How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.
Fridays are a big day for the middle school students in Wendi Sussman’s class at STRIVE Prep – Federal in Denver. That’s when they operate the school store — an endeavor they start planning as soon as the school year starts.
For Sussman, a special education teacher, the store is a chance for students to practice all kinds of life skills, from making change to talking with customers.
Sussman, who was a finalist for the 2018 Colorado Teacher of the Year award, talked to Chalkbeat about how her students decide what to sell at the store, what fueled her interest in special education, and why there’s no stigma when lessons are repeated in her classroom.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
Why did you become a teacher?
I grew up with a sister who has cerebral palsy, so my passion to work with individuals with disabilities has been developing since I was young. I saw firsthand how the school system let down families with children who have disabilities. I spent time in high school and college working and volunteering with this population, and started understanding the value they bring to our society. I began teaching as a way to work with people with disabilities in the early stages of their lives.
After college, I joined Teach for America as a special education teacher and was placed at a college prep charter school. Working at this type of school showed me the importance of giving all students options in their lives after completing their K-12 education, especially those with high needs. I continue teaching so that I can ensure my students have the options they deserve. This is my fifth year teaching in a multi-intensive center program, which serves students with intellectual disabilities as well as other impairments. I could not be happier.
What does your classroom look like?
I want to say that my classroom is clean, neat, and organized and that all staff and students know where everything is and where it belongs. While this is true to some extent, my classroom looks less than perfect due to the joint ownership between staff and students. We set up together, we clean together, and we organize together, which means everything has a place and it’s not always perfect.
Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
I couldn’t teach without my co-teacher and educational assistants. Running a successful center program takes a team. In a classroom of 14 students with individualized and intensive needs, it is not possible to provide the instruction to all students all the time. While I set the vision and do half of the instructional planning, it is the staff I work alongside who ensure the implementation is successful on a daily basis.
What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
Teaching life skills requires skills to transfer from the school setting to the real world. Our student-run school store allows for these connections to be made all year long. Starting in August, students brainstorm ways that we can make money for community trips and life skills lessons throughout the year.
My number one goal for the students in my classroom is to give them authentic practice that sets them up with the skills they need to have options in their lives and to have an independent future. For one student who is visually impaired and does not read or write, this store provides time to practice counting money, interact with customers, and organize merchandise. Another group of students working on social skills and appropriate interactions with adults are able to recruit customers around the school and let them know the store is open. Students with more advanced money skills work on giving correct change to customers and use calculator skills that allow them to run the store with minimal adult support.
While the actual store only happens once a week, the students are invested in the process throughout the year to ensure our Fridays are successful. Preparation includes selecting merchandise, setting prices, and advertising for the store. This year, the class created a survey and graphed the results to determine what would be most popular. Using survey results, students chose to add potato chips to the store’s inventory. The class went to a local store to determine the price of chips in bulk and then set a price for the chips at the classroom store. To raise school-wide excitement, the students prepared announcements and made posters to put around the school. Each Monday, we count our money using both mental math and calculator skills and set aside money to fund upcoming life skills lessons.
How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
For students with intellectual disabilities, it can take a large amount of repetition before they are able to complete a skill on their own. When teaching and reviewing students work, I look for progress towards a complete understanding of a topic and continue to teach the content until this mastery has been reached. I believe and want my students to believe that anyone can learn anything. With this message in my classroom, there is no stigma to repetitive teaching and learning.
How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
My students want to learn. More often than not, if a student is talking or off task, it is because the work I have provided for the student is not meeting their needs. In the moment when a student is off task, I take a look at their work and see what accommodations it is lacking and make immediate changes. If I notice a pattern in off-task behavior, I think about how I can invest the student in their own goals. I ensure that the work they are provided is scaffolded appropriately to help them reach their goal. When a student feels confident about what they can do, there is very little wasted time in the classroom.
How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
With our center program model, I teach students for three years, and they are in my class for large parts of the day. This is very different than a typical middle school teacher and something I love about my job. I eat breakfast and lunch alongside my students and make time outside of instruction each day to get to know them. I open up about my family, my hobbies, and what I cook for dinner each night. Students take interest in who I am outside of work, and they begin to open up about themselves as well.
Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I recently attended a meeting led by my co-teacher focusing on updating a behavior plan for one of our students. During this meeting, the student’s parents helped structure the student’s day to keep him focused during times they knew he would have trouble being alert and gave input on ways to help enforce the updated behavior plan. This was one of the first times I saw both the family and the school creating a plan together. I reflect on this meeting often, because it is exactly what I want my meetings with parents to look like.
Rather than coming to this meeting with a behavior plan already made, she came with ideas, trends, and questions to initiate partnership, rather than bringing a plan for parents to review and approve. This meeting reminds me what is possible with home and school collaboration and gives me a goal to work towards to create team work in future meetings.
What are you reading for enjoyment?
Any thriller … “Everything You Want Me To Be” by Mindy Mejia, “Behind Her Eyes” by Sarah Pinborough.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
Focus on teacher actions. In my first years of teaching, I would catch myself complaining about a hard day too often, almost always putting the blame on students and their “terrible behavior.” My perspective changed when a co-worker reminded me that while I can’t force a child to make good choices, I can control my own actions. I continue to have hard days, but I now can reflect on situations in my classroom and ask myself what teacher actions caused a student to react this way and what can be done differently next time. Venting to coworkers or friends is important and needs to happen at times, but it doesn’t change the frustrating situations that can happen every day.