When Social Media & Professionalism Mash Up

Scrolling through social media, as I often mindlessly do, I am repeatedly reminded of the powerful educators with whom I am in community. It is not my community. It is a community in which I am a learning, growing, contributing member. These educators inspire me, motivate me, encourage me, and remind me of the change we can be in the world. This community is fiercely inclusive and we challenge ourselves to better understand what that means in the “real world” — a world that is fiercely exclusive. We know how hard we have to work to meaningfully and intentionally include each child who struggles to meet adult expectations and each adult with whom we disagree. But we actively try. We try to make each other better today than we were yesterday, we call each other out when it’s necessary, and we celebrate the smallest victories because we know this work is so hard.

This is the community I choose. The community I grow. The community I champion.

So when, during that mindless social media scrolling, I see teachers complaining about the challenges of their job, the antics of a particular learner that day, or the ridiculousness of some new accountability measure, I am disheartened. Not because I can’t relate to the need to vent, or because I don’t understand just how hard it is, or because I can’t take a joke. But because when teachers mock kids or diminish kids on social media, I wonder how they make that same child feel in their classroom. And I wonder how the kid’s loved ones would feel if they saw their child’s bad day or bad moment posted for all the teacher’s friends, family, and followers to laugh, shame, tsk tsk, or sympathize.

I think about how I would react if I saw my own children referred to on their teachers’ social media.

Actual posts:

improvement for the day: student pees on the bathroom floor instead of in my lap #itsthelittlethings

Well, buddy, I wouldn’t give you the death stare if you were doing what I told you to do. #teacherproblems

One day I’m going to slip and tell a parent their kid is the reason I drink so much.

My sped babies loved it too! (PSA:  Sped is the past tense verb of speed; sped is NOT an adjective that describes a person. And children in elementary school are not babies.  Our language reflects our values.)

These are the things you say to your partner, to your best friend, to your cat. I definitely get it.  I have very stressful, difficult days, too.  But these are not the things you put out into the cyber. If you have a social media profile to showcase your work, it should highlight your ability to see students in their full complexity and to honor their humanity, illustrate the dynamic and complex environments of education, elevate the knowledge and skills the best teachers possess.

Part of my responsibility to the field is to support future teachers  in preparing their social media world for their professional life. That means removing pictures of beer pong and spring break. It may even mean setting up new “adult” accounts. It always means many serious conversations about never ever posting about children they interact with professionally. The children you teach are not your children, despite your love and commitment to them. You do not have the right to post about them. Their faces, their bathroom issues, their annoying habits. Not. For. Social. Media. You are a teacher. It’s an awesome responsibility. A position of power. One of great influence, the potential to build a child up or tear that same child to shreds. Use your powers for good.

As we build teachingisintellectual’s profile on social media and within the education community, we remain steadfast in our commitment to the integrity of learners.  Every learner has value, all behavior is communicating a child’s feelings or needs, and all educators are adults in these spaces.  Let’s lift learners up, see and celebrate their strengths, and promote education as a profession.

How have your social media habits changed since you became a teacher?  How do you use social media to promote your work and your profession?  Have you had any really positive or really negative experiences from using social media professionally that you can share?

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 Has Changed Since We Were Kids

I am finding myself rageful lately.  The politics in this country no longer reflect dialogue I’m even remotely familiar with and each day we experience a new tragedy or outrage that we no longer even seem to notice.

As we reel and stumble to make sense of our public health crisis of mass shootings by white men, I keep hearing the question, “what has changed since we were kids?”

Everything.

No, I’m not talking about “family values” or about God in the lives of Americans or about women in the workplace.  In terms of money and national values, though, much has changed.

Politics

The wealth gap in the US is widening annually – currently bigger than ever.

Voter suppression and gerrymandering have had a huge impact on who is elected into office.

Citizens United and campaign finance laws have contributed to the movement toward kleptocracy.

To name a few . . . little things add up and become big things.  Our legislative branch has ground to a halt, adversarial, vindictive, ineffective, and unaccountable.

Education

NCLB created necessary, but deeply flawed, accountability measures for districts, teachers, and states.  These high stakes measures, in my opinion, changed the face of education in our country.

More and more kids and families living in poverty means more needs to meet in schools.  Intense demands to make ends meet creates stress in families.

State and federal budgets have consistently demonstrated a lack of commitment in public education resulting in teachers and administrators forced to do much much much more with far less.

To name a few . . . little things add up and become big things.  Our dialogue has diminished to a blame game, all or nothing, you’re with me or you’re against me.

So what?

We have a disconnect between policy and practice in public education.  We have underresourced, overstretched teachers and administrators.  And teachers are as variable as the rest of us – some literally save lives, some do damage, some fall somewhere in between.  We have learners and their families with vast needs, some we cannot even begin to comprehend.  We have refugee children in our classrooms – literally escaping war zones.  Are we trauma informed enough for that?  We have huge challenges and far too few solutions.

I don’t claim to have the answers but I do know there is no one answer and there is no one blame.  It’s not JUST access to weapons of war (although that is a big one, and one we can easily change . . . with our votes).  It’s not JUST parents who don’t care or don’t discipline or don’t go to church or don’t teach manners (this narrative needs to be silenced, it is not productive or accurate, support families always).  It’s not JUST teachers who are stretched too thin (another narrative that is played out, support teachers always).  It’s not JUST poverty.  It’s not JUST white supremacy or bullying or video games.

Every child is a unique being experiencing the world in his unique way.  Your interactions make a mark.  Every.  Single.  Time.  You never know what someone carries away from their experience with you.  Show compassion.  Empathy.  Give the benefit of the doubt.  Focus on strengths.  See the good in others.  FIND good in others.  When you feel yourself making a judgement about someone else’s choices, reframe that judgement into a strengths-based statement.  “Fourth graders should know how to walk quietly down the hall by now” could be reframed into “We all need reminders some days, let’s talk about how we move through our school building.”  Simple switches that lift and teach.

Action Steps

Embrace mistakes.  Teach from mistakes.  Forgive mistakes.  See the humanity in others, empathize, care.  Less talking, more listening.  Seek to understand.  Vote.  March.  Participate.  Engage, and listen.

What’s changed since we were kids, I think, is that we’re the adults now.  And there’s no assault weapons ban, there’s student loan debt, and wages are stagnant, health insurance premiums are stupid expensive, and the shrinking middle class can’t keep up.  Americans are stressed to the max and desperate people do desperate things in small and big ways.

Also I don’t think it was all rainbows and butterflies when we were kids.  But time has a way of fuzzing the edges and filtering the blemishes.  And there wasn’t easy access to weapons of war.

I am reframing my rage into care, my anger into empathy.  What about you?  What can you commit to do for our nation, your community, your family?  It will take every last one of us and I’m with 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.

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.

Reimagining Quality of Life for Adults with Significant Needs: Finding Holland

Since the tender age of ten, I have been contemplating what will happen to my brother, CJ, when my parents pass away. When I was four, CJ was diagnosed with Autism. And, similarly to how Emily Perl Kingsley felt in her poem, Welcome to Holland, my family dynamic was altered for the better. While some moments were frustrating (aka when he would jump out of the moving car, mimic crying babies, or climb the tallest of trees), when I took a step back I realized that there were times when I, too, did things that were frustrating (aka my middle school years – sorry mom). And from this new perspective, I began to recognize CJ’s many strengths, as he composed beautiful art and memorized the producers of every Disney movie. While living with CJ has fueled my passion for creating my non-profit housing program, “Finding Holland,” I am continuously driven to advocate for equitable housing for all individuals across the spectrum of Autism as well as moderate to severe disabilities.

The Problem

What resources are available when it comes providing long term supports for adults with special needs? While there are transitional and day programs out there, there is little attention focused on future housing arrangements and equitable employment opportunities that are suitable for individuals with moderate to severe Autism. These individuals have numerous strengths and abilities, and they deserve a dignified quality of life. Unfortunately, housing facilities that uplift their abilities while meeting their individualized needs are not readily available throughout the U.S.

My Vision

My house, “Finding Holland,” will work to build a strong community among its members with a state-of-the-art,  integrative wellness center and residential facility for people of ALL abilities. There will be a vision, positive atmosphere, and leadership team focused on supporting people with Autism and creating an “enviable life” with them. A staff of life coaches, occupational therapists, speech therapists, physical therapists, special educators, and therapeutic recreational specialists will provide accommodations to each individual in order for them to participate as independently as possible. Finding Holland will allow individuals to set personal goals, establish daily routines, and discover a “work-life” balance that supports individuals in living their fullest life.

In the realm of education, we have made progress in providing students with equitable access to deeper learning. About half a century ago, most individuals with moderate to severe special needs were institutionalized throughout their adult lives once they “aged out” of the school system. Families, guardians, and professionals call this “falling off the cliff.” However, in my opinion, we have not made sufficient progress in providing equitable housing and work resources following school. In my classroom and in the home I create, I am working to teach individuals how to take care of themselves, express themselves, and develop their communication, in order to have a voice in determining their own quality of life.

The spectrum of Autism is wide and not fully understood, and therefore, there aren’t a lot of resources available for this specific population post high-school. Yes, there are day recreational programs and work programs, but absolutely nothing considered to be a standard, “traditional job.”  Additionally, in terms of residential living, the majority of these programs are private, which requires significant financial resources. Following the transition from high school, the amount of supports available are limited and accommodations within work and residential life often don’t meet the specific needs of the individual. I’ve only seen programs that provide factory work, work programs, and government funded programs with an emphasis on working. We need to mix that up and provide social recreation, interaction, and a work-life balance.

Yes, maybe, right now this is all just a vision, but we need to advocate, collaborate, and use our voices to create equitable housing access for people of all abilities! Together, we will find Holland.

Katie Miles works as a Paraprofessional at Barbara C. Jordan Elementary in The School District of University City. She graduated from Saint Louis University in December 2017 with a Bachelor of Arts in Elementary and Special Education.

From Punishing to Teaching The Behavior We Want To See

Ahh, “behavior management.”

Research shows that “behavior management” is one of the top challenges for teachers, one of the factors attributed to teacher attrition, and a top priority for school administrators.  But what does it mean, to manage behaviors?

It is a teacher’s job to gain the cooperation of his/her learners.  Think about those words . . . gain the cooperation of . . . What are our expectations of a well-managed classroom?  Cooperative learners?  Engaged learners?  Compliant children?

Many of the systems we find in classrooms (i.e., clip charts, color charts, marble jars) are contingent upon compliance.  But compliance with what?  We often inundate children with vague classroom rules (what does it really mean to “be respectful”?) without clear operationalized expectations for, say, getting clipped up or clipped down.  What is the tangible real difference in behavior between “good job” and “great job” on a clip chart?  Ask any kid.  They’ll tell you it’s the teacher’s call, and it usually depends on the teacher’s mood.

And that’s moving UP on the chart.  Let’s talk about moving down.

Commonly, moving down on the system relies on punishment – lose five minutes recess, “think time,” or call parent.  Consequences are good, you say?  But, how do these things TEACH the behavior we want to see in children?  A child is not sitting still in class, so taking away the one time of day that they can move freely (recess) will teach him/her to sit still?  And if we are clipping kids down and enforcing these consequences consistently, then are we actually managing behavior?  Because the consequences aren’t changing the child’s behavior and now we’re in a punishment cycle where we feel compelled to make the consequences stiffer rather than to consider the entire system is failing.  Let’s reconsider the system together.

These systems operate on some assumptions.

  1. All children come to school ready to learn.
    1. (Spoiler alert:  They don’t.)
  2. All children know what you want them to do and how to do it.
    1. (Spoiler alert:  They don’t.)
  3. Kids at whatever grade I teach “should know better by now.”
    1. (Spoiler alert:  They don’t.)
  4. Punishment is the only way to gain cooperation.
    1. (Spoiler alert:  It isn’t.  In fact, it’s a terrible way to gain cooperation.)

What if we dismissed all of these false assumptions and envisioned a classroom community built on trust and acceptance of individual children’s needs?  What would that even look like?  Let’s start by establishing new assumptions.

  1. All children come to school having already had experiences, both good and bad, for the day.
    1. (Pro tip:  Like adults!  Sometimes, I oversleep.  Sometimes, I spill my coffee.  Sometimes, we run out of hot water.  Sometimes, I’m grumpy.  All of the emotions we as adults experience that affect our day can also be experienced by children.  And their feelings matter as much as ours!)
  2. All children are capable of being taught our expectations.
    1. (Pro tip:  It’s our job to teach!  Some kids need more teaching on some things and less on others.  We still teach.  Behavior is like math.  Differentiated instruction is necessary for all kids to learn.)
  3. All children make mistakes and need the opportunity to try again.
    1. (Pro tip:  Like adults!  I know better than to speed on the highway . . . but, I still do it.  Sometimes, I need teaching too.  Mistakes are learning opportunities!)
  4. Punishment doesn’t work.  It also betrays trust and frustrates everyone.
    1. (Pro tip:  Even after I get a speeding ticket, I speed.  Oops)

So if we assume all kids are doing the best they can and that they need our help to realize their full potential, how would that change our approach to building classroom community?  What if we flip from managing behavior to creating community and developing strategies for meeting individual students where they are?

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.

Sharing is Caring? Nope. Sharing Sucks.

Kids need to learn to share.  They have to share precious resources with siblings.  They have to share with others at school.  Sharing is a mainstay topic on Sesame Street.  Parents pull their hair out because their kids “can’t” share.  Sharing is caring, a way of life.

Or is it?

Merriam-Webster says “sharing” is 1) a portion belonging to, due to, or contributed by an individual or group and 2) one’s full or fair portion 

Jen Newton says sharing is having enough for everyone including yourself (e.g. birthday treats) and TAKING TURNS is giving “one’s full or fair portion” to another with nothing for yourself.  Sharing is altruistic and happy, it feels good.  Turn taking means waiting, giving up what you had and probably want, for someone else’s happiness.  They are not the same thing but we do tend to confuse them when talking with and about kids.

Adults rarely, if ever, give up treasured items for nothing in return.  Think about it.  When was the last time you gave up something you wanted, really really wanted?  We ask kids to do this all the time.  We tell them they aren’t kind or good friends to others if they do not want to give what they have to someone else.

Adults have to take turns.  We actually do a lot of turn taking in our grown up life; stop lights, grocery store check out lines, drive through ATMs (do people still do that?).  Many adults do not do this well, patiently, with kindness.  Despite our expectations for kids to  willingly and readily “share,” we rarely model this giving-up-of-a-preferred-object-for-nothing-in-return version of caring in our own lives.

So why do we expect kids to do it?  And do it willingly and happily?

The truth is, kids do share willingly and happily.  They just don’t take turns as easily.  Ever curse under your breath at the car in front of you who hasn’t moved despite the light turning green?  Yes?  Then you don’t take turns easily either!

Teaching children to take turns involves strategy.

  1. Start with making turns brief so children do not have to wait long to be rewarded for patiently waiting.
  2. Try a timer, the duration of a song, five pushes on a swing, something tangible even young children can count, or hear, or see.
  3. Provide SPECIFIC feedback for waiting patiently.  “I know how hard it is to wait and you are doing so very patiently.”
  4. Validate that waiting is hard.  Tell your children or students about times when it’s hard for you to wait.  Reveal that turn taking takes effort for all of us – grown ups, too!

Sharing is great!  We all love sharing because we get to bring smiles to the faces of others and ourselves all at the same time!  Turn taking takes teaching and practice and reinforcement.  How do you teach turn taking?

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.

Teaching Is Intellectual Work

Educators hear it all the time.

“Must be rough to just play with kids all day.”

“Wiping noses and tying shoes, huh?”

“Summers off and work day ends at 3:00?  What do you have to complain about?”

Wrong.

The first five years of life are arguably the most critical in the development of brains, in empathy, in language, in social emotional development, in ways that set the course for a child’s entire lived experience.  Early childhood educators are doing the most critical work of a society – they are investing in the development of humans.

Join us.

We will use this space to promote evidence based practices and to shine light on alternatives to the cookie cutter approaches in education.  We will dismantle beliefs about children and families that do harm and put limits on growth.  We will explore how we can grow toward strengths-based approaches that celebrate the first five years and open the doors for the potential within every child.

Come with us.  

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.