Are They Ready?

I have been fortunate to teach a class at a local university for preservice teachers for the last few semesters. The course is designed to help secondary educators learn strategies to include students with special needs in regular education classes. As a leader who spent many years as a special educator and as the proud parent of two children with special needs, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to spend a semester with these amazing students helping them to understand areas of disability and how a disability can impact learning and self-esteem. We learned how to read Individualized Education Plans and the importance of using Universal Design for Learning in writing lesson plans for all learners. I also discovered pretty early in my first semester that the course needed to have a much broader focus.  

I tried to model how to build relationship-driven, learner-focused classrooms with every session and online discussion. We opened and closed our face-to-face meetings with a community-building circle. We moved from easy, getting to know you questions to much more challenging ones about ourselves and our purpose. We learned a lot about one another quickly and used it to push real conversations about how to create classrooms that are authentic communities where everyone feels a sense of belonging. We also talked about our obligation to close opportunity gaps, the need to recognize implicit bias and confront it, our commitment to understanding historical marginalization so that we can know more and do better, and how to hold all learners to the highest standards with the right scaffolds to empower them to drive their own learning.

We spent time each semester discussing the increase in mental health needs across our country and how to find ways to support learners who struggle with anxiety and depression in our schools. We also discussed how essential self-care is for all educators. This was especially important for the students as it was the first time for many of them that they had thought about having an intentional plan to take care of themselves. Teachers have challenging jobs that include many expectations and ask a lot of us as professionals and people. Having the right support network of people who build us up, making sure to celebrate the incredible successes our learners can have to hold on to in tough moments, and learning strategies to take time for ourselves physically and mentally needed to be a part of our class.  

The most important topic we discussed is why empathy and not sympathy should be the driving force in our interactions with others. Empathy is the understanding of or the ability to identify with another person’s feelings or experiences, which you cannot do unless you listen to learners and ensure everyone in the community has a voice that is heard. I am not sure who said it, but I love the quote, “Accessibility is being able to get in the building. Diversity is being invited to the table. Inclusion is having a voice at the table. Belonging is having your voice heard at the table.” One of our assignments was to do empathy interviews with students and report the results to our class. They asked their students to tell them a time they felt successful in school, tell about a time when school was hard and what the student did to resolve it, and what was one thing they wanted their teachers to know about them. One of my students came to class after we had done the interviews very upset. He shared his frustration that he had not done the empathy interviews with students earlier in the semester. In his final reflection, he wrote, “I was reading through my student responses. I felt that I had built great relationships with my students. I knew them. But their responses to those interviews helped me understand my students on a completely different level. That was when I realized how important that emotional side is. I also started the evolution of my relationship building with students with IEP during this time too.”  

Using our empathetic lens, we talked about engaging families and always assuming positive intent when working with parents who are frustrated and advocate for their child. We learned how challenging it can be to be the parent of a child who is a divergent thinker, who has experienced trauma, who is in foster care, or who is not challenged enough academically at school. We worked on communication strategies, alternative ideas to empower families, and ways to be sure they are genuinely included in the decisions regarding the development of a student’s Individualized Education Program. We want our families to know they also have a voice that will be heard at the table and belong to our community as well. 

For our final exam, the students were able to choose any topic that meant something during the semester and create a product that represented what they had learned. What they created was impressive. They made wood carvings, video tutorials, Jenga games, erasure poems, lego reenactments of scenes from school, a poetry book, a t-shirt line, cupcakes with all different centers, pottery displays, a series of movie memes, and many more. As much as I enjoyed the products, it was their reflections that meant the most to me. They were thoughtful, and each shared a shift of practice they made towards creating communities of learners who are inspired to create through projects and whose voice is heard and respected because they feel a real sense of belonging. In his final reflection, another student shared, “ It (the class) will, I hope, have made me a more empathetic, patient and considerate teacher; someone who has more of an understanding that it isn’t “my” classroom, it belongs just as much to my students and they need to have a say in it to feel that they belong there; and someone who strives to take these lessons and continue to add to them, and learn as much as I can from those around me.”  

It is imperative now, more than ever, to be empathetic, to celebrate the voices of our students who are ready to share theirs and to help others find that sense of belonging that gives them the confidence to find their voice. When I think about the university students I have encountered in the last several semesters, I believe they are ready to create empowering communities that ensure every learner will have a voice that is heard at the table, and I could not be more proud of them. 

Inspiring Hope

Inspiration and hope- two such beautiful words that many of our young people don’t encounter enough. The advancements that technology has brought to our world have been amazing, but just like with anything else there are always two sides. Our young people now live in a world that is superficial and disconnected from others too much of the time. They spend hours on devices that have actually changed the way the brain works, both in significant ways and in ways that have created new challenges. One of the biggest challenges is the feeling that is presented on social media that everyone’s lives, except mine, are perfect. Social media has also very sadly become an easy platform for criticism and bullying as it can be anonymous, and that somehow makes many people feel they can and should be mean to one another. Mental health challenges have significantly increased in recent years, and in 2017 suicide became the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four, some of which has been attributed to the use of social media. The lack of hope that our young people feel is a problem we all need to solve, but we also need to be far more proactive than we have been in our approach to a solution.

Two years ago, we had two learners from our school district commit suicide. The impact of those moments on their families, our staff, other learners, and our community was devastating. Our number of suicide risk assessments has also doubled in the last four years, which is scary. We spend a lot of time reflecting on what we can do to help promote more hope and mental wellness for our learners’ verses always waiting to intervene when someone is at a crisis point. Last year, we shifted our work in Social Emotional Learning to be focussed around building resiliency skills from young ages including trying to get staff and students to see working through issues of anxiety and depression as a demonstration of resilience instead of a deficit. We all experience anxious and depressed moments. Some people’s brains are wired to feel those much more intensely and more frequently than others, so they need additional support to work through them some of which may require outside intervention. We need to make it okay for our learners to admit when they are struggling (both with the small things and the ones that can be debilitating), knowing we’re here to support them and that we all believe they can make it through when they get stuck. We added another layer of support a few years ago with licensed therapists from outside agencies in every school so our learners have access to weekly therapy at school through their insurance. These are all things adults are doing for learners to reduce the stigma of needing support for mental wellness and make care accessible. We were still looking to find a way for young people to be involved in promoting mental wellness and finding new ways to support each other. That is when we found Hope Squad.

Hope Squad is a peer support program where learners are nominated by their peers and then receive special training in understanding the signs of suicide and depression with tools to refer their peers to adults for help. In almost all cases of completed suicide, the student told someone first that they had a plan. Unfortunately, the person they likely told was another child who did not know what to do with that information. When we met some Hope Squad members from another school district, we were so impressed by how empowered they felt to help others. They were from all different social groups, a big part of the nomination and selection process, and they were able to share how they look out for other Hope Squad members and all learners in the school. They watch for people sitting alone and make sure they reach out and include them. The learners all still have their primary social groups, but Hope Squad became a bridge to be sure everyone has someone, and people are simply kinder to one another. When we heard those learners share how inspired they felt from their participation in Hope Squad, we moved from a small pilot to implementation at all six of our secondary schools at the start of this school year.  

Our Hope Squads meet during advisory either daily or several times a week. They receive training in the signs of suicide and depression and Question, Persuade, Refer. The training includes some clear expectations that the learners are not counselors and are not providing any kind of counseling. Instead, they are looking for signs that others are at-risk, strategies for reaching out and providing friendship to everyone, ways to get others to seek help from adults, and strategies for self-care as they are the students that are chosen to share in someone else’s struggle. The advisor also gets training in not only how to implement the lessons but also in their own self-care and how to make referrals to licensed mental health professionals as needed. We had a wide variety of staff choose to become advisors including one of our cafeteria leaders and a school secretary as these are often the people kids are reaching out to along with their teachers and counselors.  

I had the privilege to attend the roll-out of the Hope Squads at one of our intermediate schools. It was incredible. The learners, proudly wearing their Hope Squad t-shirts, went to each advisory in their grade level and explained what the Hope Squad is. One student told the rest of his peers that he was not sure why they nominated him, but now that they did, he was not going to let them down. He is a student for whom school is not always easy. His nomination meant a lot to him and empowered him in a new way to connect at school. The Hope Squad members told their peers how we all have bad days, we all need someone to talk to, and we are all going through things that we can talk about. They said things like:

  • “We get training to be the eyes and ears of the school for kids who are having a hard time. You can tell us if you know someone who is.”   
  • “If you are feeling down, we can report it and help you with a problem.”
  • “We can keep each other safe.”
  • “If you have a problem, you can come to us because sometimes it is hard to talk to teachers and adults. We will make time to help you.”

One learner asked a Hope Squad member if they could only talk to him on days he was wearing his Hope Squad shirt. He enthusiastically replied, “No, you can talk to me anytime. I just can’t wear the same shirt every day. You can also talk to me online if that’s easier for you.” Watching our learners try to turn social media into a way to connect with one another positively at eleven and twelve years old gives me hope.  

Our other schools have reported how honored learners and their parents have been to be nominated and chosen by the advisors for Hope Squad. They are all taking it seriously and actively planning Hope Week activities and kindness events for everyone. The advisors shared how empowered the students feel to be leaders within the school, which is really awesome as some of the learners who were chosen are not a part of clubs, sports, and activities where those leadership opportunities usually surface. 

There are great stories from all over our world about young people who are solving the major problems facing us. While I always love reading those stories, we also have to remember that it does not always have to be a world-wide solution to be a huge deal. We had a learner refer someone who was cutting for help to their advisor within the first couple of weeks of starting our Hope Squads. The learner was brave enough to reach out for help, another learner listened, and everyone knew what to do. Our learners are ready to build hope and inspiration even if it takes doing it one peer at a time, which is a pretty major problem to help solve and one we can all easily work on every day.  

The Power of a True Community

“There is a yearning in the heart for peace. Because of the wounds and rejections we have received in past relationships, we are frightened by the risks. In our fear, we discount the dream of authentic Community as merely visionary. But there are rules by which people can come back together, by which the old wounds can be healed. The purpose of Community Building is to teach these rules- to make hope real again- and to make the vision actually manifest in a work which has almost forgotten the glory of what it means to be human.” 

     -M. Scott Peck MD, author of The Road Less Traveled

This statement is the vision of a community building workshop that I had the opportunity to participate for three days last week with staff, parents, religious leaders, law enforcement, and other community members. It was an emotional experience wherein we shared our own stories and heard the stories of others so we could learn to empathize and grow together to build a stronger community. At the end of three days, I felt exhausted and completely exhilarated at the same time. We found connections with one another that we had no idea were there and learned to sit in silence with each other at times to make space for everyone to process and feel. We all entered the experience having no idea what to expect and getting little to no direction from the facilitators, which was really frustrating at first and made total sense by the end. After the three days, we were tied to one another with a tight bond that helped to heal some wounds and certainly made me feel hopeful about how we can make those same connections in classrooms and with families. 

After the first day of the workshop, I went to teach a class for pre-service teachers at one of our local universities on inclusionary practice for children with special needs. It was the first night of face-to-face class as the first half of the course was held online. As I drove there, I could not stop thinking about the vision of our workshop. Our classrooms and schools need to be places where we make hope real again and remember what it means to be human. We have to be less focused on finishing a textbook or getting through our curriculum and more focused on making sure our learners feel a sense of belonging and that they are a part of something important at school that translates into skills in life. 

As the college students entered class, I shook each person’s hand and introduced myself, which seemed to surprise them. Many of them spent a few minutes before class expressing frustrations about challenging students they encountered in their student teaching placements. As I listened to the challenges, that vision again came to mind. We started class by talking about empathy and why it is so essential when working with each other and all learners, but especially those who have disabilities or those who are disconnected from school and life. We spent a lot of time that first night talking about creating community in the classroom, how to help learners find access points to grade level material, and the importance of making sure content is driven by student interests.  

I invited a math and a special education teacher who co-teach at one of our high schools speak to the class. They talked about how much easier teaching is when you have a true collaborative partner and ways they have found to connect the material to some of the most challenging learners. They shared stories about the successes they have found in developing relationships with learners by knowing their interests and their future plans.  I asked them at the end to share their favorite part about teaching. They each talked about the sense of purpose they feel in giving back and connecting with the learners who need school the most as sadly they do not have the opportunity to make those connections or feel that sense of community anywhere else in their lives. 

By the time our class had ended and the last student left over an hour later, I had gotten the chance to hear about what many of those students are going through while attempting to complete college, successfully student teach, and have lives outside of both. Many of them have partners and children as well, which makes it all even more complicated. I made some adjustments to the syllabus that night as I learned what the students wanted and needed to know. I added opportunities to learn about Restorative Practices to help create a sense of belonging in every classroom so learners want to be there and want to work hard. 

We often focus on creating relationships between our learners and ourselves, but do not always work on the relationships they are creating with one another. A restorative classroom starts with community building circles through which we can learn about the learners and they can learn about one another by asking a series of progressive questions. They start with low-risk questions about superficial topics such as, “What is your favorite ice cream flavor?”. As learners begin to trust one another they ask high-risk questions like, “Describe a time you acted on your core values when others did not.” Circles can be used for relationship building or academic activities by asking questions related to content.

After students get to know one another through circles, it evolves into opportunities to support one another and eventually repair harm within a classroom when something goes awry. Restorative Practices are a way for learners to own their actions, take responsibility for them, understand the impact of them on others, and learn from mistakes to do better next time. Classrooms that are genuine communities are full of learners who are far more willing to try and fail as they know they have the backing and support of everyone else in the room. In our classrooms and schools that have embraced the restorative model, learners are able to host circles to help each other reflect on their reading at age seven. They are able to mediate whatever happened at recess without the teacher. They are able to keep everyone in classrooms and communities because they have the skills to work through conflict together within the class instead of heading to the office. We want learners to feel the same level of connection and trust with one another that I felt after three days in a room with people I did not know very well at the start so they can own every part of the learning environment.

I sent my college students a new syllabus later that night with a couple of the assignments removed and a new one to bring back to class the next week. I asked them to do empathy interviews with at least two students with these questions:

  • Tell me about a time you were successful in school.
  • Tell me about a time you struggled in school. What did you do?
  • What are three words you would use to describe this class?
  • What is one thing you wish teachers knew about you?

I cannot wait to see what insight this gives them about their learners and what we can do next week to continue working on how to create classrooms that are real communities where learners feel safe and inspired.  We get to try “to make hope real again- and to make the vision actually manifest in a work which has almost forgotten the glory of what it means to be human.” 

Learning From Each Other

I really enjoy our district-wide professional development days as they provide us with an awesome opportunity to connect with educators from across our district and to connect them to each other. Taking the advice of Shelly Burgess and Beth Hoef, “People are less likely to tear down a culture that they have helped build,” we invited teachers and curriculum leaders from all of our school sites to join a planning group with our district leadership team for the days this year. As we work to be clear in what we hold in common across our eighteen schools and what is a school or classroom level decision on how that looks, creating a district-wide plan for professional development that meets the needs of over five-hundred teachers and leaders is a challenge. We want it to be relevant to each classroom and each staff member’s personal journey, incorporate choice, and model great instructional practice. Building in time for seeing and doing with time to reflect, practice, plan, and engage in professional discourse were key to what we all agreed were the next steps for all our staff. 

After our first meeting, the team realized the challenge of giving all staff tools to move along a continuum of doing activities that empower learners to creating classrooms that are entirely learner driven to turning those classrooms into whole schools that are learner empowered. One thing that was really important to the group was more time to see the work in action and time to connect with other staff. As a group, we felt our staff understands our why of creating more equitable outcomes for all learners that go well beyond graduation from high school. It was time to dig deep on how to plan for and what learner driven instruction looks like in practice.  We would meet each week, send them back to schools to get feedback, and then evolve the idea until it is something we could put into practice. It has been amazing to get input and learn from our educators in this group and for them to connect back to all teachers. This has led to some healthy professional discourse on the how and what of the work we are trying to do and how to get all five hundred teachers invested in the process.

Our groups ended up targeting specific work for each grade band that was different. Elementary and intermediate spent time in small groups working on knowing our standards well enough ourselves to teach them to learners and empower them to take ownership of mastery of those standards within cross-curricular projects. All of our site visits have shown us that standards are an essential part of the work, but they do not have to be only understood and driven by the teacher. The learners can take ownership of the outcomes when they know what is expected of them and can do it in ways that reflect their interests. For our high schools, they felt a big picture approach was needed, which meant hearing from a learner panel of students in one of our sixth through eighth grade flexible learning communities and then having small group discussions on the big picture of what school could be.   

We wanted our teachers to know that how the standards are mastered in your classroom is about knowing yourself and your learners well enough to shift the learner experience wherever and whenever possible to be authentic with high levels of content mastery, problem-solving, communication, collaboration, and, most importantly, creating a sense of belonging to the group. We are pushing our teachers to realize that they get to decide on the instructional methods used in their classrooms and schools, which won’t look the same across our district. We trust them as professionals to make those decisions as they know their learners best. Each of these groups also then spent time in collaborative groups working together on breaking down an existing project to be able to understand how and where it becomes learner driven. We wrapped up the first part of the morning asking them to use a similar format on their own lesson and unit plans. Where could they be making shifts toward learner driven, authentic experiences every day?

As part of the opening in one of the groups, we asked them to answer this question with educators from other schools, “What will you make, build, or do with learners this year that they will be talking about in 10 years?” Most of those answers were around larger community-based experiences instead of daily classroom instruction. We followed the discussion with the question, “What will you make, do, or build tomorrow that learners will still be talking about in 10 years?”  We are hopeful that our teachers will use some of what they learned that day to have that question drive more of what we do.

Our staff also need to see this kind of work in action and what better way to learn than from each other. So, the second part of the morning was a choice of over twenty classrooms across our district where our own staff were willing to model learner driven practice in their classrooms. The staff shared what their daily practice is and other staff were able to watch, learn, and give feedback. The participants learned a ton about how to do this work from educators that may teach down the street from them who have already tried new ways of connecting to learners with both successes and many opportunities to learn how they would do things differently. The presenters got feedback on their practice and answered questions for the participants that allowed them to reflect on what they do and why they do it. This was the email we sent to those who were brave enough to go first, “We have asked each of you as we know you are trying new things, having some success with learners, and find joy in your work. We will have the groups be small (hopefully around 25) of teachers from across our district in the sessions. We are hoping you will model a lesson, talk about how you incorporate learner driven skills in new ways, and how you got started with making a shift. It is not expected to be anything that is “perfect” or a “show”. It is meant for you to share your experience with others and encourage them to try new things in the way you have.” We got some great feedback from both participants and presenters about the power of the experience. Some of the sessions went off without a hitch and others did not go exactly as planned, but every one of them provided staff with an opportunity to connect and learn from each other.  

We asked each building leadership team to build in time for reflection, discussion, and planning at the school sites.  We know how essential that time to think about what you learned and then collaborate with colleagues is to create space for a change of practice.  These shifts take a continuous conversation with time to think and time to plan. Finding more time is always a challenge in education, but we want to keep the learning and the learner experience at the forefront by helping staff to find the time where we can.  Teachers need to know we support them in trying new things knowing they may fail with opportunities for coaching and collaboration to know how to go back and try again. We get a lot of feedback that we need to make more time for processing and planning. We are working on new ideas to try some creative things  within our schedules for next school year to help. In the meantime, we need to continue the push and the conversation wherever and whenever it can happen.  

Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Targeted professional development puts teachers in the best shape to use the power of the weapon every day to empower our learners and therefore make our world a better place to be.