Thursday, April 18, 2019

What is Your Philosophy of Teaching & Learning?

About a year ago, my wife, Mary, was accepted into the graduate program at the University of Nevada to continue her studies of speech and language pathology.  What that meant was uprooting from the place that we had known for the previous 13 years and move north from Las Vegas to Reno.  In that year, while there is so much I miss about Las Vegas, including my friends and "family" and the city as a whole, there is also so much I love about Reno and the surrounding area.  I feel like my family and I have settled in nicely and I have no desire to leave; I have even gone as far as saying that I love my school and community so much that I want to retire from there.  Only 16 more years to go!  

Will this be me on retirement day?  Perhaps, but hopefully, I age better
than Ric Flair did!
All kidding aside, I will only be 53 when I am eligible to retire with a full 30-year pension from the State of Nevada.  While our pension system is very good, I would be taking a significant pay cut upon retirement while having to pay for health insurance, and I would not be able to access my retirement savings for another 7 years afterward.  Needless to say, I will not be retiring at 53.  Whether I continue to work in Nevada or pick up and move to another district, that remains to be seen; after all, that is 16 years down the road!

Part of making the move to Northern Nevada required me to be flexible in obtaining a job.  Positions in my subject area were thin to non-existent, so districts informed me that I could teach special education so long as I took the required classes to become certified.  I enrolled in a master's program through Western Governors University and between the program and working as a special education teacher for the last 7 months or so, I have learned how much I love working in special education and I am very happy with my career shift.  

As I am getting close to completing my degree, I am working on the final portfolio for the program.  Part of the portfolio requires a philosophy of teaching and learning.  I have written these for previous degree programs, including my bachelor's and my first master's degree.  It is something that I think about on a regular basis as well.  That being said, I wanted to share my philosophy as part of this blog post.  

From about the time of my sophomore year in high school, I knew that I wanted to be a teacher.  So many of my teachers throughout my years of public school were a tremendous influence on my desire to become a teacher.  Over the course of obtaining my bachelor’s degree in education, a Master’s of Education, an Educational Specialist in school administration, and now, a Master’s of Science in Special Education, plus nearly 14 years as a teacher in a multitude of roles, I have developed a strong philosophy of what it means to be a teacher and what my role and influence on student learning is and should be.

Teaching is one of the most important aspects of my life.  Teaching gives me the opportunity to make a positive influence on students that may not have much positivity in their life because of economic conditions, lack of parental figures, or physical or emotional abuse.  Teaching gives me the opportunity to share things that I am passionate about, such as my love of history, trying new lessons and technology tools, and interacting with young people. Teaching also gives me the opportunity to impact the future of my community and my nation.  The students I work with today are going to be tomorrow’s leaders, auto mechanics, lawyers, farmers, soldiers and sailors, and so much more, and I am honored to be a part of each and every one of their journeys.

As an educator, I have many beliefs regarding teaching and student learning, including that students’ education should be focused on college and career readiness and teaching and learning should be focused on active learning strategies.  Every teacher and school in the United States should strive for 100% high school graduation rates, however, the focus should not simply be getting students to the finish line. Students should finish high school, with their diploma, prepared for further education in college, a vocational trade school, or other educational endeavors or a long-term career that does not require further education.  The major difference between completing high school and college and career readiness is that college and career readiness focuses on more than achievement in academic core subject areas, but focuses on skills such as problem-solving, collaboration, and critical thinking, and exposure to other skills such as computer science and trade skills such as welding and mechanics (Morningstar, Lombardi, & Test, 2018).  It is my belief that not all students are going to college and that many students are pressured to go to college instead of pursuing a career that does not require a college degree, careers that even pay much more than many jobs that require a degree. Schools need to put more of an emphasis on college and career readiness skills and expose students to careers and educational opportunities that do not require college.  In order to achieve these goals, it is my belief that active learning strategies and technology must be the focus of teaching in our schools. Active learning includes many different styles of learning, including collaborative learning, cooperative learning, and problem-based learning, all designed to build students’ college and career readiness skills and help students become actively involved in content, not simply consumers of content; active learning has also been shown to improve students’ retention and understanding of content, as well as students’ satisfaction with classes that incorporate active learning (Hyun, Ediger, & Lee, 2017).  

As a teacher, I want my students to actively work toward building their college and career readiness skills.  I want to instill a culture of problem-solving and collaboration amongst my students. I believe that one of the best ways to instill these skills in my students is through project-based learning (PBL).  Project-based learning presents students with a question, a problem in which to solve. Through research and collaboration, students create a product to demonstrate their learning and their solutions to the problem presented.  It requires students to think outside the box and to work together to solve the problem instead of relying on the teacher to give students the solution. Because of the structure of project-based learning, it will help students build those college and career readiness skills that are so important to their post-secondary success.  And rather than assessment relying on how students respond to a series of multiple-choice questions or other methods of lower depth of knowledge response questions, assessment relies on students’ critical thinking skills in which teachers assess using objective rubrics. This does not mean I do not believe in assessing students’ knowledge through lower depth of knowledge questions; if students are to be assessed in such a manner, I believe that knowledge should be presented in a repetitive manner, with multiple opportunities to demonstrate learning, such as presenting students with an assessment multiple times throughout a unit of study.  

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of an effective classroom, however, is the positive relationships that must be built between the teacher, students, and families.  A positive relationship between the teacher, students, and families consists of open and respectful communication, mutual respect for and toward one another, trust in one another, and an environment that promotes emotional and physical safety for all stakeholders.  To build these relationships, one must be open in communication and communicate in a multitude of ways, such as phone, email, websites and social media. I also have used apps such as Remind to communicate with students and their families. Communication needs to be frequent and students and families should be informed of positive events, not just negative events, in the classroom.  By sharing positive news with students and families, it will make the times in which negative news must be shared easier and support from families will be more likely to occur.

I also believe that a positive relationship with students, families, and colleagues requires one to get to know individuals on an individual basis, not simply an academic or professional basis.  By making a personal connection with students and their families and letting others get to know oneself on a personal level, it shows a human side and builds respect and trust between the teacher, students, and families.  I like to talk to students about their interests in music, sports, and other hobbies, as well as learn about their culture, their ancestry, and other aspects of their family’s roots. Students that feel safe in revealing themselves as people and see their teacher as more than simply a teacher will be more likely to invest in their education and families will be more likely to support the teacher.  

As a professional educator, I live by this philosophy on a daily basis.  I strive to instill my philosophy in every decision I make that has an effect on student learning because ultimately, everything that I do as an educator should have student learning outcomes as its focus.  I strive to build positive relationships with my students, their families, and my colleagues so meeting student success goals are better within reach. And whether I continue to teach for five more years or 30 more years, this philosophy will continue to drive my instruction and adjust as I become a better and more experienced educator.  

Hyun, J., Ediger, R., & Lee, D. (2017). Students’ Satisfaction on Their Learning Process in Active Learning and Traditional Classrooms. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 29(1), 108–118. Retrieved from

Morningstar, M. E., Lombardi, A., & Test, D. (2018). Including College and Career Readiness within a Multitiered Systems of Support Framework. AERA Open, 4(1). Retrieved from

While you may not need to write a philosophy formally, it is something that one should think about on a regular basis.  I also believe that one should share their philosophy to create a dialogue that can spark fundamental change in our educational system.  I encourage you to do so through whatever means in which you are comfortable.  Through conversation and establishing our personal belief systems, we can all be #BetterTogether!  

Until next time... 

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Special #Edtech Tools for #SpecialEducation

All educators want to be organized and efficient.  Each person has their own unique way of accomplishing those things.  Some people have desks and classrooms that look like a tornado blew through, yet they still know where everything is and can get their tasks done.  Others have to have a spotless work area with a specific location for everything.  I fall into the latter category.  I am so organized that colleagues in the past jokingly questioned if I ever taught anything because there was so little clutter and students, knowing that I was a little obsessive-compulsive about my desk, bookshelves, etc. that they would purposely move things, even if it was simply rotating my stapler at a 45 degree angle, knowing that I would move it back as soon as I realized it.  

As a special education teacher, organization and efficiency are even more important.  While I have always had deadlines, the deadlines that I have now have legal implications.  If I don't complete an IEP and hold the meeting by the deadline, I am in violation of district, state, and federal laws.  If I don't take care to ensure my communication and storage of information is confidential and secure, I could also be in violation of laws.  Between my organized-to-a-T nature and these implications, I find it even more important to be as organized as I can be, so I have come up with a short list of Google tools that keep me organized and within the law. 

Now, these tools are not exclusive only to special education.  You can use these tools in the same or similar fashion regardless of your specialty.  However, my descriptions of my usage of these tools are definitely going to be catered to the special education teacher.  If that does not interest, you are free to stop reading now and do something else more productive with your time and energy.  It's ok, I will not judge you! 

What my student information and IEP schedule sheet
 looks like currently toward the end of the school year!
At the beginning of the year when I first received my caseload, I had to determine several things.  I had to figure out when each student's annual IEP was due if the student was due for their three-year evaluation and IEP, whether they were designated as eligible for special education services and limited English proficiency, how to contact their families, and much more.  My first thought was how tedious it was to obtain all of this information in our student information system because I had to look up each student individually, rather than seeing all of my students in one place.  That being said, I created a Google Sheet to organize everything.  In my sheet, I entered each student's name, their grade level, their IEP due date, their limited English proficiency status, and parent/guardian names, phone numbers, and email addresses.  I also created a system of color coding to designate that the student's three-year evaluation was due and when I completed the student's IEP.  As the year has gone on, each student has been highlighted to show that I have completed their plan until next year.  At the time of this writing, I only have one more IEP due before the end of the year!

Once I figured out when my meetings were due, I set out to create a folder for each of my students in Google Drive.  Each folder would contain any evidence that I needed to prepare their IEP, a series of forms for the IEP process (more on this momentarily), and any other information deemed useful for the process of writing the IEP.  I created these folders with the intention of using them for as long as I had the student on my caseload.  Best case scenario, I would have each student for the remainder of their school career and would be able to compare items as they progressed through school.  If a new case manager was to take on one of my students, it would be easy to share my information about the student with the new case manager. 

I also created a series of Google Forms to collect data during the process of building their IEP.  The first form that I created was a parent information form.  In the form, I created a series of questions for parents to answer regarding their child's abilities, struggles, and suggestions for accommodations.  The parent is one of the most integral pieces of the IEP process and sadly, many parents do not participate fully in the process of their child's education.  While I have not received information back from all parents on the form, it has been tremendously helpful in building many of my students' plans this year. 

A second form that I created was designed to be sent to teachers.  The form asks a series of questions regarding teachers perceptions of the student's abilities, struggles, behavior, work ethic, and many others.  Teachers are also asked to provide accommodations that they believe the student would benefit from having in the classroom.  Since I cannot be in a student's classes every day to fully evaluate their abilities, I rely heavily on teachers to provide me with this feedback.

The third form that I created is designed for the student.  I have had students complete it on their own, or I have filled it out while I ask them the questions from the form.  Either way, I sit down with students during the IEP process to ask them their perceptions on their abilities, where they struggle, what has helped them in the past, what they believe may help them in the future, and because I work with high school students, what their plans for after high school may be and what we will need to accomplish in order to meet their post-high school goals.  This is perhaps my favorite part of the process, where I really feel that I can connect with a student on a personal level. 

If you would like to see my forms, please click on the links below.  You will be asked to make a copy of the forms for your own use; use it, modify it, throw it in the trash when you are done, your choice!

A sample of my Google Keep, with some of my
completed checklists for IEP meetings.
When beginning the IEP process, there are several steps that must be taken into consideration, such as contacting parents to schedule a meeting, sending out meeting notices, collecting information from parents, teachers, and the student, working with related services providers like psychologists, speech-language pathologists, counselors, etc.  This is why for each student, I create a checklist note in Google Keep to track each step of the process.  I color code each note to set them apart from other students and pin each one to my page so that they are always at the top.  As I complete each step of the IEP process, I check it off of my list and entering the date in which I completed the step.  While I usually don't set reminders for my calendar, it is a nice option to have, especially if I have several IEPs all due around the same time.  The reminder function allows me to post it to my calendar and notify me when I need to have the process completed. 

This system has served me very well in my first year as a special education teacher.  While it may not work for others, and others may use a different set of tools (I've heard that OneNote is a great IEP organization tool if you are a Microsoft user), but regardless of the tools or the system, as long as the process is completed, then you are in good shape! I would love to hear others tips for the IEP process, so if you have them, share them out on the socials! 

Until next time...