This month’s featured teacher is Alice Simmons! Congratulations Alice for being this month’s featured teacher! I think you will really enjoy this interview because I know I did.
ST: What school do you teach at?
AS: Bennington Grade School
ST: What subjects/grade levels do you teach?
AS: I have a special education resource room with grades K-6, some years can include 7th & 8th grades as we are a PreK-12 building and try to start the year with fairly balanced caseloads. Additionally I am one of our special education cooperative Mandt trainers (this is a system of managing your own behavior to assist other with managing their behavior). I primarily teach core instruction with reading, written language, phonics, and math for some students but support all subjects as students need. For other students, I do skill work which don't require extensive pull-out time. We manage paras who support our students in the regular classroom. My focus is to move students from pull-out to support in their classroom and for those who it's appropriate they are moved out of services. My caseload includes a variety of exceptionalities as well.
ST: How long have you been teaching?
AS: 30 years including a couple of years of tutoring while in college as well as a few years as a full-time mom thus teaching my own children during their early years. (Here Alice is with her beautiful family!)
ST: What has been the hardest thing for you as a teacher?
AS: Juggling! Keeping everything going when I have 6 different grades/subjects in my room at the same time or when I end up on my own with multiple needs in my room without a para. Keeping everything moving smoothly and forward including academics and behavior. Another challenging facet is figuring out what and how to tweak when I have a student who is not making progress or who plateaus. Processing through these challenges can be frustrating for the students as well and helping them not be frustrated is a challenge. Scheduling can be quite a challenge. Keeping up with all the current changes with regard to Common Core as well as other changes which come along.
ST: What do you feel is the best thing about teaching?
AS: The kids! The kids! The kids! Watching them learn and being able to celebrate with them when they make progress. Watching those lightbulbs turn on, buds of learning turn into beautiful flowers. Being able to celebrate with parents when we make great achievements or are able to dismiss a student from services and watching them blossom. It's great when a student demands I email or text a parent to tell them what just happened. Developing relationships not just with my students but with their parents so we can work together as a team. Developing relationships with colleagues so we can work as an effective team. The teacher across the hall is great at helping me celebrate and reward great progress steps. There's a special joy when you have a student who doesn't like school yet one day at home gets upset because they realize they are missing your class. To have the parent come in and share even this is such a wonderful feeling. To have the student who comes to you at the end of the day to let you know they are not excited about not getting to come to your room the next day as they have something else to go to. I have a small group of kids when there is a schedule change, will manage to come to my room to get me to tell the teacher that I must have them come down or try. When they want to come down, then we are able to achieve great things. Giving one of my students a leadership role with the younger students and watching them blossom rising to a different challenge. Oh and did I say the best thing about teaching is "THE KIDS"?
ST: What is the biggest issue in education that you wish the state or federal government would address and why?
AS: Elected officials who know nothing or next to nothing about education making decisions on what and how we are to teach. I don't mind aspects like Common Core which give a cohesiveness across states. What does bother me is when they think they can determine who should receive how much of what service, that all kids will achieve at a certain level (no one is perfect and then there are the attitudes of some, let alone those students who may not have enough to eat or are concerned with shelter or with being safe, then there are our students with learning disabilities or cognitive impairments or communication impairments), passing legislation which is supposed to decrease paperwork when it really increases paperwork and on that paperwork there might be hard set timelines regardless of illness or blizzard or whatever curve life might throw us. I think it would be great if every year they randomly selected everyday working teachers from across the region (state for state committee and country for federal committee) and across grade/subject levels (including special ed) to serve on an advisory committee for a year and take the advice to heart from actual teachers not just committees for general education but for special education as well.
ST: What piece of advice would you give to a new teacher in order to be successful in the classroom?
AS: College doesn't really prepare you for having your own classroom. It does give you a very basic framework but the real learning happens when you have your own room. The first year will be the hardest and it will get easier from there. Take your first year a day at a time and have something at home for you to do which destresses you. Don't be afraid to ask questions of your colleagues and make sure you have a mentor who can help you out. Most important - become friends with the custodian(s) and secretary, everyone knows they really know what's up and if you become friends with them they will help you when you need it. Have crackers or some other healthy munchie for those students who might come in hungry. As for the classroom and actual teaching, have your lesson plans but have in there the ability to go with the flow. Sometimes the left turn leads to our end result in a different way. If you don't think a lesson went well, think how you could change up your presentation to improve it and bounce ideas off of other teachers/mentor. Be willing the first year to try some different techniques you've learned to figure out what best fits your style. Teach to as many modalities as possible. Listen to the kids as they can have great ideas. Several years ago I had a multi-grade science class and we were talking about energy. We got to a point of nuclear energy and one of my students asked if it was what they made bombs from & what happened if it went kaboom. I told them a melt down and brought in information on Chernobyl & 3-Mile Island. My thinking a quick 1 day project to go over the highlights. They came up with the idea of making scale models so I challenged them with what would be on the rubric. In the end we had a 3 week project with active scale model meltdowns and the students could tell you everything you wanted to know about nuclear energy as well as the type of energy they thought was the best and why with the last portion being a written report. If you become a general ed teacher, don't rush to have a student identified for special ed. Current trends have us being able to use classroom intervention data and while it can be a lot on your plate, in the end it can aid in a student being appropriate identified. Remember you have the basics in your toolbox, as you teach your toolbox will become much fuller and you'll get to know which tool to pull out for each situation.
ST: If money was no object, what would you want for your classroom?
AS: More iPads and iPod touches or maybe some iPad minis with accessories (including computer to manage the devices) and gift cards to be able to purchase apps as good ones become available without jumping through purchase order hoops. We received a grant for some of these and I wish I had enough iPads to configure one per student. I'd love a large stash of iPod touches to be able to give one to my 5th & 6th grade students (maybe a few 4th graders) as well as our junior high & senior high students with the audio of their textbooks on them as well as being able to put novels (both for reading/English class and for independent reading) as well as some key apps for skill practice. These iPods could then be given to them, if still in working order, when they graduate from high school.
ST: If you could have anybody in the world visit your class, who would it be?
AS: Oh my, this is a tough one. I'm going to answer this with two people. The first person would be Helen Keller as she was an influence as someone with a disability could do anything they want to do. I grew up with a hearing loss. I would love to have Sherrie Chrysler, one of my sped profs, come and visit. As with many of us in our sped program, she was a very influential person.
ST: Is there something special or unique that you do in your classroom? Is so, please share.
AS: I have tarps cut into 9" wide strips. On these tarps we have the alphabet, letter sounds (per our coding with saxon), sound pictures, and numbers. We are able to walk, jump, hop, etc... our phonics, our spelling, our math. The math tarps help with adding and subtracting as well as skip counting. I do brain gym and brain dance activities which encourage both sides of the brain working together. With spelling, we chunk our spelling words and with strips of paper we color code each. We start with the first section, adding one section at a time (maximum of 4 sections) we learn to spell our words forwards and backwards. I have word chunk tiles (wingo) which we are able to make up our own game to work on reading real and nonsense words. I do like to purchase materials which can have multiple uses.
If you want to nominate a teacher for me to feature in the upcoming months, please email me (successfulteaching at gmail dot com) their name, school, and contact info. Please consider helping me recognize teachers who sometimes don’t get the recognition that they deserve!
Original photo by Pat Hensley