Amanda Steeley, Special Education Teacher
With a few exceptions, you would not pick a primary care physician without meeting him or her first. The knowledge, support, and care that doctors offer is vital to your health. When it comes to your child, you are likely to be even pickier. You might even read reviews and recommendations online before scheduling to meet with a potential pediatrician. And if your child has medical needs that extend beyond average, the stress involved in finding and committing to a specialist may be that much more intense.
So why don’t parents traditionally engage in relationship building with teachers before sending their kids off to school? Is there an option for this? ‘Back to School Night’ is a way for parents and students to meet face-to-face with teachers and see classmates prior to the school year starting. It’s a nice baseline, but we can do more (and not just for the sake of our students.)
What about making home visits? What about meeting with families individually before servicing their children day in and day out for 240 days? Here are a few reasons I think you might say ‘no thanks’ to home visits, and then I would like to try to shed some light on why I think they are actually worth it.
I get it. I do. I get all of these reasons. And even as I type them out, it’s tempting to throw in the home visits towel. But I’ve been making summer home visits for students on my caseload since I returned to teaching after having kids, and this is why I would strongly urge you to consider trying them too:
Postcards are a great way to reach out to families. The thought of calling and asking if I can come over sounds painfully awkward to me. It can be short and sweet:
Dear Mr. and Mrs. _____________________,
I am so excited to be teaching __________________ this fall! I love meeting with families prior to the school year to learn how I can best support student goals. Is there a day/time that we could get together before the school year gets started to chat? Please get in touch when you can and we’ll figure out a time I can pop over. Thanks so much!
Your Contact Info.
Not everyone is going to respond to your postcard, and that is OK. At least they know you care, and that you are willing to take the extra step for their family. When they do call or email to set up a time, do everything you can to keep that appointment. And if they do not get in touch, make sure they are one of the first families you call to touch base with during that first week of school.
The first couple of times I went on home visits, I brought a preference assessment that I created for students and a preference assessment that I created for parents. (Both of these documents are linked here: Parent Preference Assessment Student Preference Assessment) I wanted students to know that I was interested in what they liked to learn about and how they liked to learn. For parents, I wanted to know their preferred method of communication and their expectations for how often they liked to communicate with their child’s teacher.
You might say that asking a parent how often he or she expects to hear from you is setting yourself up for more work. But here’s the thing: Most parents are not going to request excessive communication. The ones who do request it probably have a good reason: maybe their child has high needs that must be monitored and communication between school and home is vital; maybe their experience with home-school commination in the past has been negative or non-existent so they are expressing their frustrations with high demands. Whatever the reason for requesting frequent communication, it is within your best interest to know about it. You can increase your control over the situation by setting up mutually agreed upon expectations.
The most important thing you can do during a home visit is listen. Ask questions. Use the preference assessments as a guide if you would like, but try not to make it look like an interrogation. Make that family know how fortunate you feel to be in their home and how excited you are to support their child’s development. Be yourself. Smile. Be confident in knowing that you are doing something that is above and beyond, and that really does make a difference.
You might laugh at this one, and that’s OK, you can skip this part, because although some of you have no problem wrapping up a conversation, others, like myself, don’t even know how to get off the phone. In fact, I might even ask more questions when I’m awkwardly trying to wrap it up…
You can let the family know up front that you have to be somewhere at a certain time in the future, or you can wait until the conversation just winds itself down. I have had families invite me over for dinner and give me tours of their homes. Again, in my opinion, this is all a one-time investment that is so worth it. I have developed some incredible friendships this way that have really aided me in doing what is most important as an educator: helping all students to maximize their potential.
When you mess up, and you will, it is also so much easier to call yourself out to someone who has already seen the good in you. Home visit really emphasize the the value and importance of a home-school team to student development.
Will you do home visits this year? What will they “look” like? If you’ve done them in the past, how would you rate your experience? Any tips? I am a special education teacher who co-teaches 5th grade, so my primary focus has always been meeting with students on my caseload, but my co-teacher and I have also considered doing a picnic and inviting all students and their families to kick off the year with us.
Amanda Steeley, Special Education Teacher
One of the most important considerations when developing a co-teaching relationship is a shared purpose, or goal. What is your mission? And if it sounds like I’m talking about a business, then great.
Maybe we should think of classrooms as non-profit business organizations that rejoice in the attainment of goals for the betterment of the public.
Businesses complete S.W.O.T. analyses of their companies to enhance their rate of success. During this process, they analyze the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats to the success of the organization.
Why not use this same model in our classrooms? With co-teaching, this is realistic: you are not an island reflecting on your practice; you have someone else there to reflect with and to determine whether or not your actions are supporting your mission and vision.
If you have administrative support, like Joe and I have in both our principal and central office staff, then your chance of success is that much greater.
When Joe and I first started working together, a three-by-four-foot laminated poster hung on the wall that he created with his wife, Lea, when he began teaching: 20% Brain, 80% Heart. As a teacher, and a mother, I think this is a great a message to kids. Growth mindset needs to be taught to all levels of learners.
When I was in elementary school, I remember being pulled back or sent to a different room to work with the other “smart kids” on math problems. By the time I was in the 7th and 8th grade, my math grades drastically dropped and honestly never recovered. I knew why – in my eyes, I wasn’t “smart” anymore, or my teachers had identified me incorrectly.
To an extent, this was true! When I was in elementary school, my skill set was strong relative to my same-age peers. As a result, I thought math just came easily to me. When it wasn’t easy anymore, I figured I wasn’t “smart” anymore. Had I learned early on that education was 20% Brain, 80% Heart, perhaps I would have been more tenacious when faced with challenges.
Teaching 20% Brain, 80% Heart applies to our below-level learners, as well. This year, Joe and I taught several readers performing multiple grade levels below their peers. With the help of our reading specialist, we assessed their skill level at the beginning of the year and introduced these students to individualized weekly fluency passages.
The ‘go-getters’ in in our fluency group quickly became evident. By creating an attainable goal with a route to success – If I practice my fluency passage daily, then my reading level with increase – some students aggressively attacked reading, and their fluency improved. (Mind you, we didn’t just say that fluency passages were going to improve reading ability, we also developed a classroom culture that included a love of reading, but more on that later.)
But the shared mission of 20% Brain, 80% Heart reverberated beyond fluency passages: The same students who attacked their fluency passages were also asking questions in science and seeking to internalize patterns in math. They wanted it.
For me and Joe, 20% Brain, 80% Heart, is a relatable and attainable mission. We are teachers because we love learning, sharing, and creating, and we want the same for all individuals, regardless of innate ability level. We want students to recognize their own Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats, and to develop their own roadmap to success, and we want to support them in this process.
Yes, as teachers, we want (and need) to give students the tools to understand learning objectives, but in a world where Siri is accessible to a large part of the population, we want to create problem solvers. For some, this may mean recognizing the importance of engaging in repeated trials to acquire a skill; for others, this may mean asking and seeking answers to one’s own challenging questions.
How do you promote growth mindset in your classroom? Do you have a classroom mission statement? We love growing our practice by learning from our peers and we can’t wait to hear what other teachers are up to!
Amanda Steeley, Special Education Teacher @AmandaSteeley
Yesterday, all of you who completed your statewide reading test did an incredible job. And yet, I went home feeling agitated, and while I have slept well this entire school year, I am up at 2 AM unable to go back to sleep. I think that I am sad and I am trying to figure out why. This afternoon, when I told my husband the news of your testing success, he was surprised that I didn’t share it with more excitement in my voice. “Aren’t you happy?” he wanted to know. “It sounds like they did great!” I assured him of my joy, but my actions didn’t match my words.
Right now, I am reading a book that one of you recommended to me. It’s The Cay, by Theodore Taylor. It’s the story of a young boy who is shipwrecked during war when trying to leave his home in the Caribbean Islands. Due to a blow to the head, he finds himself blind and trying to survive on an island with an old man and a cat. These three characters come from three different worlds, but their happenstance meeting changes their lives and perception of the world. I am on chapter fifteen – a hurricane is coming to the island and the young boy fears losing either of his new best friends…
Class, I think I know why I am sad. I am sad because that test, the one you did so well on, marks a closure to our time reading together. Do you know how much I have grown because of you all this year? I have read more books in the past 9 months than I have ever read in such a short period of time in my life. Before we all began reading together, I loved to read, but I had a problem – the books I chose were emotionally draining. They were novels where the main character had to overcome intense hardship. I’m all for character development, but the books I was reading were bringing me down! You all taught me that you don’t have to be a kid to enjoy juvenile fiction. Now I retreat to my books for a well-loved treat.
When I think back on this year, the simplest memory stands out; it is something we did every day: Some of you are sitting at the tables, others on the floor, a few on the couch, two huddled in the easy chair; Mr. Beasley is sitting at a table with a group of you, and I am sitting on the carpet in the front of the room. In my memory, we are all reading. It is silent, and the energy in the room is filled with excitement. We all feel like we are getting away with something! When we are supposed to be at school, learning, we are secretly taking time to read for 40 minutes! The energy in the room dances, and 20 minutes in we all stop to share what is going on in our books, then retreat back to our stories until time is up and a unanimous groan of disappointment washes over the room.
You know what else I loved? I loved how you all would come in in the morning asking us if you could tell us what was going on in your books. Without this little trick, I would have never read The Land of Stories, The Lost Track of Time, The War That Saved My Life or so many other goodies! You all have been like my personal book recommendation force!
But you know what is so crazy? Even though we were sneaky and read whatever we wanted to all year, every one of you still did amazing on the statewide reading test. Am I glad you rocked it? Sure, I’m glad! But taking tests is not how I got to know you, how I saw you grow, how I grew myself, or what I will remember from this year. Instead, I will remember being a member of a very elite reading community and what a gift that time in my life was.
In writing this letter, I feel a little better, because even though you all will go off to change the world and I won’t see your smiling faces every day, I will always think of you when I open a new book, wondering if you’ve read it too and what you would think of it. Thank you for growing my mind and soul.
Love, Mrs. Steeley
If you want to learn more about developing a culture of reading in your classroom, we highly recommend Reading in the Wild, by Donalyn Miller.
Group work has always been a passion of mine. When I first became a teacher, I wanted my students to have the opportunity to learn and work together as much as possible; five years later, I still see the value of having heterogeneous groups of students learning to work with one another.
In our collaborative classroom, students have the opportunity to work with all types of ability levels and backgrounds, but our goal is to highlight and the value of working with diverse strengths.
We know that students can gain knowledge by working through projects and problems with their peers; however, students have to be taught how to effectively work together. There are some excellent frameworks out there, including Scrum and the Kagan Cooperative Learning, that help scaffold learning in groups.
I believe the teacher has to lay the foundation for group work and model what it looks like to work with others. As a co-teacher, I am fortunate to have ample opportunities for modeling, but that does not mean that modeling how to work with others is an unachievable goal for those without co-teachers. You just have to be proactive by reaching out to others and being open to the work that goes into collaboration.
In the past, I have been guilty of assigning group work without modeling how I want my students to collaborate. Now I realize that I have to model how to share the workload; this includes demonstrating how to work through conflict as well as helping students realize the potential of picking teams based on strengths. Never forget the power of your presence as a teacher. The teacher is the most influential person in the classroom. The students will mimic whatever the teacher does, and teachers have to show students how to work effectively together. It may not be a statewide goal, but it is a life skill.
“Never believe that you are better than anybody else, but remember that you are just as good.” -John Wooden
This quote by John Wooden is a great way to start engaging your students about what it means to be on a team. When we work with others, we really should be serving others instead of competing against one another. I try to teach my students that we all have our strengths and weaknesses, but what is most important is how we use our strengths to help others.
One way to help your students understand the importance of recognizing strengths is by teaching them students to pick their own groups. When you do so, encourage them to choose teammates based upon skills the group needs to succeed, instead of picking based upon friendship. Go through the group project expectations as a class and then discuss what types of skills would be needed in order to create the best project. Here’s an example of some of the questions we encourage our students to ask when picking groups:
Help your students realize that what makes us different can also make us stronger.