How this Indianapolis teacher uses his own learning disability to understand his students

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

How do teachers captivate their students? Welcome to How I Teach, a feature in which we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. Have a recommendation of someone we should profile? Write us at in.tips@chalkbeat.org.

Erik Catellier doesn’t expect perfection from his students. He expects greatness.

That’s why Catellier, a language arts teacher at Center for Inquiry School 2, also wants students and their families to know about his own challenges: He is dyslexic.

“I have never been able to be the sage on the stage, all-knowing teacher,” Catellier, known to students as Mr. Cat, told Chalkbeat. “I am upfront and honest with my students and my families about my struggles as a learner. I have the fact that I am dyslexic in my email signature.”

Catellier was diagnosed with dyslexia in first grade. Dyslexia is a learning disorder affecting a person’s ability to read and spell.

Growing up, the setback pushed him to learn how to manage his own learning style and establish strategies to be successful. With the help of his own teachers, Catellier was able to understand class material and was reassured that he was a capable student.

That’s what inspired Catellier to help his own students discover their own capabilities.

“In the end, I had a lot of adults in my life that believed in me and made me feel valuable. I found that I wanted to be that for others,” he said. “These experiences planted the idea of teaching as a noble profession in my mind.”

Catellier gives the credit to his learning disability for his ability to adapt to a variety of learning styles and skill levels while also building relationships with students.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

PHOTO: Erik Catellier

I don’t really remember a single moment where I decided I wanted to become a teacher. It is just something that I have always felt called to do. When I was very young, I really struggled in school. It took me a long time to figure out how to manage my brain and to establish strategies that would allow me to be successful. I was supported by some amazing teachers who took time out of their day to help me understand not only the material in their class but that I was a capable student and that I was cared for.

In high school, I taught swim lessons and found that I had a talent for helping students overcome their fears in the water and master new skills. I also discovered how amazing it felt when a student mastered a new skill and would swim across the pool for the first time, or jump off the diving board.  

I realized that I had created a situation where that young person could do something they never thought they could. Just like those teachers supported me and helped me see that there was nothing I couldn’t do, I just had to figure out a way that would work for me. In the end, I had a lot of adults in my life that believed in me and made me feel valuable and I found that I wanted to be that for others.

What challenges come with being a language arts teacher with dyslexia?

There are some challenges to being a language arts teacher with dyslexia — usually these always have to do with communication. More and more, the preferred method of communication between school and home is through written communication like emails, newsletters, and text messages. At my school, we even have narrative report cards requiring me to write a paragraph for each student.

My biggest struggle is with editing my own writing. I can’t see simple errors like “from” versus “form,” or “her” versus “here.” But you can imagine receiving an email or report card from your student’s English teacher riddled with little errors does not inspire confidence. I have to go through a lot of extra steps when composing written communications.

What strategies do you use in the classroom to handle your dyslexia?

These steps have been refined over the years as technology has improved, but now every document I write goes through a three-step process. First, I use spell check to catch any simple errors. Second, I use Grammarly to find any mistakes that spellcheck might have missed. Third, I cut and paste it into Google Translate and listen to the computer to read the document.

Usually, if I do this, I catch most of the errors in a document. Unfortunately, I have not found a way to always have enough time to go through this process for everything I create.

How has dyslexia affected you as a teacher?

Whenever I got it into my head that I was some brilliant teacher and tried to control a class-based solely on my encyclopedic knowledge of the English language, I would make some silly error, and all the students would laugh, and the bubble would pop. Instead I had to show students how much I loved the content of the class and that I am always learning and growing, as well. This subject is hard for me as well sometimes, and so we often need to work together to do our best work.

How do you get to know your students?

As a language arts teacher and the “book dealer” of my building, I use books to get to know my students. I talk to my students about what they like to read, and what they don’t like to read. I ask them what their favorite books are, and I share mine with them. I suggest other books I think they might like, and all the time I am getting to know them. You would be surprised how much you can learn about a person when you talk to them about a book that they love.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I just finished “Tuck Everlasting” by Natalie Babbitt, and I am starting “Dread Nation” by Justina Ireland.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

Every year in the fall, my eighth-graders do a unit on banned and challenged books. Students use the American Library Association’s list of the most banned books to select a book they would like to read and then spend the quarter reading and analyzing it. The unit culminates in students making the case that their book should or should not be allowed in a public library.

I love this unit because, as a teacher, it contains all of my favorite things. It gives students choice in what they read and how they express their ideas, and it has a final product that is very connected with something people actually do. I also love the fact that I “trick” students into reading classic novels, like “Catch-22” or “Catcher in the Rye.”

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

I would be helpless without my daily PowerPoints. I have even been known to insert video clips of myself giving instructions when I am absent so students know what to do. The students call them “The Mr. Cat Vlogs.”

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

My principal always says, “Our parents send us the best kid they can every day.” I have worked really hard to remember that. No matter what a student’s circumstance, it is my job to be the best teacher I can be and to support them in every way I can. Often times school is the only place where a student feels seen and cared about. I think it is important to remember this and to try to be the kind of adult the students need and that they can count on.

How this Indiana teacher helps hospitalized students transition back to school

PHOTO: FS Productions / Getty Images
Nurse talking to girl in hospital bed

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 the series here.

When Sara Midura meets her students, they’ve often just gone through a crisis.

As an educational liaison at Riley Hospital for Children, Midura is both a teacher and an educational advocate for patients in the Simon Skjodt Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Unit. She helps them keep up with schoolwork and transition back to school once their hospital stay is over.

“Many times, the students who come to us are either slipping through the cracks or seen as having huge ‘behavior issues,’” Midura said.

Her work includes easing the anxiety of a student returning to school; partnering with the family, school, and treatment team to make sure a student’s behavioral health needs can be met; and finding a “go-to person” at school who understands the student’s situation.

Midura, who was recently named one of the top 25 finalists for 2019 Indiana Teacher of the Year, talked to Chalkbeat about how she supports hospitalized children and how the lack of mental health resources in schools can affect students.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I decided to be a teacher in kindergarten — I loved my teacher and loved school, so it felt like a no-brainer to my 5-year-old self! I proceeded to force my friends to play school with me in my basement and made lesson plans during days that I stayed home sick. I toyed with other ideas for professions through my K-12 education, but solidified my desire to be a teacher as a camp counselor during my high school years.

How do you get to know your students?

Since I only have my students for a short period of time, I try to capitalize on the time I have with them by having them fill out a “school profile,” which really serves two purposes. Since the first time I meet the kiddos is almost always their first day on the unit following a crisis, I know that they are not functioning in their prefrontal cortex and are in crisis mode. They understandably are typically shut off, so the school profile is a great way for them to easily and safely let me get to know them a bit. It starts a good rapport, and I can always connect to something in there. Then each day I just make sure I check in with them, always reminding them that I am their advocate. We talk about school, life, and anything else. It can be easier to get to know them since they are in such a small group setting of up to 10 kids. This is my favorite part of the job!

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I am certified in Applied Educational Neuroscience (I took a nine-credit hour graduate course at Butler University with Lori Desautels), so I run a group on my unit every week called “Brain Club.” In this, I teach students about their brains, stress, emotions, and how the coping skills we teach them in their therapies and on the unit are truly brain regulation strategies. We talk about the different parts of the brain, which ones we function in where, our amygdala and fear, and so much else! The kids typically love brain club and are so engaged!

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

My iPad! Between playing music — I cannot work in silence! — looking up information to help students with their assignments, and using the different educational apps to fit all of my kids’ needs, I bring my iPad with me everywhere.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

Mental health resources, or the lack thereof in many districts, greatly impact what happens inside my classroom and on my unit. There are many schools that are so underfunded and lacking resources, leaving staff burnt out. In my mind, this creates and unsafe environment for my patients returning to school. My patients need a school staff that can understand mental/behavioral health.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

The first really challenging case that I had was a few months into me working on the unit. We had a very high-achieving student who was going through some intensive setbacks, and the student’s dad was extremely concerned about school. I assured him that we would be able to “fix” everything with school and ensure that it went back to his expectation of normal, but that ended up not happening. This experience taught me that I cannot ever promise any outcome, but I can promise families that I will be with them each step of the way to ensure that education matches the treatment needs. This has changed my approach to speaking with families.

What part of your job is most difficult?

Navigating all of the different school systems and cultures during such a short hospitalization period can be very difficult when discussing behavioral health needs. I have my patients for about a week typically, so trying to provide enough support and education to patients, family, and school staff can be very challenging. I often feel like I don’t have the capability to serve schools as well as I would like to with supports! It is also difficult to not know how my students are doing after they are discharged — I wonder about them so often.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I’m not so sure that this was a misconception rather than an underestimation, but I really did not comprehend until I got into teaching how huge of a difference a teacher can make on a child’s life. Now what I know about the brain and mental health is that one positive, intensive relationship with a teacher can absolutely change the course of a student’s life — it’s amazing to watch.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

This is very nerdy of me, but I loved reading books that relate to behavioral health, so currently I am reading “Life Without Ed,” a book told from the perspective of someone who battled an eating disorder. I work with many kids with eating disorders, and it is such a terrible, heartbreaking disease that I greatly misunderstood before working on my unit.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

The best advice I received about teaching was to “fill your four circles consistently.” One of my amazing professors from Butler, Theresa Knipstein Meyer, gave a lecture one day about how crucial self-care is for educators. She showed us the theory of the four circles, where you have to consistently be taking care of different aspects of your health for the circles to be balanced and keep “your fire within” ignited. I think that it is so easy for educators to pour their entire hearts and souls into teaching only to get burnt out, and I have had to be conscious about taking care of every aspect of my life. This makes me a much better teacher and person, and I am so grateful to have learned that.

For this Detroit teacher, math is about teaching ‘what makes something true’

PHOTO: Michael Chrzan
Michael Chrzan teaching math during Math Corps, a summer program at Wayne State University.

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 the series here.

Asked what he teaches, Michael Chrzan says “mathematics.” Because in his classroom at Henry Ford Academy, a charter high school in Detroit, math is more than the calculations you need to tip a server or balance a budget. Chrzan, a third-year teacher, sees the abstract reasoning skills of mathematics — the proofs and deductions — as tools to help his students develop a firmer grasp on every aspect of their world.

This is just one of the ways he is unusual. A Teach for America alumnus, Chrzan also went through a traditional teacher training program in college. He is a African-American male math teacher in a country that produces far too few of them. And remember the Pokemon Go craze? He still plays.

Less than a week before Chrzan is to be honored as Teach for America’s teacher of the year in Detroit, Chalkbeat spoke with him about his dealings with parents, the toughest parts of his job, his social media habits, and how he finds  “greatness” in every student.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I’ve been teaching in some capacity — teaching or tutoring — since high school. I was a teaching assistant at a summer camp at Wayne State called Math Corps. I caught the bug for teaching there. I did that for three summers. I knew at some point in my life that I would get back into teaching. In college, I took a couple of computer science and math and education classes. And the computer science classes were fun, but I was like, this is just a hobby.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I taught geometry the last two years. It’s really a beautiful class because it’s the only class in high school where kids do the work of professional mathematicians. It’s the only class where they do proofs. So we get to have a really rigorous conversation about what makes something true, which is really important in our society right now.

Every year I pull in examples of deductive reasoning from outside of mathematics too.

One of the things I’m going to try this year is bringing in a Supreme Court decision and talking about the deductive reasoning that shows up there.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

I had a conversation with a very young student’s mother who had the frame of mind that he was responsible for himself.

I was calling to talk about some issues that I’d seen on his homework, and just about getting it completed. That’s a really important part of the learning, that independent practice. And she was very much of the mindset that I needed to have that conversation with him, not her. It was not her job for him to get that done.

It changed how I discussed things with him because it got a much deeper understanding of what he has to deal with outside of these four walls.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The hardest part is motivating students. There are some students who have a really long history of messaging that they’ve gotten from schools, of the kind of person and students they are. I try to reverse that. You plant a seed when you’re the one teacher who’s telling them something different, but sometimes you don’t get to see that seed bloom in one year.

What was the biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

That I was ready for it. I did a lot of pre-professional teaching things. In college, I went to New York for two summers and taught in a program called Breakthrough. I did student teaching. I did Teach for America. I was like, I’ve got to be ready for this, I’ve got so much more experience than most people do when they enter the profession.

I was not ready. There’s is nothing that will prepare you for day in and day out being responsible for your kids’ learning.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

“Children of Blood and Bone,” by Tomi Adeyemi. It’s possibly one of my favorite books of all time. As a millennial, I’m very into social media. I will typically lull myself to sleep on Instagram. And I’ve gotten back into Pokemon Go.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

There are two. I can’t decide which I like better. The first would be, ‘don’t take anything personally.’ That really helped me understand that if I’m having a management issue with a kid, it may not have anything to do with me, that’s probably a kid who needs help. And that pairs up with assuming the best of my students. They came to class because they want to learn, and maybe something got in the way. I try to find their greatness, whether it’s math or otherwise. That’s a more human way to see students, and it opens them up to new things, like trying difficult mathematics.