How I Teach

She became a special education teacher by accident. Then she fell in love with her job.

PHOTO: Anna Vick
Special education teacher Anna Vick in her classroom at Highlands Ranch High School in Douglas County.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Anna Vick, a special education teacher at Highlands Ranch High School in the Douglas County School District, has no shortage of tools to get students learning.

She uses art projects, YouTube videos, music, aromatherapy, brain breaks and more to reach her students, all of whom have serious emotional disabilities.

Vick is one of 15 teachers who were selected for the inaugural Colorado Teaching Policy Fellowship operated by the national nonprofit Teach Plus. The nine-month program aims to involve teacher leaders in state-level education policy discussions, including how the state responds to the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new federal education law.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I have always loved working with children, but fell into the field of special education somewhat by accident. I was hired on as a teaching assistant, and my role ended up being allocated to special education. Although I wasn’t sure about the idea, I tried it and fell in love.

One of my biggest inspirations as an educator is my cousin, Katie, who is on the autism spectrum. As we are close in age, I grew up learning about Katie’s needs along with her incredible talents and strengths. We have always had a strong relationship, and knowing her has given me insight into creative ways that I can best support my students.

What does your classroom look like?

My classroom is full of student artwork. Specifically for students with emotional support needs, art can be very therapeutic and has been a positive outlet throughout the school year.

I love globes, so we have several of those around the room, too. On a sensory note, there are muted covers for our bright fluorescent lights in order to help students stay more regulated. The covers cast more of a yellow light, creating a soothing atmosphere. We are lucky to have big windows for natural light as well. Aromatherapy and mindfulness/relaxation music have also made a positive difference in the room.

What apps/software/tools can’t you teach without? Why?

I love using videos to supplement my teaching. Especially when students are heavily impacted in reading or communication, videos can bring out learning that might not have connected otherwise.

I’ve found some great instructional videos on YouTube for math concepts. I’ll often use these on the projector at the beginning of the period and then introduce a game or activity where students can apply the skill in collaboration with staff and peers. They learn without even realizing it, and this has been a great way to reach students with serious emotional disabilities who might not be able to engage in a lecture/textbook teaching format.

How do you plan your lessons?

I use online resources, talk with fellow teachers, and get creative about options and activities that can create differentiation for each student. Even if I don’t take the resource straight from a website, I often look online just to get ideas on effective ways to teach and reinforce concepts. I can modify these ideas to create a lesson more targeted to the needs of my students, but teaching blogs and websites give me great ideas regarding practical applications of skills and concepts. I also use backwards planning, which allows me to think about the bigger picture and identify the end goal before beginning the planning process.

What qualities make an ideal lesson?

An ideal lesson has something for all learners and is differentiated based on pace and need. I try to incorporate technology, reading, writing, independent work, activities, games, discussion, and some direct instruction in each unit (and ideally, each day). I am grateful for the opportunity to work in the center-based program, as having a smaller caseload allows me to truly teach to the student and avoid letting students get “lost in the crowd.”

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?

I always encourage students engaging and collaborating, even if they are incorrect on the concept itself. I am always so thrilled to have students asking or answering questions. That, in and of itself, is a target for me before any actual content can be learned. Therefore, if a student expresses or shows that he or she is not understanding the content, I first positively reinforce the fact that engagement is happening in the first place. I then sit with the student in a small group or one-on-one, addressing the issue through multiple modes of instruction (e.g. technology/video learning, talking through concepts, showing visuals, etc.). One of the best feelings as a teacher is seeing the conceptual block clear so a student can move forward after mastering content.

What is your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?

I really enjoy brain breaks and physical activity during classes. Specifically with my student population, I have found taking walks to be very effective. It’s great when weather is warm enough to go outside, but even a walk around the building can help students refocus during long block days. If students are disengaging in the middle of instruction, I might also try changing my method; for instance, giving some independent work instead of direct instruction, allowing students to practice problems on the whiteboard, adding some background music, or giving a different kind of visual support.

How do you maintain communication with parents?

I send daily parent communication sheets as a “back and forth log” for student behavior, learning, and progress. Other than this, I make a point of asking parents what is the best method of communication for them. I am happy to text, email, call or meet in-person with parents to discuss issues or concerns as they arise. I also find it helpful to reach out to parents just to check in or report a positive for the day. On my daily sheets, I am sure to fill out the “celebration” space each time. Even on the most challenging of days, this helps me to think of a positive piece for the student. It impacts my perspective, and I hope it impacts the perspectives of students and parents reading the sheet each day.

What hacks or tricks do you use to grade papers?

Color, color, color! I find color-coding for errors, citation problems, spelling, sentence structure, etc. can help both my students and I to determine the areas in which further support is necessary. I typically grade online to keep the process streamlined, and often post my comments in the Google Drive or in the word processor that we’re using.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I read a great deal of non-fiction, but Dostoevsky is one of my all-time favorite authors. Crime and Punishment is the best.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

“If people knew better, they’d do better.” I was working in a school with a very high poverty rate and the staff faced many difficult situations each day. I had an administrator who always reminded us of this, helping us to take the blame off of others and to look at bigger systemic issues to support and educate for growth.

As an advocate for collaborative problem-solving, I have learned that students behave appropriately when they can. If a student is demonstrating problem behaviors, the function must be examined along with the lagging skills. Targeting interventions in these areas is the surest key to success. Work smarter, not harder!

How I Teach

For this Pagosa Springs math teacher, mountain biking and ultimate frisbee hold lessons, too.

PHOTO: Andy Guinn
Teacher Andy Guinn with his students during a trip to Moab, Utah.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

A couple years ago, Andy Guinn was about to take his Pagosa Springs Middle School students on a mountain bike ride in Utah when a hiker offered an unsolicited opinion: The kids should be in school not at a state park. The government was going to hear about it, the hiker warned.

The criticism made Guinn, who teaches mountain biking and ultimate frisbee electives in addition to eighth-grade math, second-guess himself. Were the outings a waste of time and money?

Shortly thereafter, he got his answer. The parents of a student contacted him to say what a difference the mountain biking class had made for their son. He’d gone from a kid who hated school to one who’d finally found his niche.

Guinn talked to Chalkbeat about the parent feedback that reaffirmed his belief in outdoor trips, his meatball math lesson and how he brings life to his windowless classroom.

Guinn is one of 20 educators selected for the state’s new Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education on the impact of education policies in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I grew up swearing I would never be a teacher because so many members of my family were teachers. I remained stubborn until grad school when I realized that I really enjoyed being a teaching assistant and working with students. Three years later, I was in a teaching program getting my license.

What does your classroom look like?
My room is the ugliest classroom I have ever been in. It has cinder block walls, no windows, and orange carpet. I almost didn’t take the job because it was so awful. Luckily, everything else about our school is phenomenal. I have pictures all over my windowless walls from our Adventure Learning trips to Moab and Los Alamos as well as day trips to our local ski area and hikes in the mountains that surround us. They remind me how important it is to allow students opportunities to explore, spend time outside and learn beyond our academic standards. They also remind me how lucky I am to live and work in such a beautiful place.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
Dogs. They make me smile after a bad day. They keep me active and healthy during busy times of the year. They remind me that it takes a lot of training to make a habit. But most of all, they remind me to be patient with my students.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
I steal a lot of stuff from Dan Meyer (http://blog.mrmeyer.com/). His Three Acts are fantastic and go over really well with students. One of my favorites that I adapted was his meatball lesson to teach students about the volumes of spheres and cylinders.

Originally I just used his videos, but I wanted to add in a classroom demonstration. I didn’t think I could logistically pull off a pot of meatballs for each class so I had to come up with something else. I decided on a cylindrical glass filled almost to the top with water. I tell the students we’re going to see how many marbles can fit into it without it spilling over. I raise the stakes by telling them we’ll be dropping the marbles in with their phones stacked around the base of the glass. They tend to get really engaged at that point.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
This is one of my favorite parts of teaching because I will never be done figuring out new ways to explain things, new ways for students to experience the material and new ways for students to show me what they’ve learned. I’ve found that having other students share their strategies can show both me and the confused student a new perspective on a problem. It’s also a great way to get a glimpse into the mind of someone who is just learning a concept, which is a perspective I no longer have.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
We count to three in different languages. They repeat each number after me. Through the years, students have asked to teach the class some new languages so I have about six or seven I use now. Our school has also embraced physical activity breaks in the classroom as a strategy to keep engagement and focus at a high level throughout a class. I love these and can really feel a difference in the energy in my classroom when we use these.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I start the year building relationships with students for a week while we work on problem-solving skills. We also take our whole 8th grade class to Moab, Utah, for a four-day camping trip where I get a lot of opportunities to get to know students outside of the classroom. When they see me roll out of my tent with some crazy bed hair, a lot of them let their guard down and are willing to work even harder for me in the classroom when we get back.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
In Moab a couple years ago, my mountain biking elective class was going for a ride at Dead Horse State Park. A visitor to the park approached a couple of my students and asked them why they weren’t in school. They replied that they actually were and that they were about to have their class along one of the trails in the park. The visitor wasn’t happy at all and told my students he was going to to write to the government to complain. I felt bad for my students and I started to question if the class was really a good use of time and resources.

The week after we got back from the trip, a parent contacted me to tell me what a positive difference the mountain biking class was making for their student. They told me that their son had never wanted to go to school until this year, had never put in much effort into his classes and had always felt like his teachers disliked him. But with the mountain biking class, their student found motivation to come to school, a place where he could excel, a chance to feel comfortable around his classmates and me, and a chance to get some of his energy out in a positive way. It was the perfect timing as it reconfirmed for me the importance of providing students with these types of opportunities in school as ways to build relationships with students and improve their academic performance at the same time.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I just started “The Book of Joy” by the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Douglas Adams. I got to see them speak together on a panel when I was in college and I still vividly remember how giddy and happy they were up on stage so I’m excited for the book.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
“Mr. Guinn, why do you have those games in your classroom if you’re never going to let us play them?” — one of my former students, talking about the board games, cards and dice I keep on a shelf in the corner. It reminds me that sometimes what we all need is just a day to have some fun.

deep cuts

New York City teachers don’t get paid maternity leave. Their paychecks prove it.

PHOTO: Emily James/Courtesy photo
Brooklyn high school teacher Emily James with her children.

Susan Hibdon opened her front door and saw nothing but white.

It was a day that would go down in tabloid headline history after schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña declared it “absolutely a beautiful day,” despite a forecast calling for 10 inches of snow. For Hibdon, a Brooklyn high school teacher, it was memorable for a different reason. It was exactly six weeks after she had given birth, which meant it was time to go back to the classroom.

She kissed her infant goodbye and headed into the wet February weather.

“If you want to pay your rent, you have to go right back to work,” she said. “That’s not just bad for the mother who just gave birth. That’s bad for everybody.”

New York City teachers have no paid maternity or family leave, a policy that takes a toll on teachers’ paychecks and creates deep gender inequity in an education workforce that is about 77 percent women.

Hibdon and fellow teacher and mother Emily James recently launched an online petition calling on the United Federation of Teachers to negotiate for paid leave, which is not included in any of the city’s contracts with unionized workers. Almost 78,000 people have signed on, and the women will present their request at the union’s executive board meeting on Monday.

“I think the irony of it sticks out to many people: These are women who are paid to raise children and they aren’t paid to raise their own children,” Hibdon said.

As it stands now, teachers who want to take paid time off after having a baby must use their sick days. The policy only applies to birth mothers, putting a strain on those who become parents through adoption or surrogacy, and fathers who want to take a leading role in the earliest moments of parenthood.

“We talk so much about parents being active in their child’s education,” said Rosie Frascella, a teacher who has also pushed for paid leave policies. “Well, let’s let teachers be active in their child’s education.”

For teachers, the policy packs a financial blow on multiple levels.

If a mother wants paid time off after giving birth, the only option is to use sick days. Women are limited to six weeks of sick time after a vaginal birth, and eight weeks after a C-section.

Teachers earn one sick day per school month. In order to save up for an eight-week leave, a teacher would have to work about four years without using any sick days.

Many women haven’t accrued that many days, so they can “borrow” sick days they haven’t yet earned. Teachers run into problems, though, if they actually get sick — or their children do — since they can only borrow up to 20 sick days. Once they hit that number, any additional time off is unpaid. And if a teacher leaves the education department, she must repay any sick days she borrowed.

Hidbon learned that the hard way. She has three children — and precious few sick days in the bank. Hidbon remembers a time that she completely lost her voice, but still had to go to work.

“No one could hear me. I had to conduct my entire class writing notes on the board,” she said. “I’m supposed to be teaching and I can’t do my job because of the way the system is set up — and my students are getting the short end of the stick.”

The crunch for sick time could lead to a financial blow later in a woman’s career. Teachers are allowed to accrue up to 200 sick days, and receive a payout for unused time when they retire. The city could not provide numbers for how many sick days men versus women retire with. But it makes sense that men would rack up far more since women with children are more likely to get stuck with a negative balance.

James, a Brookyln high school teacher and co-starter of the online petition, still has a negative balance of 16 sick days — almost three years after giving birth. The problem is compounded by the fact that women are more likely to take time off when a child is sick or there are other family obligations, a pattern that is seen in professions across the board.

“There were many times when I was so sick at work the kids were like, ‘Why are you here? Miss, go home,’” she said. “But it costs a lot of money to stay home.”

Even when women don’t have to borrow sick days, they can still lose financially. The city only allows women to use up to eight weeks of their banked time. Any additional days off are entirely unpaid.

Amy Arundell, a former director of personnel for the UFT, said many mothers stay home longer because of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides job protections for 12 weeks of leave.

“The people who don’t take 12 [weeks] obviously have real financial commitments” that make taking unpaid time off impossible, she said.

Women who take that time get hit with a double-punch to their salaries. Because of the way summer pay is calculated, unpaid time off results in a smaller summer paycheck, too. Arundell said the hit is usually equivalent to one paycheck.

Same sex-couples and those who become parents through surrogacy or adoption face many of the same financial setbacks, since only birth mothers are allowed to use sick time after having a baby.

After years on a waiting list, Seth Rader and his wife had only weeks’ notice that their adoptive baby was on the way. Since his wife was in grad school, the couple decided Rader would stay home with their new son — even though Rader, a Manhattan high school teacher, is the primary breadwinner at home.

“In a lot of ways, I’m much more bonded with him as a father, and him to me,” Rader said. “Are we really in a place where we want to discourage fathers from taking that role?”

At the time, the couple were saving for a down payment to buy a place of their own. After the expense of Rader taking off from work, they still are.

“I think all of this has to be affecting the sustainability of teaching,” he said. “If we create a system where people can’t imagine being teachers and parents at the same time, then that’s a loss.”

When it comes to the push for family leave, teachers have been left behind even as strides are made elsewhere. New York State recently passed a mandatory paid leave policy that will cover private employees. Last winter, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a paid leave act for city employees.

But that benefit isn’t extended to workers with unions, like the United Federation of Teachers. Currently, no union in New York City has paid maternity leave, according to a city spokeswoman.

Teachers across the city are fighting to change that. The petition started by Hibdon and James calls on UFT President Michael Mulgrew to “fight for our teaching mothers.”

“They’re supposed to really care about what teachers are struggling with and they’re our voice,” James said. “I just wish that they would take this seriously.”

Both the city and the United Federation of Teachers say they have held talks to extend similar benefits to teachers. In an emailed statement, Mulgrew called family leave “an important issue for the UFT and its members.”

“In our talks so far, the city has failed to come up with a meaningful proposal,” he said.

In an article published in the UFT journal, which ran shortly after the city passed its parental leave policy, the union pointed out that gaining that benefit came at the cost of a scheduled raise for managers and fewer leave days for veteran employees.

According to the article, Mulgrew said he “looked forward to negotiations with the de Blasio administration for an appropriate way to expand parental benefits for UFT members.”