Last Updated On: August 3rd, 2022
1. Where are you located?
I am located in Charlotte, North Carolina.
2. What subjects have you taught in the past? What subjects will you teach next year? What grade levels?
I’ve always been a K-5 special education teacher focusing on language arts and math, but very occasionally in the past I’ve provided support for science and social studies as well. In public school, I worked with all grades K-5, but in my current school I focus on 3rd, 4th, and 5th.
3. What are the core values you bring into your classroom?
I love teaching kids that it’s okay to make mistakes! Most of my students have been diagnosed with dyslexia or dysgraphia, and this can be really hard for a kid to cope with in school. You would think that most students with these challenges would get used to making mistakes and be okay with imprecision, but I find it’s the opposite for a lot of my kids. Many of my students tend to be quite hypervigilant and get frustrated with how many mistakes they make while writing, reading, or doing math. I always tell them that everything they’re learning is new to them, and mistakes are an essential part of the learning process. I remind them how easy things come to them now that were hard in their previous grade, and explain that one day they will feel like that about whatever topic they’re struggling with now!
4. What has been the biggest challenge for you as a teacher? How have you learned to surrender?
When I first started out teaching, I had very rigid plans that I felt needed to be followed to a T in order to make sure students were learning. I’m a Type-A person who loves a plan! But after 8 years in the classroom, I know now that lessons rarely go according to plan, especially with struggling learners, and students learn the most when you’re able to modify and adapt your plans to suit their needs and pace. Having a variety of different backup activities and ways of explaining things up my sleeve helps a lot when I have to modify a lesson on the fly.
5. Does your school participate in social emotional learning? If so, how do they implement these teachings?
Yes! My school infuses social-emotional learning into daily classroom lessons for K-4, and 5th graders take a 30-minute, 3-times-per-week conflict resolution class. There are role-playing activities and student-led discussions to facilitate dialogue about how to handle difficult social and emotional issues. Of course, the rubber hits the road on the playground and during unstructured activities, but teachers are great about using real-life situations to apply what has been taught in the classroom.
6. Have you noticed more politically charged conversations and questions in the classroom in the last few years? If so, how have you handled these moments? Does your school request you take a certain approach?
Thankfully, I have not heard as many political comments and conversations, but it was unavoidable in the 2020-2021 school year. I think our school did a great job of handling student questions and comments in a manner that dignified both sides of the political equation. We as teachers are encouraged never to share our personal opinions on these matters, but point students back to the values of the school and steer their comments and conversations in a direction that brings honor to the person they are speaking about.
7. How do you prepare your students for the ERB testing? Is there a wealth of instruction or little to none? Does your school prefer to use the score as a baseline?
My school uses ERBs as a baseline, yes. We try not to make too huge a deal of it to curb student anxiety, and explain to students that the test is just for teachers to understand what they need to focus on in their lessons for the year. Working with students with learning disabilities, however, I find it important to spend at least a few sessions familiarizing them with test-taking language. There is nothing worse than when a student knows how to do a certain problem or skill, but just didn’t understand the language of the question! So we spend some time breaking down test-type questions, highlighting and underlining key words, restating the question, and eliminating obviously wrong answers, and I find that helps them feel more prepared as they walk into the test.
8. Does your school require the ISEE, SSAT, or HSPT scores prior to admission? Do they require any other admissions items? Is there an expectation that students be performing at a high level in particular subjects prior to entry?
Yes. At my school, grades TK-1 are given the Weschler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence (WPPSi), grades 2-4 take the Weschler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC V), and grades 5-11 take the ISEE. My school has a very high level of rigor, and is seen in the community as a college-preparatory school, so there is a certain standard of academics that is expected from each student. However, this does not mean that many students with learning disabilities are not admitted to the school and provided with robust support. We have a thriving special education program with 8 teachers for the lower school (K-5) and I am so thankful to be part of a team and a school that prioritizes the learning of those with exceptionalities. Most, if not all, of our students are able to meet grade level standards or come close by the time they enter the 6th grade.
9. What’s the best way for parents to communicate their fears, concerns, etc? Many parents are used to advocating for their children, but would you prefer the student reach out? If so, how?
I work with young students, so I am mostly in communication with parents about academic concerns, not the students themselves. I don’t mind being in frequent communication with parents, especially because students usually start making great progress when they begin the Orton-Gillingham or Lindamood-Bell programs, and I like to keep parents in the loop. I will usually communicate via email or call at least once every two to three weeks to inform them of their student’s progress or difficulty in the program. However, I do think it’s important that parents trust the process of learning and give it time if they see their student struggling. If the struggle is a persistent issue, then it may be time for a meeting or a discussion on changing course. But like I said before, struggling and making mistakes is a crucial part of the process of learning, so just because a student is struggling for a short time doesn’t mean he or she will struggle forever! I start to teach self-advocacy skills to my students in 5th grade and encourage parents to allow the student to bring up their academic issues and request extra help on particular skills. I think it’s extremely important for a student to start to be able to recognize his or her specific strengths and weaknesses and advocate for him/herself in the classroom around this time. Instead of “I’m having trouble with math.” I want a student to be able to say, “I’m having trouble with adding and subtracting mixed numbers with unlike denominators.” I like to get students to articulate exactly where the breakdown is for them and ask me or their classroom teachers questions about that specific skill. This also helps build their confidence and helps them to see that they don’t struggle with EVERYTHING, maybe just a few specific skills. Parents often only see the number of a low test grade and it worries them. But upon further analysis, usually a student is only struggling with one or two particular areas from the scope of that test, and it isn’t as dire a situation as a parent may think.
10. What’s the best way for a tutor to communicate with you on behalf of a student that might be resistant to email? Since some parents prefer to be uninvolved, tutors often have to take the role of liaison between student and teacher and sometimes even between student, teacher, and learning specialist. What have you found works best when there’s an all hands on deck approach?
I love the all-hands-on-deck approach! Last year I had a first grader who could not read a thing in November and had received multiple learning disability diagnoses from a psychologist. He started an at-home Great Leaps program with mom, Orton Gillingham sessions with me 3x per week in school, and Lindamood Bell Seeing Stars and LiPS with a tutor after school. His tutor was very communicative and sent emails if she saw a particular area of growth or weakness in the student. This was so helpful for me as a learning specialist because it gave me data to adjust my lessons accordingly. We emailed back and forth once every two weeks, and had meetings together (his classroom teacher, the tutor, and I) once a quarter. By the end of the year, this little guy was reading on grade level! I have no doubt it was because the tutor, the classroom teacher, and I were in such frequent communication. There were many times when his tutor would tell me that he mastered a particular phonogram with her, so I would move him forward in my OG learning sequence so he wouldn’t be wasting time on something he had already mastered. When his classroom teacher mentioned he was having difficulty with sight words, I made a deck of flashcards for both myself and the tutor to use with him. These were just a few of the ways we helped each other move this student from being a non-reader to becoming a confident first-grade-level reader!
11. What are some programs or activities you think your students could benefit from?
I think that every student with moderate to severe dyslexia should be in a summer tutoring program. The “summer slide” is so real, and it is tremendously detrimental to all students, but especially those with learning disabilities who work so hard during the year to compensate for their weaknesses. It is crucial for them to continue in a program like Orton-Gillingham throughout the summer to be able to keep up with their reading and spelling skills and enter the next school year with confidence.
Photo by Yan Krukov