Collaborative Teaching

Goochland County Public Schools

Category: Steeley (page 1 of 4)

What is a “Great Kid”?

Amanda Steeley, Special Education Teacher

I have a loving family. Today, my parents who have been married for more than 40 years live down the road and help my husband and me immensely with our two young daughters. I can not imagine my life today any other way. But years ago, when I was a twelve-year-old girl in the seventh grade, the unfortunate reality that we all end up eventually becoming exposed to became apparent: my mom and dad were not just my super heroes – they were humans, too. In seventh grade, my parents separated and my mom moved from Virginia to New York for a brief time. Needless to say, it rocked my world.

Everyone shudders at middle school memories. I was so intimidated by my peers that I barely ever spoke up in class. To this day, I remember raising my hand to participate in math class and the ‘cool girl’ saying, Oh my gosh…She can talk? I remember my heart beating uncomfortably fast as I wished I could disappear in the cloud of laughter that followed.

Today, I was not thinking about that girl, though. Today, I was thinking about how overwhelming teaching can be: how there are never enough hours in the day, how it is so hard to find work/life balance, how it is so much easier to tally the list of things I have not completed than the list of things that I have… And then I thought of the teacher in that seventh grade math classroom: Mr. Hayes.

Mr. Hayes’ smile as he asserted his famous line – There’s more than one way to solve a problem – still fills me with warmth. Mr. Hayes never took me out in the hall and told me that I was not living up to my potential, even though I remember other teachers who, with the best of intentions, had this conversation with me often. But it was not just his quirky lines or patient attitude that made a difference. Mr. Hayes did something else, too: He gave me an “F” on my interim report card and wrote “great kid” in the comments section.

I have no idea if Mr. Hayes knew what was going on in my life at the time. All I know is that by writing “great kid” on that report, he made me feel value at a time when I felt that I had very little. His impact was so profound that it still benefits me today, reminding me that it is not the completed to do list that defines me as a teacher, but the relationships I build with students, that truly make a difference. So rather than spend this Sunday drenched in pre-week teaching anxieties, I vow to spend the day sharpening my saw with the knowledge that the only way we can truly make others feel great is by first feeling great ourselves.

Inclusion Might Mean Starting Over: Do You Dare?

Amanda Steeley, Special Education Teacher

First year teachers are incredible, aren’t they? They walk into the classroom with little more than practicum experience and are faced with innumerable challenges. They have moments of joy when student engagement is present and relationships grow, but they also have moments of darkness when their directions are dismissed and connections fizzle. But they come back, most of them, every day, to do their job, and they get better. By year three, despite the exhausting learning curve they have climbed, they feel fresh. They feel confident. They feel capable.

As hard as the first year of teaching is, what teacher would want to go through it again? If what you’re doing in your classroom is working, why would you want to risk failing the majority of your students by including one individual who doesn’t respond to the system you’ve created? Many teachers wouldn’t, but a few teachers dare. A few teachers dare to take risks, enlist supports, and drive the bus toward global change. It isn’t easy, but I promise you if you’re willing to go all in, if you’re willing to feel as uncomfortable as you did during your first year of teaching, your classroom family will flourish in unimaginable ways.

What Does it Mean to Dare?

Nothing great can happen without trust, and trust doesn’t solidify overnight. Joe Beasley, (the general education teacher whom I co-teach with,) and I are in our second year of co-teaching. There were times last year when we cocked our heads to the side at the other person’s response to a classroom situation. There were times when Joe thought my supports were equivalent to “giving in” and there were times when I thought his expectations were “too demanding.” But then guess what happened? One of us would be absent, and it would be blatantly evident to the remaining teacher that it was not our individual strengths, but our combined qualities, that made our classroom strong.

If the unknown makes you uncomfortable, if reverting back to those first year teacher feelings makes you cringe, you are normal! Whenever Joe and I are faced with a new behavioral challenge, we both hold our breaths and brace ourselves even as we’re putting plans in place. Will we let our students down? Will we let each other down? Will parents be unhappy? All of these are possibilities, because every student is different and we are always learning. But what if we succeed? How sweet will that be? And what will we learn along the way to support others in their journey toward increasing inclusion?

If you think you might be brave enough to feel vulnerable again, talk to your principal. Talk to colleagues. Talk to parents and students. Talk to your community. If you think you’re brave enough to increase inclusion, you have to talk to others, because if you think it’s all on you, you’re wrong. One person alone cannot make this change. We are only as good as the supports around us, and I strongly believe that a world where all people support one another, despite our differences, is a better place for my children to live.

How do you work to increase inclusion in your school? What advice would you offer to those who are still unsure? Please share your thoughts below!

How to Get Your Mom to Let You Jump in Puddles

Amanda Steeley, Special Education Teacher

We got home from school today and the girls asked if they could jump in puddles on the way in. No. Please just go inside, I told them. I was stressed. I’d known the entire ride home that a run was what I needed. And it had nearly stopped raining.

We went inside, I changed into shorts, a t-shirt and running shoes, and I opened the front door. It was pouring. I asked my husband if he thought I should stay home. No. You should go, he said supportively.

I raced down the road and the rain continued to pick up. We rarely see cars and I was thankful I didn’t have to explain to a hunter driving by that running in the rain was actually my intention. We also rarely see bears, and I was thankful I didn’t see one of them either…

Running in the rain made my stress disappear. It reminded me that whether I am a teacher or a student, a mother or a child, I am a small part of the world.

I am no better than the stones beneath my feet, and no worse than the life-giving air that I breath. I am no more permanent than the falling drops of water on my face, and no less grounded than the trees around me. I am important, by my importance does not override my humanness.

And for me, in that moment, I felt better. I will always be teaching and learning, mothering and growing, so long as I continue to be.

As I splashed down our driveway back up to our house, I realized I couldn’t withhold this joy of being out in the rain. And so I leaned in the front door and beckoned the girls to get their rain boots on and come out to jump in puddles.

In or out, Mama, my eldest told me, referring to the wide-open front door.

Out! Come out with me!

And with that, we all went out to play in the rain, jump in the mud, and just be. Isn’t this the best night ever? My youngest asked me when we went inside. Yes. Of course it is! Rather than be overcome with the challenges of life, we were given a special opportunity to enjoy life’s gifts, and we did!


How does all this relate to collaborative teaching or co-teaching? I’m not sure that it does any more than it relates to any profession: We have to come to work ready every day, and we need to find ways to destress in order to share our gifts. In order to take care of others, we must first take care of ourselves, and only with practice will we truly know what that means.

How Do You Find Balance at the Start of the School Year?

Amanda Steeley, Special Education Teacher

This morning, I seriously considered exercising. I could go for a walk – maybe walk my parents’ dog – but I decided against it. This afternoon, the students will be coming for Back To School Night and I want to feel fresh and ready. But I knew I needed to do “something.” So then I considered meditating, which really amounted to trying to think about nothing… and then eating a cheese sandwich instead. I almost landed on the idea of going in to work early, and then I remembered that I could write.

Yesterday, we had a Being a Writer* refresher – a small group of teachers reflecting on our practice as teachers of writing but also as writers ourselves. We talked about the importance of authentic writing experiences, free of judgment and critique, to develop the young writer. We didn’t focus on creating writers as publishers of text, but as processors of feelings in a diversely complicated world. While I went to the training hoping for direction on teaching mechanics, I’m thankful that wasn’t our focus.

My dad, Tony Emma, hanging out with the late, great, king of gospel music, Andrae Crouch (circa 1983)..

Writing mechanics certainly wasn’t my dad’s focus when he wrote songs on whatever scrap of paper he could find. He used writing as a form of expression and his songs reflected the joys and struggles in his own life. He was talented enough to put his words to music using the piano, and brave enough to share them with those around him. As such, he inadvertently modeled the power of being a writer for his children.

I’m thankful he took these risks. Without him, I might not even consider that writing could help me during the yearly celebration we call the start of the school year. The emotional charge of this time of year for teachers is unique, and although this may sound absurd, I can liken it only to preparing for my own wedding. It is a time when excitement and hope and energy are as prevalent as the anxiety that often quietly plagues our teaching population. There are so many tabs about to be unceasingly opened in our brains. How do we quiet our minds without neglecting our duties?

I don’t think there’s a perfect answer. I think part of it is accepting that we won’t always be the person we hope to be. For me, my fear is that I will give all my kindness and love and energy to my school family and be short and irritable with my family at home. And really, it’s more than a fear. It’s a reality. It’s going to happen sometimes. And maybe that’s ok because it teaches my own children that you don’t have to be perfect to do great things – you just have to consciously care about your actions.

Teachers, what do you do to find balance at the start of the school year? Where do you draw energy from? Where do you find calm? I would love for you to share your thoughts below. I know I’m not alone in this and am grateful to be in a profession where the support of my colleagues is vital fuel.

*For more information on Being a Writer, click here

Should Teachers Make Home Visits?

Amanda Steeley, Special Education Teacher

Should Teachers Make Home Visits? 

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.

Thoughts Against Home Visits
  1. Pay: You chose to be a teacher, not a doctor. Although there is data to support that teachers and doctors have comparable stress levels, the financial reciprocation is not there. Sure, you get summers off, but between teaching, planning, meetings, committees, duties, etc., the summer break does not even begin to compare to that MD paycheck.
  2. Safety: Yes, any time you travel to a stranger’s house, you are putting yourself in a potentially compromising situation. If no one will go with you, this is a legitimate argument. (I am apt to believe you can find someone to go with you.)
  3. Time: Remember that summer break we talked about earlier? Scheduling any part of it with home visits kind of negates its value, doesn’t it? And if you think you can do home visits once school starts, you’ve clearly never taught during the first nine weeks of the school year.
  4. Anxiety: Maybe you’re nervous! What if you don’t know what to say? What if you can’t answer their questions? What if you come off looking under-qualified? What if you look incredibly qualified and now the family wants to contact you all the time? Isn’t this just opening a huge can of worms?

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:

Why Home Visits are Worth It 
  1. Relationships: Steve Geyer, Assistant Superintendent of Instruction for Goochland County Public Schools, has always touted quality instruction to be two things: relationships and engaging instruction. And he practices what he preaches with all members of the community, even with all his responsibilities. In fact, all of our administrative staff in our school system model this well. But there is a good reason for why they do this, and I think it stretches beyond good manners: You are more likely to trust someone that you have met, right? I would hope so! Showing up at someone’s house and asking to learn about their family equates to making huge deposits into a bank account that will support you throughout the school year. And I am just trying to sell you on the logic – the time you will save later – without even taking into account the fulfillment you will receive by reaching out. To teach is a great honor, and to be welcomed into the life-story of families in your community is truly a gift. I thought I would have more to write when I started this list, but that’s it: Relationships. Relationships are everything.
How Can I Get Started?

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 Name

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.

What Should I Do When I Arrive? 

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.

How Do I Leave?

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.

Are You In?

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.


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