learn unlearn relearn teach…

To continue: learn some more, unlearn even more than you did before, teach even better, and then repeat.

I am not sure whether it is possible to enjoy anything more in my professional life than teaching – other than learning. Insert witticism here asking why then are students not jumping out of their seats when they are probably being taught something new everyday? I can see it now if it happened; a level of shock on the faces of teachers at what might be considered too disruptive, but oh the joy. All jesting aside, I believe it is within all of us to express and foster this type of joy in everything we do related to life at school.

Imagine if students bristled with excitement at each opportunity to learn something new rather than some of the blank stares and foreboding filled faces that silently shared that work was the only thing on their minds instead of the profound potential that can occur as new neural pathways are paved? What if that happened at a staff meeting? Maybe I am asking too much for that previous line?

Nevertheless, I still like learning new things – preferably by choice rather than prescribed. Not only does new knowledge strengthen my understandings and scalable skillsets, but being a learner helps me see teaching through a different lens from the seat of a student. For me, this is where the excitement happens along with a healthy dose of discomfort too.

Perhaps teaching and learning are simply sides of the same coin? Maybe it’s solely my intuition as an educator/lead learner taking over because nothing brings me more happiness and relief to finally arrive at another of life’s learning destinations only to realize it was merely a stop to refuel along the way.

What some might perceive as a bumpy ride filled with uncertainty and uncertainty is not a fact I wish to conceal from you. Agreed, it has taken some time to arrive at a reasonable level of comfort with this discomfort.  However, I have also realized that it was in each of those moments when I gained the most in perspective and understanding in my roles in the classroom.

Before that happened though, there were some demons to slay. Finances, fatigue, and giving up a bit of family time on occasion. Once these three things were balanced, I was able to focus on some really important AQ courses that I would highly encourage all teachers to add to their transcripts. My top pick is below.

Spec Ed Pt 1 has to be your goto first AQ.* When I took this course, I was working in a French Immersion school where the IEPs were usually for gifted students. Accommodations were for depth and breadth, but the learning about Growth Plans, ISTs, IEPs, IPRCs etc. was invaluable to support my students in the classroom. Since then, student needs in FI or significantly more complex and the role of SERT which was more geared towards supporting students back into the English stream is now focused on shaping the learning spaces to fit the students where they are within their French Immersion experience.

Spec Ed Pt 1 also came with some excellent classroom strategies that are thankfully still in my toolkit over a decade later. Of course once you have SpEd Pt 1, you might as well complete the set with Pt 2 and your Specialist. Don’t fear being forced into the role of SERT just because you have these qualifications. Think of them as gifts of knowledge for you to support every student that steps into your classroom throughout your career.

I vowed to refuse the job if ever asked to be a SERT fearing I would be placed in a space where I would not be able to survive, and then all of that changed 5 years ago – an offer I could not refuse. Stepping into the unknown discomfort zone that is the SERT role has been nothing short of transformational and invaluable to my practice in and out of the classroom. Working with students, peers, families, and system folx has been extremely rewarding even though pretty much clueless for the better part of my first two years. Thankfully, a mentor teacher and supportive admin were there to help me decode the work.

I guess this brings me back to the title of this post learn unlearn relearn teach.

I knew there was more to learn after my B Ed was completed and I entered the classroom. I unlearned some sticky habits and thoughts about student abilities and behaviour from my own schema and schooling by relearning from the experiences and wisdom of others, and now continue to apply new knowledge to my teaching.

That’s it for now, I have to go unlearn something to make room for more lessons ahead.

Next month look for a companion post about AQs and other cool goings-on at ETFO entitled ‘all good things on Isabella’.

*Did you know that ETFO is offering AQs for Special Education this Summer? Click the link to learn more.

The Power of “Thank You”

“Thank you”

2 simple words that mean so much. Especially when they are followed by a reason for giving thanks. 

As an educator of young children, I don’t teach for the “thank you”. I teach for the students, their progress, their laughs, their smiles, and that feeling of sharing a joy for learning. 

However, when I do get those genuine, ‘from the bottom of my heart’ “thank you” ’s, they often bring me to tears. Thank you can feel so reassuring, so comforting and can be a springboard that launches deep and powerful connections. 

An amazing colleague of mine, who is many years into their career, suggested I keep a journal of these kind words of thanks from parents and families. Initially, I thought this seemed silly. Why would I keep these notes and emails? What purpose would this serve me? But, I tried it anyways. Why not? If I didn’t find this practice helpful I could stop at any point and not tell a single soul I had ever done it. 

Fast forward to the present moment, where various letters, cards and printed emails from families live in the binder I stash at the back of my filing cabinet. I spread the word of this practice, as not a way to brag or boast but to share with you the feelings it has brought me.  

First of all, it brings me joy. What better reason to do anything? Why not document these joyful moments in celebration of student success.

Secondly, I find comfort revisiting these “thank you” ‘s when I feel tired, overwhelmed or broken down. It is easy for me to fixate on a lesson that didn’t go well, or the things that I could be doing differently; therefore doing them better. Flipping through this binder of positive thoughts allows me to reframe my mindset and reflect critically on my practice while being kind to myself.

Lastly, the powerful feelings that these “thank you” ‘s bring me are inspiring. I want to pass this feeling on to my colleagues, my students and their families who show up and work hard every day. I am mindful each day to share my genuine “thank you” ‘s out loud.

What is the most powerful “thank you” that you’ve ever received?

What is the most powerful “thank you” that you’ve ever given?

Understanding Gender Neutral Pronouns

There is no doubt that I am very passionate about addressing issues related to equity and social justice, especially any work related to anti-oppression, anti-racism, anti-sexism and anti-homophobia. For me to fully understand and advocate for social justice and equity, it is important that I am aware of current challenges, barriers and inclusionary practices. However, I would be the first to admit that my knowledge of gender neutral pronouns requires further learning and understanding to ensure I am respectfully honouring the identities of staff and students (in fact, all people) in my community. So, I did some research for my own professional growth and I found out some interesting facts that I would like to share with you. 

It is understood that people who identify outside of a gender binary most often use nonbinary pronouns that are not gender specific. These include: they/them/their use in the singular form. However, I learned that there are other pronouns that are used, such as: ze (pronounced “zee”) in place of she/he and hir (pronounced “here”) in place of his/him/her. This was new learning for me that opened my eyes to the ways in which I address individuals and the assumptions I often make about their identities.

Assuming one’s identity and choice of pronouns based on how they look and/or how they dress can be false and disrespectful to one’s gender identity and gender expression. I learned that pronouns may or may not match one’s gender expression, such as how the person dresses, looks, behaves or what their name is.

In recognition and commitment to equity and inclusionary practices, as well as the Human Rights policies in Canada, it is encouraging to see more people, including workplaces and organizations, supporting individual’s use of self-identified pronouns, in place of assumed pronouns based one’s sex assigned at birth or other’s perceptions of physical appearance. It might seem a simple gesture to some, but it’s an important recognition for others. It’s about letting someone know that you accept their identity as they are. 

The response to the following questions might help you better understand gender pronouns and how you can affirm someone’s gender identity:

What’s the right way to find out a person’s pronouns?

If I was introducing myself to someone new, I would say, “Hi. My name is Gary. I use he/him pronouns. What about you?” However, do keep in mind that for many people who don’t identify as cisgender, it could be more difficult for them to share their pronouns, especially in spaces where they don’t know people and/or they don’t feel comfortable or accepted.

How is “they/them” used as a singular pronoun?

“They” is already commonly used as a singular pronoun when you are talking about someone and you don’t know who they are. Using they/them pronouns for someone you do know simply represents a slightly different way of thinking. In this case, you’re asking someone to not act as if they don’t know you, but to use non-binary vocabulary when they’re communicating with/about you.

What if I make a mistake and ‘misgender’ someone, or use the wrong words?

I would simply apologize for my error. It’s perfectly natural to not know the right words to use, especially when meeting someone for the first time. Consider addressing groups of people as “everyone”, “colleagues”, “friends”, “class” or “students” instead of “boys and girls.” The important thing is making that non-assuming connection with the person and being open to learning new things and new ways of understanding one’s identity. 

What does it mean if a person uses the pronouns “he/they” or “she/they”?

That means that the person uses both pronouns, and you can alternate between those when referring to them. So, either pronoun would be fine. However, be mindful that some people don’t mind those pronouns being interchanged for them, but for others, they might use one specific pronoun in one context and another set of pronouns in another context/space, dependent on maybe safety or comfortability in the space they occupy. The best approach is to listen to how people refer to themselves.

ETFO has a wealth of resources to support your teaching and learning of gender neutral pronouns. I found their Social Justice website very helpful in my research and understanding of gender neutral pronouns. In fact, ETFO has plenty of ETFO 2SLGBTQ+ Resources for students of all ages.

if you are not learning…

Fill in the blank.
As an educator there is always something to______________:

  • do
  • feel
  • learn
  • repeat
  • unlearn
  • lean into
  • chase after
  • reflect upon
  • run away from
  • learn more from
  • do better next time
  • experience differently

Each of the above resonate with me as a reflective practioner/teacher and as I look back, my thoughts keep returning to whether I see myself learning alongside my students or not?

It isn’t the first time I’ve tossed this thought around. Believing I was on the verge of an intellectual breakthrough to explain it all, this time I wrote, “If you are not learning, then you are not teaching” in an earlier draft of this post. A rhetorical call to action if you will.

Knowing that there is nothing new under the sun (Proverbs), I wanted to check if this brilliant quote was mine or would it be attributed to someone else unbeknownst to me? Enter American economist Vernon L Smith*. Well it was fun while it lasted, but that did not take away from the quote’s truth in my mind. If I wasn’t learning then I was not teaching. So I asked myself,
“Self?”
“Yes.”
“Are you learning?”
“Yup.”
“How do you know?”
“I’ll get back to you.”

It is within this meditative metacognitive space where I frequently find myself dwelling this year. Maybe it’s because the season we’re enduring makes things seem bleak. Or maybe the extended time indoors during global pandemic allows time to make some sense out of things that exist within and beyond our control. Cue the next quote from Smith.

“I believe that all learning is ultimately a form of self-education. That formal schooling is simply a way of introducing you to how to learn. And I think, at some point in my own education, I realized that the most important thing I was learning was that I was learning to learn. It became a lifelong endeavor.”  Vernon L. Smith

After ruminating on this quote, I started wondering whether the conditions created in my class each day genuinely allowed learning to learn to occur? Was it possible to continue being “the guide on the side”(Garfield Gini-Newman) or did I need to model learning how to learn more for them? Were the resources I was curating and creating providing a rigourous, but not spirit crushing challenge or was I underestimating their abilities as learners? Did my students have time to develop their own curiosities rather than those prescribed in the curriculum, and if so were they inspired and empowered to do so?

I wish there was an absolutely definite yes here, but it is not that simple. At least not yet.

Here’s the tricky part, I think that this is happening in some ways in my classroom, but now find myself with a new challenge to learn how to really know it. Suddenly, I feel that some of the pressure around this has been removed. Maybe the reflection had to happen in order to organize my perspective here? As the lead learner in the classroom there is always more to learn. As the guide on the side, I can always “bend, blend, or break” (David Eagleman)  what we are learning to help students go further than in days before.

Like most classrooms, what worked before is not guaranteed to work again or like it did. This in itself  has been an incredible thing to learn. Perhaps acceptance is a more apt term? How often do teachers find themselves holding on to something that worked in the past, but is not working now yet hoping it will miraculously work again in the future? Teachers need to accept that everything we do is done at the speed of education. Whether a day lags on the tarmac waiting for takeoff or jets off at the speed of sound each can lead us to discover and develop some profoundly creative skills if we approach it as pilots and not as passengers.

One final thought.

Remember earlier when I asked myself “are you learning?” I asked again. This time the reply came back as, “As I learn so will I teach.” Thank you for reading. Feel free to share this post and to leave a comment to continue the conversation.

*There is comfort in the knowledge that the quote above is attributed to a Nobel Prize winning thinker because before checking, I thought the words above were mined straight out of my mind. Needless to say, I am happy to share a common thought in esteemed company. Searching out the source of the quote also allowed me to discover some of Smith’s other vast body of work in economics.

what i could’t learn in teacher’s college

12 months in a faculty of education prepared me for a lot of things, but not everything. How could it? Pedagogy, planning, pragmatism, and patience were all part of a very practical preparation and positive preview of what was to come for me as an educator .

Yet, even with rigorous academic, practicum, and professional development poured into the program, a paucity existed due to the finite amount of time for the program to cover the vast scope and variables that are the job. In defence of faculties, it would take several years to cover them and even then, only partially. Perhaps not being prepared for every eventuality was a good thing for me as a teacher because it allowed me to find solutions that did not have their origins in a textbook, but rather ones which were created for each specific moment and context?

I think that there has to be room included in formation of teaching candidates that focuses on situational problem solving. This is where life experience(s) can help out. As a teacher candidate in my forties, I found it interesting to compare worldviews and perspectives, with colleagues who were half my age. It was the times over coffee and in between lectures where some ageless bonds were formed that continue to this day. I also learned that wisdom was ageless as my younger peers so often shared when it came to our discussions about educators having to teach far beyond the curriculum in order to support their students. By beyond, I mean that we had to navigate how we were going to bring humanity into the classroom too.

Outside of lesson planning, curriculum, philosophy of education, and the Education Act there was a lot to cover. I really appreciated the time spent in equity and special education training where we were given numerous real life situations from the classroom to consider and receive coaching on how to best respond. Some of this was really helpful because I at least had a set of tools, but even then there was room for so much more in the kit.

I especially liked the book Beyond Heroes and Holidays and highly recommend giving it a read as a way of sparking staff conversations around racism and equity or as a supportive guide to deeper personal growth. And then came the day when I realized I needed more than that.

Although the seeds were planted in teacher’s college, they did not break through until I was in the classroom where I had to confront a student using racist slurs.

I can still almost feel the time slow down as the blood rushed through my body when it happened. Did I really just hear a student say that? I am pretty sure that my surprise and disappointment were visceral. This was an eye opener for me because that moment did not come with a lesson. Once again, experience became the teacher. What was surprising in that situation was how emotional it all felt. I struggled to process my own responses.

I know that I learned a lot from that event, but knew that my rosy perceptions of innocent school aged children now included a few storm clouds. Hearing from experienced mentor educators added to my comfort and discomfort level all the while building up confidence in the aftermath. It was here where my own experiences and beliefs were transformed into actionable responses rather than reactions in a moment. #learnbeyondthetextbook

Recent news of teachers experiencing anti-Semitic hate perpetuated by students in elementary/middle schools reminds us all that even though we are prepared for some things, we are not prepared for all, especially when it comes to hatred, assault, bigotry or racism. After events like these, it is crucial to have a trusted person to speak with about them. This could be a mentor teacher or administrator who can help process what happened and debrief with you. They can also be there to support you as you overcome. No educator should go through it by themselves

For teachers looking to find or become a mentor, check out the Mentoree website. After years of waiting, I recently joined myself.

I really believe that there are two key elements that need to accompany a B.Ed degree – mentorship and life experience. The absence of one or both will send new teachers out for many challenging days ahead filled with many tests, but few lessons beforehand. And maybe that’s how it is meant to be. A journey of discovery, cutting your path through new spaces. Solving problems as they happen while gathering the tools, surviving the experiences, and keep trying to move forward.

It is so important that educators, regardless of experience, connect with each other whether formally or informally. The days of teachers needing to feel like siloed lone wolves solving every problem that comes their way or its failure thinking are gone. They may or may not be in your building, but there are caring educators willing to offer support, lend an ear, or give advice when asked. Feel free to reach out anytime.

Possible future blog post content below

Since I recommended getting a copy of Beyond Heroes and Holidays, here seems like a good place to suggest some other important must reads for anti-racist educators;

  1. We Want to Do More than Survive – by Bettina L Love
  2. All our Relations – by Tanya Talaga
  3. The Skin We’re In – by Desmond Cole
  4. Black in School – by Habiba Cooper Diallo
  5. Biased – by Jennifer Eberhardt
  6. Caste – by Isabel Wilkerson
  7. 21 Things  You May Not Know About the Indian Act – by Bob Joseph

Feel free to share some of the texts that have pushed you beyond your comfort zones in the comments below. I am always open for book recommendations.

Mentoring Moments: Lesson Planning 101 for New Teachers

Every teacher loves her lessons, as teachers they guide us through the most inspirational paths into developing life long learning opportunities for students…letting them find their own success, one student at a time.

Start with where you are inspired 

As a new teacher, always know that you will find your own way your strategy of doing things…go with your interest and drive your lessons from it. We are not all the same that is why we are amazing at what we do. However, as an experienced teacher, I wanted to share some insights into lesson planning that have inspired me.

  • Find your interest
  • Drive lessons with your strength
  • Have fun planning but be flexible

Drive your lessons with student interest

The lesson inspiration comes from your students that you are teaching, if they are not interested,  it is going to feel like a long lesson…so get them excited and inspired as you plan with the curriculum in mind. 

Backwards design your plan for the Unit

I recently learned an amazing method called “The Grid Method” to organize my thinking and planning. I have so much gratitude to the “Teach Better Team” in the United States for introducing me to this method as I organized my way of thinking through my lesson planning. I have shared my grid method plan so you can see how it works for one Science unit with curriculum expectations using project-based learning with a culminating task that is differentiated for individual student success for online learning.

My Unit Plan for you to try out!

Reflection: What is the one lesson you want to try and plan using the Grid Method Template?

Tag me on social media and keep in touch and share your journey it is going to have many up and downs but you will be fine. Just be yourself.

Yours in Education,

Nilmini

Mentoring Moments: Shifting Power Dynamics in the Education System

In Canada, we embrace the beautiful cultures of the world, the languages and heritages of many cultures that make us unique! What our country can show the world is that DIFFERENCES make us the face of the new Global World, which is our Strength and what we have to offer each and every country.

It is also our biggest strength in education to be able to teach how to maintain peace, be united and show togetherness in times of challenge as we accept the historic past that has brought us together in this beautiful homeland called Canada.

We have strength in our united education workers that work together: we need to advocate for togetherness to build a strong education system that is resilient to changes that  will make it stronger.

Here was a bit about my educational perspectives from the private education I received in Sri Lanka to the public education I received in Canada from the Educational Blog from Doug Peterson Interview that I wanted to share that helped me reflect. He first connected me to my Professional Learning Network when I was new to Twitter and it has been an honour to stay connected!

Shift the Power and make it purposeful

Here is the story behind the cakes! They are special to me…my parents always made us cakes for our birthdays and I have always loved cakes in the family. Celebrations have brought the family together: and this was my last Birthday cake – Ah! Bring on those super powers for the feminist and the males who advocate for women’s rights…We can make a difference in the world.

  1. Advocate for your Students (Make that special Cake to celebrate that you are here!)

  • Teach with the whole child in mind
  • Differentiate for success
  • Each child they bring their best to your classroom
  • Modify and accommodate lessons for it to personalized
  • Let’s student lead the pace and discussion
  • You lead the curriculum and teaching goals
  1. Change your thinking as an Educator (The ingredients in the cake that you pick that makes that cake your making delicious but unique since all the differences are important)

Hold yourself accountable in knowing you are human and you are a life long learner

  • Learn about Equity concepts
  • Know that there is discrimination
  • Understand micro aggressions
  • Be Anti-Racist Educator
  • Teach about isms explicitly with purpose
  1. Ableism
  2. Classism
  3. Ageism
  4. Religion as an ism
  5. Racism
  6. Homophobia/Heterosexism
  7. Sexism
  1. Build Relationships with your community (The “icing” that makes that cake delicious that adds the perfect touch with that sparkle!)

  • Have courageous conversations about the topics that really matter
  • Embrace differences and find common ground in solutions
  • Create safe spaces for discussions that are inclusive and welcoming

Always remember we teach other peoples children, our biggest resource as a community. It is the next generation, they are important these children that we educate and let’s make a difference by teaching them to be the best they can be!

Reflection: What is the one thing you will do to make a difference as we unite education workers, students and parents to create a good education system that embraces diversity ? You can make a difference.

Yours in Education,

Nilmini

References:

Teach Better Team: Let’s Talk Equity Twitter Chat Link 

 

Teaching Social Justice and Equity Through Mathematics

By the time students reach high school, they are already being streamed into different academic levels that often limit their full potentials for growth and development. This streaming pathway closes the door of opportunity for many underserved and racialized students. It is important that educators develop multiple entry points, honour different ways of knowing, and provide numerous opportunities for students to experience success in mathematics.  When mathematics is introduced as a tool for understanding the world, we are helping to liberate the minds of students and championing the educational goal of creating informed citizens who will contribute to, and participate in, an inclusive and democratic society. An inquiry-based approach to mathematics with a focus on teaching for social justice and equity (which values multiple perspectives, the social construction of knowledge, and interconnects student experience with mathematics) can empower students to develop both mathematical and social/political knowledge. 

 

As an intermediate classroom teacher, as well as a special education teacher, I have learned over the years how to embed culturally relevant and responsive equity and social justice issues into my numeracy program as a form of engaging students and empowering them to understand and confront inequities inside and outside of the classroom. This personal philosophy and teaching pedagogy did not happen overnight or within my first five years of teaching. It really required, from me, a personal philosophical understanding and belief in what it means to educate young minds and to effectively prepare them for the realities of life. Over time, through my experience of navigating the educational system for myself and for the students and families I service in my numerous roles, I began to develop an equity lens approach to my teaching practices. As an avid math enthusiast, I took numerous math AQ courses and got my math specialist. These AQ courses were instrumental in my discovery of the connection between numeracy and equity. I began to see beyond the numbers in teaching mathematics to a place where the numbers themselves took on deeper societal meaning in terms of what they represented, who they represented (or did not represent) and the impact of these numbers on various groups of people within our society. I’m telling you, it was a very enlightening experience for me to reach that level of understanding about mathematical justice. If you have never taken a math AQ course, I implore you to consider taking one for your own personal and professional growth and development. 

 

Where do you begin?

Dr. Bev Caswell who works at the University of Toronto, OISE, developed an inquiry-based Math and STEM social justice program for junior and intermediate students. The Robertson Program focuses on creating a space for student voice and authentic learning experiences in the classroom and out in the community. Furthermore, the lessons incorporate 21st century competencies, universal design of learning, differentiated instruction and culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy. They are also connected to the new Ontario math curriculum and have a cross curricular approach that infuses math, STEM, history and relevant global systemic issues. As a central staff, my role is to build teacher capacity in implementing effective teaching practices in the classroom. This program is something that I recommend to teachers as a supplemental resource to their numeracy program. 

Here are some lessons I would like to highlight: 

 

  1. Historical Figures in One Minute – a lesson for students in grades 4 to 7. This lesson makes convincing arguments and informed decisions regarding the data and graphs collected to discuss why some groups appear to be over-represented while others remain severely under-represented.
  2. Water Inquiry – a lesson for students in grades 4 to 8. This inquiry-based, water-focused lesson integrates mathematics, environmental science, geography, Indigenous rights, language arts and social justice issues.
  3. Price Check – a lesson for students in grades 4 to 8. This lesson explores socioeconomic reasons for the price difference in grocery store options in different locations in Canada.
  4. Milk Bag Project – This is a Google Docs presentation of the lesson for grades 4 to 8 students. This lesson focuses on the City of Toronto’s packaging-reduction bylaws passed in 2008. Students complete a collaborative inquiry on how many plastic bags (from a 4-litre milk plastic bag) it would take to make 10 mats (as described in the lesson).

 

So what?

Sometimes it can be scary to try something new or to teach in a way that can perhaps seem foreign and unconventional. However, this is exactly why we need to take a social justice and systemic approach to our teaching practices. A social justice approach to teaching mathematics should include equitable and inclusive teaching practices, high expectations for all students, access to rich, rigorous, and culturally relevant mathematics to promote a positive learning environment. To me, the results are more rewarding than the burden of planning, documenting and evaluating. We should feel honoured to be part of the process in which we are helping to build a better future for all by empowering students to understand how to navigate the world around them and how to confront systemic inequities in all aspects of their life. 

My first experience as an official mentor

Yesterday began my first official day as a student-teacher mentor. So for the next six weeks, I will be blogging about the experiences of having a student-teacher in the classroom.

Since I have been teaching for longer than five years now, I am eligible to have a student teacher in the classroom. Since I was remote last year, I did not jump at the opportunity as I thought it would be more beneficial for that student teacher to learn in a physical classroom. This year, I could tell I have an incredible class who would give that teacher candidate a lot of experience and I was excited at the opportunity! Not only is having a student teacher an amazing opportunity to inspire the next generation of teachers with new ideas and methods but it also allows for all students to get an extra adult in the room. That is an incredible opportunity for all for those six incredible weeks.

My student teacher started yesterday and was visibly excited to start her practicum. She had been waiting for her placement to begin as her experience in the physical classroom got cut short last year as we switched to virtual. I could tell right away that her positive attitude and attentiveness would do so well in my 7/8 classroom.

The day started well with introductions, routines and the basics. As the day unfolded, I could see her getting to know the students and having chats with them. This was great to see as this is the best way to get involved right at the beginning. Almost immediately, a student shared about how they hadn’t slept the night before and how they were feeling upset. Right away, my student teacher got to see how if a student isn’t feeling mentally healthy or ready for the day, they cannot succeed in the classroom. I let my student know that they were heard and that we would support them at school and look to help them at home. Mental health and student well-being will be and should always be the main focus in the classroom so it was important for my student teacher to hear that discussion on her first morning.

During our planning time, we had great discussions around why she had decided to go to school for teaching, her teachable areas, any aspects of her placement that she was feeling anxious about, any extra-curriculars she would like to be involved in and a few more questions to get our journey together started. These answers are important to set the foundation for her placement. I also asked her to complete a small task for homework, to write out the seating plan and to write down any small comments or observations that she had made about the students on her first day.

This morning, when she shared all the observations she had gathered, I was shocked with how much she had learned about my students after she had only met them for five periods. I mentioned how knowing the learners, their needs and learning habits will ultimately determine the way that she teaches for the next six weeks. I cannot stress enough how thrilled I was to hear all she had observed in that short amount of time.

After school today she came to assist with volleyball, which was great to see. Funny enough, we have the same coaching interests so it will be great to see her get involved in these activities as well. I am so excited for this journey as I can tell she is an eager university student who was meant to be a teacher. I am happy to pass on all that I know and of course, guide and help her through this journey. I was so fortunate enough eight years ago to have two associate teachers who did so much for me. They made me the teacher I am today and allowed me to explore so many aspects of this profession. I can only hope I will do the same for her.

SERT= (joy + journey) x job

Fall 2021 marks the start of my 5th year as a co-SERT (Special Education Resource Teacher). Please, no gifts. Although, you can read on if you’re feeling generous?

2021 is also the first year that I finally feel comfortable in the position. Up until now, I’ve felt competent, somewhat confident, but never comfortable. If your school is like mine, there is a lot going on in SERTLandia as I fondly call it, and a lot at stake. Thankfully, I have been really blessed to have a patient and savvy mentor to work with throughout this time. There haven’t been many days when I didn’t need her wisdom, experience, and support to keep me on track while growing in the role. 

First, some background info

I never wanted to be a SERT. I initially took the course so I could be more adept in my work with students in the classroom. After completing Level 1, I figured a little more wouldn’t hurt so I enrolled in Pt 2. Did you know that many school boards offer their own AQ courses, and as luck would have it, my board provided an affordable option for staff. ETFO does too. The learning, although difficult to keep up with while teaching fulltime was worth it in resources, stories, and deeper understandings about how to truly support students whether they were identified or not in my classroom. Once Pt 1 and 2 were done, I retreated back to my comfort zone and began to apply ‘the learning‘. Or so I thought. 

“I will quit if I ever have to be a SERT.”

I actually said that to a superintendent during a conversation over needing her signature on an application for my SERT Specialist(pt 3). I know, as well, that the role of SERT looked different from school to school and board to board based on a number of things such as allocation of resources (human and financial). I know that many schools have 1 SERT lifting the weight for an entire community as well. So I count myself lucky to work in a team environment.

My ‘never’ was now a yes, but what I didn’t factor into that impetuously made statement was how the experience and knowledge gained from parts 1 and 2 began to take hold in such tangible ways in my classroom. My classroom management improved along with my ability to differentiate more for students who struggled but were otherwise not identified. I learned the value of growth plans and asking for help. Suddenly, it made perfect sense to go for my specialist to finish the learning I had started. It was nothing short of an incredible experience. Yet, I still did not have my heart or mind set on becoming a SERT. I did have some fun writing my own IEP with accommodations though. I think every teacher should do this at least once in their career.

SERT certification in hand, I retreated to the safety and comfort of my classroom once again. With new knowledge and perspectives in the tool box, things seemed to click even more. Throughout the entirety of the 3 AQ courses for Special Education Specialist I developed an even deeper respect for the SERT team in my schools. I witnessed the wonders that they worked everyday and the students who they supported. They made it look so easy, but I saw how much work they put in each day. I struggled to see myself in their shoes.

Qualified, but terrified

I was so terrified of the responsibilities, the paperwork, and the meetings that seemed endemic to the job. I love being in the classroom. I also feared making mistakes and letting students slip through the cracks. I was convinced that being an ally was a great way to support the awesome SERTs in my schools. However, the more I learned, the more I was able to apply outside of the classroom to help student teachers and fellow educators. Then the call came with an offer to be a co-SERT. 

New school. New Role. What was I thinking? 

As I have shared in past posts, I am a huge proponent of educators switching schools to explore new teaching opportunities and to stretch outside of their comfort zones. I believe that moves to new schools open educators up to new learning experiences and provide excellent ways to learn from others. This can lead to discomfort as well, but that is usually where the best growth happens for you personally and professionally. As a result, in 2017 I started teaching at the 4th school of my 12 year career – so far. In each case, I did not have a single reason to leave such wonderful colleagues and students behind, but for no other reason than to learn more. 

I can clearly recall the disorientation that came at the pace of SERT life and trying to balance out my instructional obligations those first weeks. I questioned whether my decision to join a new school was going to coming back to bite me. Thankfully, a supportive admin, co-SERT, and staff alleviated most of that stress. I wanted to do a good job, but I wasn’t even sure what that looked like. That was how new it all felt to me. That meant a lot of silent observation followed by a lot of questions. By October that first year, things seemed much clearer. Clearer, yet not clear. 

Fastforward to 2021

100s of IEPs, growth plans, IPRCs, SEA claims, academic tests, in-school meetings, student support sessions, teacher consultations, CPI calls, and parent convos later have all contributed to a very incredible set of insights into the needs of learners. I am not sure whether I will be a SERT in the future or not, but I will never regret taking the AQs or this job. They have been incredible tools in my growth and practice as an educator. My experiences as a SERT have been transformational and I wouldn’t go back in time and talk myself out of this opportunity even if I could. *  

So whether you dip your toe in the water and do SpEd Pt 1 or dive in for a 5 year swim, I encourage you all to take join me. The water is fine. 

If you would like to share your own journey about becoming a SERT or if you want to chat more about becoming a SERT please add a comment below and I’ll pass it on to my mentor. She still has all of the answers.  

* Well I might go back and buy some shares in Tesla, but that is a story for another dimension.