m following the walk outs in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky closely as their demands are the demands of educators across the nation.  Education has been deeply underfunded for two decades and low teacher salaries is just one of many far reaching consequences of political funding decisions.  Without funding, we are incapable of providing the supports necessary for meaningful inclusion of all learners.  Without funding, we are unable to promote professional growth and development of teachers to become and grow as teacher leaders.  Without funding, we struggle to convince exemplary teachers to host and mentor teacher interns. Our ability to recruit and retain the most engaging, responsive, empathetic, caring educators is compromised by our society’s weak commitment to education.

Our budget reflects our values.  Despite the teacher appreciation week festivities, as a country we do not value teachers or educational spaces.

Teaching is political.

So how can you get involved in moving teaching to a respected profession?

Join your professional organization!!  Join the Council for Exceptional Children if you are a special educator, the Division of Early Childhood and the National Association for the Education of Young Children for inclusive early childhood educators, the National Council for Teachers of English for you Language Arts educators.  Whatever your speciality, your professional organization needs you and your expertise!

REGISTER.  TO.  VOTE.  AND.  VOTE.  In every election.  In your local elections, school boards, city council, and mayor.  Vote in your state election, on education proposals, and community works initiatives.  Know your community’s priorities and engage in advocating for education.  Vote at the state and national level.  Know who you are voting for and what they believe about kids, teachers, education, and funding.  Track their votes so you can vote them out if they haven’t represented education well in the past.

We collectively make up the profession and we can ensure it reflects our collective values.  We can advocate for children, for teachers, for families, for resources.  We can make our voices heard.

I know you are tired.   

But teaching is political.  And so are you.

 

Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??).  I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.

What Teachers Want: A Call To Arm

There are many facets to the current debate over gun control, but a lot of focus has fallen on two extremes. One extreme is a call to ban all guns. On the opposite side, there is a call for teachers to be armed. As a teacher, I find the idea of arming teachers to be ludicrous for many reasons.

I was called to teach. I was not called to arms.

My job as a teacher is much more than just knowing content and how to deliver it to a teenage audience. I’m also a counselor, cheerleader, parent and confidant to hundreds of students every year. I call them “my kids” for a reason. I love them. I want to nurture them into kind, open-minded, knowledgeable individuals, and of course– to protect them.  Would I defend them if a gun were pointed at them? Yes.

But I was called to teach. I was not called to arms.

To quote my friend and colleague, Rebecca Field, who wrote “An open letter from a furious Henrico teacher,” “At the end of my teaching contract, it says that I will perform ‘other duties to be assigned.’ I do not interpret these words ‘as bleeding to death on the floor of my classroom.’” Nor is it in my contract that I have to protect my students with a gun. Would I be able to use a gun on a student I know? No.

I was called to teach. I was not called to arms.

Financially, arming and educating teachers how to operate a gun is impossible. State and federal funding for schools is and always has been low. Many schools can’t afford to give teachers basic classroom supplies, to send teachers to state required professional development, or to give them a step in their pay each year. If schools can’t even buy their teachers whiteboard markers, how would they afford to buy each teacher a gun? Lock boxes? Ammunition? If schools can’t even pay for teachers’ continuing education in the content they teach, how would they afford gun safety training? If schools can’t even give teachers the next step up in their pay, how would they afford to offer teachers a bonus for being armed? It would cost billions of dollars that do not exist, and even if they did, those taxpayer dollars be better spent on mental health services and social-emotional learning in the classroom. Or on books that teach students compassion. Or on making smaller class sizes so teachers have more time to get to know their students.

We were called to teach. We were not called to arms.

We, teachers, call to be armed with more counselors, social workers, school psychologists, and nurses in our schools. We call to be armed with community support to make our schools educational, cultural, and healthy environments. We call to be armed with the knowledge that our students are safe from violence while they are in our buildings.

We were called to teach. We were not called to arms.

Neither banning all guns nor arming teachers are solutions to making our schools safe from gun violence. The Second Amendment can’t be entirely undone. Guns won’t simply disappear. However, the answer is definitely not more guns, especially in our schools. The answer is to empower teachers to use tools of teaching, not war.

Again, I say, we were called to teach. We were not called to arms.

 

 

Meredith Sizemore Swain has taught middle and high school English in both rural and urban counties. Meredith is currently taking the year off from teaching to be a stay-at-home mom to Claire, 3 months old.

Every Classroom, Every Day: Rethinking Inclusion

 What is Special Education?

When I began my undergraduate studies in Elementary and Special Education, I hoped to gain a deeper understanding of how to support students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) within the general education classroom. I viewed the work of special education as a fund of knowledge that I would utilize as a teacher within the general education classroom in order to best meet the learning needs of all my students. However, as I began my field experiences, I realized that to many, special education was not a series of supports or a teaching methodology, but rather a room where students could be placed and sent. Special education was often thought of as the room at the end of hall, designed so that general education teachers could avoid “challenges” and “additional work” in their classroom.

As a result of these experiences, I believe we need to rethink how we define special education and inclusion. The implementation of special education services does not fall on one teacher, in one classroom; rather it is the work of every teacher, in every classroom, every day, for every child. Special education is individualized services and supports. It is a collaborative effort by educators, parents and guardians, administration, and specialists  to provide each student with necessary services, such as speech and language services, occupational therapy, and physical therapy. It is the implementation of supports, such as academic differentiation, assistive technology, and universal design, which allow all students access to academic and social opportunities in a variety of settings. When we consider special education as a set of supports, instead of a room or profession, we can begin to truly teach our students and create inclusive environments.

Resource Rooms, Self-Contained Classrooms, & Inclusion

As stated in IDEA, students with IEPs are to be taught in the least restrictive environment, the setting in which their academic and social needs are best met. Therefore, schools have created resource rooms and self-contained classrooms as a place for students with IEPs to receive instruction. However, I find these rooms are often overused or resorted to simply because they exist. This is not to say that these classrooms do not benefit some children, and for a very few students these rooms may provide the best and least restrictive learning environment. However, these settings are not what define special education. These settings cannot be the only place in which a student receives individualized accommodations.

I am a firm believer in meaningful inclusion. Conversely to how resource rooms provide students with additional supports in an alternative environment, inclusion works to provide students with support and accommodations within the general education classroom. Benefits to promoting inclusion are the social opportunities students have to collaborate with peers and access to general education curriculum.

However, right now, we are not doing our best work. In my field experiences, I have often seen “inclusion” as students with IEPs sitting on their own, not being accommodated to participate in whole group instruction or collaborative work, not being supported as a member of the classroom community. General education teachers either do not feel it is their responsibility to teach these children, or they simply do not know how to teach them. However, if we want to see students grow in academic and social skills, we need to shift our thinking to all teachers becoming special educators.

Teachers who have focused on and studied special education are essential to our school community.  They maintain a deep knowledge of how to accommodate learners, but their work should not be done alone. General education teachers must embrace that we are here to teach all children. Just as we differentiate and enrich learning for students in the general education classroom, we, too, should be implementing accommodations and providing differentiation to students with different needs.

Implementing Inclusion

As we go forth in our movement for inclusion, it is imperative that we begin to redefine and deepen our understanding of what special education is. Special education is not the room at the end of the hall, where we can send children with IEPs when we do not know how to support them. Additionally, those with titles and degrees in special education are not the only ones who teach students with differing needs. The work of special education must occur in every classroom, every day. If we are truly working to build students up as lifelong learners and active community members, we all must be willing to collaborate to implement a continuum of services across our school community, so that all students have equitable access to both academic and social opportunities for personal growth.

 

Abby is a senior at Saint Louis University, studying Elementary Education with a minor in Special Education. She enjoys knitting, baking, and making school a better experience for all students.

Things I Know

  • Educational contexts will not improve until we demand professionalism of the field. That begins in teacher education. Set a high bar for faculty. Teacher education is not a place for career teachers to transition. It’s a career in and of itself with specific knowledge and skills separate from those demanded in K12 environments.
  • Parenting is hard and no supports exist for doing it well. Everyone is not an expert on child development nor does everyone have access to an expert on child development. Unrealistic expectations abound and parents and kids struggle as a result.
  • Every. Single. Person. is doing the best they can with what they have. Behavior is communication and serves a purpose so seek to understand rather than punish. Address the cause of the behavior rather than the behavior itself.
  • Mistakes are unavoidable and necessary components of learning.
  • Typical grading systems do not reflect learning.  They’re more reflective of compliance with teacher preferences.  If you give/get attendance points, drop a letter grade for late submission, or in any other way use grades to compel behavior, you are abusing the system.  Grades are communication of mastery.  That’s it.  Not behavior.
  • Meaningful inclusion means each and every learner is a valued member of the classroom and school community. Supports are in place in order to reach the high expectations set for each student.  Fair is not always equal as we each need different supports for success.
  • Every.  Single.  Family.  Loves their child and is doing the absolute best they can with their specific realities.  Empathy is foundational to effective teaching.

What do you know?  Tell me!!

Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??).  I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.