“How can I help?”

The adage of “If you want something done right, do it yourself,” was ingrained in me at an early age.  Until recently, I have always thought that being confident, capable and successful meant never asking for help.  I used to think that asking for help meant that you were weak.  I now think that asking for help is incredibly brave.  My 17 year old son recently told me about a group chat with his workmates.  Someone at work had sent an urgent message to the group asking how to do something while closing up the restaurant.  Many of the coworkers poked fun at the lack of knowledge of the person seeking help.  My son (brace yourself for this proud Mama Bear moment) texted that it was really brave of his co-worker to ask for help and provided the information that the coworker needed to close up for the night. I think that his act demonstrated wisdom an empathy far beyond his years.

Have you ever felt a little territorial or protective about your ideas or lessons in your classroom?  I imagine everyone likes to be valued for their unique talents and abilities.  In general, I don’t think anyone likes to be seen to be struggling and consequently, some teachers might choose to work in isolation. Perhaps it is fear. I’ve spoken to many colleagues who have identified as suffering from imposter syndrome. Perhaps those of us who have experienced imposter syndrome think that if anyone else got eyes on what we do every day that we would be judged and found to be lacking in some way.  Often teachers will tell me that they don’t have time to share with their colleagues-there just isn’t enough time in the day to collaborate. With the busy pace of education, I know that I have absolutely felt that way. My experience has been that when I take the time to collaborate with others I in fact, have more time and consequently better programming.  It is a concerted effort and takes a trusting relationship to co-plan and co-teach but when it works, it is amazing.

In my role as an instructional leadership consultant I am responsible for two portfolios; Innovation and Technology and the New Teacher Induction Program.  At the beginning of the COVID pandemic as teachers were teaching virtually for the first time, some had never used things like Google apps, FlipGrid and Kahoot. I was doing my best to support teachers with tools for teaching online.  Thankfully, I knew some other teachers that I could reach out to and ask for help.  These teachers, close to the beginning of their careers, were using these tools in the classroom and were able to help design and present webinars to other more seasoned colleagues.  As teachers, we often think that we need to have all of the answers for our students and with one another.  I’ve heard it referred to as the “Sage on the Stage Syndrome.” We seem to feel that we need to stay ahead of everything, which is impossible.  Education is changing more rapidly than ever.  I learned so much from my colleagues over the months that we worked together as a team and even though it was stressful at times, it was also incredibly fun.  I look back now on the powerful outreach our work had and the gratitude that was expressed by our colleagues and I am so glad that I got over myself and asked for help.

In the t.v. drama “New Amsterdam” whenever the new director of the hospital is introduced to someone, the first question that he asks is, “How can I help?”  It happens in the first episode about twenty times. This was a BIG a-ha moment for me.  What a powerful question!  How often have we wanted our students to ask for help?  How often have they refused when we have asked “Can I help you?”or “Do you need help?”  Unfortunately, asking for help is still seen as a weakness by many people.  However the question “How can I help?” turns it around so that the responsibility and focus is on the person offering assistance.  It is more difficult for someone to just say “No.” to this question.  It can help to create psychological safety in order to focus on what can be done to help rather than someone sitting in discomfort or shame because they won’t ask for help.  Sometimes just asking can make all the difference to someone when they are feeling overwhelmed, even if they decline the offer.  The four small words, “How can I help?” can make a powerful impact.  Sometimes, asking for help is the bravest thing you can do.

A cartoon image of a bald person holding a finger to their lips to signal "shhhhhh."


My students with Developmental Disabilities have taught me so many things in the past year and a half. They are absolutely an incredible group of kids that are some of the most resilient, funny and committed students I have ever had the pleasure of teaching. They come to school every day pumped up for school and even in the midst of deep, and I mean deep, puberty they manage to hold their hormones in check in order for us to accomplish our goals for the day.

One of the best things my students have taught me is to listen more than speak. As teachers we give instructions all day long. We give instructions on where to line up, which book to read, when to take out instruments and if you are a kindergarten teacher you have probably reminded a student to take their hand out of their pants or nose at least once this week. Most of my students understand the same instructions that many other students understand. I can tell them to line up, get their lunch and many, many other typical school instructions. The difference is that many of the students in my class have some difficulty communicating. Some have stutters, others have mouths that are formed in a way that it is difficult for them to form words and others can’t handle multiple instructions in rapid succession. I realized that in order to hear what they are trying to communicate with me I would have to be quiet a lot of the time and really listen.

My students use a multitude of communication strategies throughout the day to communicate their ideas, thoughts and feelings.

They use:

Visuals- Wow, what would we do without pictures in the classroom? I have understood preferred choices and questions about assigned tasks from the visuals that the students present to me. My newest student quietly reminds me that her time on her bike is coming up next by making sure I notice the picture on her schedule.

Technology- It is a really great time to be a teacher in many ways. There are so many amazing aps and devices that can support student’s learning. My students have told me all about their weekend, favourite items and requests for upcoming events in the classroom using technology.

Gestures/Facial Expressions- My students use a lot of pointing and gestures to communicate in my class. For me as the teacher, the most important time that I use gestures or facial expression is when my students are in distress and escalated. A neutral face and body accompanied by simple one- or two-word instructions are the most important tools in deescalated the stress of my students. When my student’s emotions are heightened, it is very important that I don’t stress them further by asking them to take in a lot of spoken language.

I am so thankful for my students and all that they have taught me.


Listening is an art that requires attention over talents, spirit over ego, others over self” -Dean Jackson



An illustration of two stick figures, each with a blank speech bubble.

Communication, Communication, Communication

If you had asked me three years ago how I would rate my communication skills, I would have given myself an 8 out of 10. I felt confident that I could share ideas clearly and listen to gather information. I consistently had good and productive relationships with parents, colleagues and students. I was confident in these skills until I entered my current role as the teacher in a class with 10 students who all have exceptionalities. Wow, my communication skills were really put to the test. In my new role, I was now communicating daily with 3 Educational Resource Facilitators (TAs), administration, parents whose children have limited communication, Speech and Language Pathologists, Occupational Therapists, 10 students who have all have some form communication impairment, etc.

I have learned a lot over the past year about effective communication and although our system is far from perfect, it seems to be working for us. I learned that trying to verbally tell all of the ERFs in the room something, quickly became a game of broken telephone. Throughout the day all of the ERFs have a one-hour break so that means that all the staff are together in my classroom for a total of only an hour a day.  We learned throughout last year that communication has to be visual and accessible for everyone in the room so we came up with two ways to help keep everyone in the loop.

The 2 areas of the classroom where our communication is evident is on our whiteboard and our filing cabinets. The whiteboard is an all-around place to go for information regarding the upcoming week in our class. Last year, I learned that information is often shared with teachers first so the whiteboard became a place to go to keep everyone up to speed on the events in our class and school. We also realized that when supply TAs and teachers came to the school, it was so much easier to refer them to some of the information on the whiteboard.

The other place that has worked so well this year is our two filing cabinets right inside my classroom door. One filing cabinet is labeled “Work with Teacher” and the other “Independent Work”. Inside each filing cabinet each one of my students has a section of activities that they need teacher support for and another section in the other filing cabinet that contains activities that they can do completely independently. In daily conversations with ERFS and data tracking of progress, I make decisions about what activities each student will be doing in the upcoming weeks and add or take away activities for a student to work on. It is also an easy place for all staff in the room to know which activity the student is working on.

In addition to the staff in my classroom, communicating with parents has reached a whole new level. I have probably chatted with each one of my families a minimum of 5 times on the phone already this year and I write home every single day in their communication book. I have learned that writing long messages in 10 books every day is very time consuming. I have just made a new form that I am using this year that captures some of the information that I need to communicate every day but in a more efficient way. Below is the example of my current daily communication form that I use. I highlight what activities that the student has completed that day, circle what they need and write a quick note about their day.

Finally, communicating with my students has also evolved over the course of the past year. All of my students use individual visual schedules which I think is quite common for many students with exceptionalities. Our communication board helps students know what is coming up and where they should be in the classroom throughout the day.

Communication is definitely a work in progress for me but it is getting better every single day!



Anchoring Learning

Anchor charts have long been identified as a high-yield learning tool. What exactly is an anchor chart? Why use them? How do you determine what should be on an anchor chart? These are common questions faced by teachers as they try to establish optimum learning environments for their students.

I have heard anchor charts best described as the ‘third teacher’. The following is a quote from Scholastic’s Literacy Place – For The Early Years, 2010. “ To promote literacy skills and encourage independence, you will want to make strategic and purposeful use of print resources such as posters, signs, lists, charts, and student/teacher writing samples in your classroom. One tool in particular, the anchor chart, is very effective in promoting student success. An anchor chart outlines or describes procedures, processes, and strategies on a particular theme or topic and is posted in the classroom for reference by students. Examples of anchor charts include: what to do in an interview, tips on using commas, what readers need to do when they infer, how to choose just right’ books, or how to write a literature response.

This of course aligns perfectly with the visual learner. Visual learners learn through seeing, observing and anchor charts allow them perpetual access to critical information and not just when instruction by a teacher is occurring. They can return to the key ideas or concepts when they need to and as often as they need to.

One lesson that I have learned is that not everything can be an anchor chart even though it is all so valuable. If the visual scene in your classroom becomes cluttered the benefits of this tool diminish as they just become part of the scenery and no longer a tool for the students. In my class we have a large variety of anchor charts positioned around the classroom with different colours, fonts, sizes, shapes and almost any other way I can make them unique and stick out. I did an experiment with my students one day where I gave them post it notes and asked them to go around and put them on the anchor charts they used most often and felt were most helpful to them. Prior to that I had made my prediction of what might occur. Needless to say, what I thought was most important did not align with their view. Sooooo from that point on, my anchor charts became a mutual task created by my students and myself. I still do all of the finish work, but the content and positioning in the room is a shared decision. One final change in my practice as a result of that data collection was that I am constantly changing the visual cues so that they stay fresh as learning tools and not just become a regular site in the room.

Another feature of this great tool is that I also have personal anchor charts around my desk that help me as I learn new pedagogy to add to my practice. I am able to return to them throughout the day to evaluate my growth and development progress. IMG_1799 IMG_1803 IMG_1804 IMG_1797 IMG_1806 IMG_1798 IMG_1800 IMG_1801

Positive vs Negative Student Balances

When you look at your bank account you work extremely hard to ensure you always have a positive balance. By having a positive balance you are able to pursue so many options in how you may use that surplus. When you are not able to keep a positive balance, you become very limited in the options you have and may in the worst circumstance go bankrupt.

I look at each and every child and each and every family in that way. I start in September with a zero balance as I am just opening up that account. From the first minute I interact with each child as well as their family, I am either making deposits or withdrawals. Each and every positive statement I make, word of encouragement I offer, inflating vs deflating statement said, either builds that account or reduces that account balance.

When a conflict occurs (and it will) you are now having to look at the account you have created and will make a withdrawal as you help that child understand the choice they made and how to learn from it. If you have a built up a strong, positive balance with that child you are able to make that withdrawal without having any ill effects on the relationship that exists between the both of you. If it is a call home in regards to a negative scenario that occurred at school, the family’s reaction will be either supportive or defensive depending on the balance you have established at home with the parent(s).

I use a variety of tools to help foster a positive balance. The two most effective for me are ‘Sunshine Calls’ and rephrasing my comments when I react to the day-to-day events that unravel in my room. In a sunshine call I am truly just trying to send a positive message to each family about their child. It can be as simple as a comment about a great writing effort that occurred today, how their child read aloud for the first time in front of his/her peers or what a positive decision they made not make a small problem bigger. Over time I can actually hear the change in how the parent reacts to me once they recognize their child’s teacher is calling. Within a few months, the calls home are very sociable and appreciated by the family.

The second strategy took me a while to develop. I had to literally think about how and what I would say when events occurred. First I had to examine my approach and found that my initial comments were deflating or withdrawing from that account balance. For example if a student made a mess, I would say, “ You need to be more careful and not make a mess”. This type of statement always puts a student on the defensive. I am learning to rephrase my comments to be able to send a message but not put a student on the defensive. I now say “ Are you okay, accidents happen to everyone. How can we clean it up?”

A very unintentional but amazing benefit of this approach was that I was modelling for my students each day how to be respectful to each other in the way they communicate. Soon, this type of positive communication becomes the norm of the class. There are less and less conflicts between students simply due to the way they learn to communicate with each other and the people around them.


How to get at the truth – maybe

Almost everyday in kindergarten someone tells a fib. Sometimes it is me – “I will come over to see you swing on the monkey bars in just a minute.” More frequently, however, the most talented fibbers are from amongst my class of 26 five year olds. Occasionally, the fibs are small, like, “No, I didn’t bring my library book,” or “Yes, I washed my hands,” – either of these are easy enough to verify by checking in a backpack or looking at the hands in question.  A more substantial variety of the fib comes in the form of a tall tale, which I guess is a subcategory of the fib, but far more interesting and creative. Examples include; “I found a wasp as big as a bird in my backyard,” or, “One day, I lost my tooth, broke my arm, got stung by a bee, AND fell off my bicycle!” Which was curious, because the exact same thing – minus the broken arm –  happened to another student one day, too.

These kinds of untruths can be left as is because no one is harmed by such exaggerations. A student who lets loose with one of these may be heralded amongst his or her peers as cool, lucky or a great story-teller, and may even garner a “Student X has an excellent imagination” comment on a report card from his or her teacher. However, the fibs that are problematic are ones which can cause some sort of injury. This is often the time when the truth is harder to get at and when we, as teachers, need to figure out what has happened so that we can report to parents or to the administration. Nothing is more frustrating than having both parties involved in a conflict deny involvement. How can they be so convincing? Looking you straight in the eye, and giving their side of the story, you think you may know who is telling the truth, until the second student denies everything. OK, someone here is not telling the truth, but who is it? I don’t have training in the forensics of lie detection, I don’t have the time to slowly draw it out of a student when my classroom is in full swing with 24 kinders, and I need to get to the bottom of this. What to do?

Quite by accident, the other day I stumbled upon a strategy that seemed to work really well and quickly. I am not sure if it was a one-off or if it would work with other students, but it is definitely worth trying again. The situation was a relatively common one in the school yard; one boy had shoved another boy during outdoor play. When I went over to put a stop to the scramble, I was ready to give a serious reminder about schoolyard behaviour to the boy whom I had seen doing the shoving, when he very quietly told me that the other boy had tried to pull his pants down. What?! This was a very uncharacteristic statement from a boy who enjoys running and wrestling and has received the old ‘proper playground behaviour ‘ talk a few times already.  But the other boy said that he hadn’t done anything! He told me several times, in fact. Here’s the problem; when we are dealing with our students in delicate situations like these, we always want to be fair, but it can be really hard when 2 five year olds look at you and blind you with their cuteness and excellent fibbing skills. So, instead of being hasty and jumping to conclusions, I decided I would try again to ask my question, “Did you do that?” but this time, I told the student he could answer me with a thumbs up if he had done it, or a thumbs down if he hadn’t. When I repeated my question, he squirmed a few seconds, looked everywhere but at me, folded his arms, then, there it was, the thumb popped up. Now we could get somewhere!

I can only assume that it is more difficult to tell something that is not true when you cannot use your words, and I can only assume that it may even be a small kind of relief when your body just goes ahead and tells the truth. There is no more conflict or hole-digging once the gesture gets everything out in the open. I am not really sure why it worked, but it was a gentle way for a problem to be resolved and for me to help two little boys who had both gone too far in their actions, and, as a happy ending to this post, I am happy to report are still good friends.

Sunshine Calls

When my students arrive into my alternative behaviour classroom in September, so do their parents and families. The family’s beliefs and attitudes about school have been shaping ever since their child became a part of the formal school system. For the  family of my students, that means that most communication from the school has almost certainly been a negative scenario that had unfolded. So when I complete my first call home in September what do you think the response is from the parent who answers the phone? You are right, “Okay what did my child do now?”

Just as it takes time to build relationships with your students, so does it take time and effort to connect with families. This is especially true for families of students who have struggled in school or have had difficulty adjusting to school and classroom expectations. For me this starts with an onslaught of ‘Sunshine Calls’. A Sunshine Call is a strategy that I use to gain the confidence of my families by showing that I care about their child, I believe in their child and will balance the type of information that comes home and not dwell on the negative (attribute based approach).

The best analogy I can use to explain the benefits of this strategy is to compare it to banking. The more positive deposits that I put into my account (compliments, sunshine calls) the stronger that balance will be. When I do have to make a withdrawal (call home about a negative scenario) my positive balance will hold me over and the relationship will remain stable and the family will be more likely to support me knowing that it must be concerning for Mr. B. to be calling home about it.

What is exciting for me, is when my students start to understand and realize that their best efforts and positive changes will be shared often and ongoing with their family. I start by asking them if they would like me to cimagesall home and tell their parents about some positive scenario that took place that day. They 100% of the time say an astounding yes. As they come to realize this is a regular part of our classroom, they begin to ask me to call their family and let them know about their math work or reading. That is the time that I know why I will always look to see the glass as half full.

Weekly News

I want to share with you an experiment gone really right. Over 2o years ago, a very good friend of mine and I started working with high-risk youth (Grade 6 -8) in our board in the summers. We had developed a program based around adventure-based learning. Our focus was to use the outdoors and physical challenges to assist them in developing social and self-regulation skills that would increase the probability of their success in school. One of the tools we developed was a Daily Newsletter (as we called it at that time) to inform families of their child’s progress as well as provide a summary of the days successes and occasional not so good outcomes. That one teaching tool has evolved over the last twenty years into what is now my Weekly Parent Book.

At the end of each week, at my classroom computer station I sit, look around my room and ask myself the following questions:

  1. How well did I meet the needs of each of my students?
  2. Did I make time to talk with each student on a one-to-one basis to find out how their life is going?
  3. Did I push too hard or not hard enough in moving them along their academic journey?
  4. What did I accomplish this week in literacy, numeracy etc.?
  5. What went well in Room 16 this week?
  6. What did not go well in Room 16 this week?
  7. How will I use that information to make the next week more successful for everyone?

That weekly routine has turned into one of the most rewarding and successful self-reflection tools I have ever had. Its initial, sole intent was to inform parents of what was going on in their child’s classroom. What it has become is a tool that I use to inform families, publish good news stories, share advice on how parents can help their child, updates on school-wide initiatives and most importantly, a tool to reflect on my week’s teaching.

It is a time that I actually use to decompress from the week’s events, look back in order to plan ahead for my next week and set goals of what I need to accomplish the following week (from a curriculum standpoint or what is needed to help specific students move forward). As the year progresses, the content of the weekly news becomes a shared work whereby students start to contribute to its production. That is when this tool becomes a very powerful learning tool for all of us.

Of course being the old school type, every Monday our morning circle starts with the sharing of the past week, goal setting using the feedback on that two-sided sheet of paper and then the ritual of adding it to their Parent Book to go home and be read and signed by an adult in their home. It goes home on Monday and is not due back until the following Monday to accommodate a wide variety of family scenarios and work schedules. The back of the page usually has some photograph that was taken during the week, an advice column, new goals for the class, a funny parent story or some other kind of important read for my families. At the end of the year it turns into a yearbook that can serve as a memory of their year. I still have all of my copies and when I need a little nostalgia fix all I have to do is go back and look through my career, year-by-year.

Weekly News

Photo of Mike Beetham

The Power Of The Circle

The circle has many historical references probably none more meaningful as the significance to the traditions of our First Nations’ People. It is a very powerful formation as it represents the importance of each and every person in the group. There is no start or finish to a circle as well as representing the cycle of life for both nature and humans. I use the circle in my classroom for all classroom discussions, meetings and as a morning check in and day end check out.

During circle time the students are facing each other, taught how to demonstrate a good listener position and become more engaged in each and every discussion. The key message the circle sends is that each and every person in that circle is important and valued  for their ideas, who they are and the voice they will share with the rest of the group.

My first month of school is the time when the circle is introduced and the procedures that will be used during circle time. It is like any other beginning of the year activity, it requires a lot of work and consistency in the beginning. I use a variety of adventure based programming activities to further support the concept of how powerful the circle is in our physical education classes.

Over the course of first term there is a gradual release of responsibility to the point (at this time of the year) the circle is lead most often by the students. It becomes a tool for everyone in the room and not just the teacher. Last week a student asked to have circle time so that an issue that had taken place during the fitness break could be addressed and resolved.

Many times I am asked how do you use the circle in a classroom full of students, desks, support material and other classroom materials. My best answer to that important question is that if there is a will, there is always a way to make it work. Through both creative classroom design and the establishment of effective routines, the transition from regular classroom to circle formation can become seamless. I highly encourage you to research more about the traditional circle and how it may become a strategy in your classroom.

Photo of Lisa Taylor

Bulletin Boards – Teaching Tool, Art Gallery, or Wallpaper?

Every classroom has bulletin boards, some have one, some have 10! It all depends on the space you have and how you plan to use it. It is easy to set something up with plans for it to change or evolve, only to find that 4 months later you haven’t touched it, taught to it, or even referenced it!!

In my experience, Bulletin Boards end up falling into 1 of 3 categories: Teaching Tool, Art Gallery, or Wallpaper. Some bulletin boards are a blend of two or even all three of these categories. It is important to make the most of the space you have on your walls, while being cognisant of the fact that many children find too much stuff on the walls to be distracting.

When planning your walls, make sure you check with health and safety regulation, as many school boards have a maximum percentage of walls space that can be covered to stay within the fire regulation. So before you hit pinterest for some great ideas, make sure you are even able to cover the space! In my classroom, I have 5 large boards that cover almost every space that isn’t blackboard, windows or doors. The space that the bulletin boards cover is actually above the maximum percentage I can have covered in paper!! So I can’t paper back my boards as it is a fire hazard.

Many teachers like to paint their boards so they look crisp and clean all year. Again, double check with health and safety, as it is often an issue as it adds weight to the board which might not have been considered when mounting it. Especially if you are the 10th person in the classroom to paint them because the previous colours didn’t suit anyone’s decor!

Once you have established what your health and safety guidelines are, you can start to think about what is going on the walls. Ask yourself a few questions before you put something up there.

1. How will this help the students? While a Word Wall CAN help students, if you slap it all up before school starts and casually refer to it from time to time, it is not a useful tool and it is just wallpaper. Make sure you teach to it. Make it with the class and do it organically!

2. Is this something we need up for more than just today? If you only need it for the immediate future, don’t make a whole board of it. If you want to show off student work, I find the hallway is the best place for this type of thing. It gets more “traffic” from other teachers/students/parents, and it isn’t a distraction to learning. If you do need it for more than just today, you may want to ask a few more questions before you decide where to put it!

3. Do I need to put it all up right away and on my own? As teachers, we hate to look or feel like we aren’t organized, prepared, and ready to go! I recall as a young teacher, putting up bulletin boards before the first day of school. Yes, sometimes I taught to them, but generally they were just wallpaper. Many of us are guilty of putting up the whole word wall kit the day we get it! It just looks so pretty when it is done! Put it up gradually, and with the class! This will make it a more meaningful teaching tool. As teachers, we like everything to look complete and not “in progress” – but having the word wall with just 3-4 words up in September is what your students need!

4. Am I done with this? If you aren’t using it anymore, and the kids aren’t, take a picture of it and take it down! The more “stuff” you have on your walls, the harder it is for students to find what they are looking for. If you don’t need it anymore, take it down!

5. Are the kids using this? Even when you read the research, do the work, cut, past, laminate, and put up a beautiful board, the kids may not respond to it and it may not be useful to them. If you put up a board for math showing single digit addition strategies to start off the year, if they have all mastered it by December, they probably aren’t using it anymore. We have a tendency to keep things up in lieu of blank space to avoid looking like we aren’t accomplishing anything as a class! If they aren’t using it, take it down, or teach to it more, modify it, model how to use it. If after teaching to it more, they still aren’t using it – TAKE IT DOWN!!

There are thousands of blog posts and pinterest boards dedicated to amazing bulletin board ideas. Before you put one up, make sure it is actually something you need, that will get used, and that you install it in such a way that the students know how to access it.

There are great blog posts about what to do with your bulletin boards when you are done. My personal favourite is to snap a picture and create a bulletin board binder. That way, if there is still one of two children in the class that still need that bulletin board, they can go to the binder and look at it all year long! It will also serve as a nice reminder of how they looked if you end up needing to recreate it another year!