1. Tell us a little bit about Blackburn Alternative School. Who does it
serve, what makes it different from traditional schools, and why does it work?
Blackburn serves a variety of students as one of the "Multiple Pathways" to graduation programs provided by Omaha Public Schools. Some students are reassigned to Blackburn for code of conduct violations; others come to us because they have serious high school credit deficiencies. Some are with us because they have irregular school attendance. One similarity among our students is the difficulty they have experienced navigating their way through a traditional high school education--regardless of reason. Because we have smaller classes, a variety of flexible schedules and the ability to get to know each enrollee personally, our students often experience success that has heretofore eluded them.
2. You teach Teen Parents within your independent study curriculum. What types of things do you teach in your classes and why is it so important?
Most teen parents with whom I have worked are tremendously focused on goals and driven to succeed as models for their children. We spend a great deal of time on problem solving strategies, financial literacy, time management, parenting, and early literacy. We stress that what they are doing is beneficial to their children's future as well as their own.
I have such admiration for my students who work full time, live on their own, parent, and are working diligently to graduate from high school. They have very full lives that can unbalance easily. It is important to help students make community connections with those who can assist them in their efforts. When life gets too overwhelming and focused on survival, school is the first thing to go by the wayside. Being part of a network of caring individuals for our students ensures that they know where to turn for help so they can maintain their educational focus. We are grateful that there are so many community support systems available for our students.
I also work with students
who have mental health or learning concerns that can at times interfere with
their educational success. Regardless of how students come to us, I
think it is important to treat them as partners rather than recipients of
programming; I try to help them see how education fits into their lives and
goals. One thing that has helped has been involving them in service
learning projects that get them into the community and on college campuses,
applying what they have learned in class, and most importantly, seeing how they
are an integral part of the fabric of our community. This approach to
learning has helped our students view learning in new and different ways, as
they have done everything from creating and serving meals to senior citizens to
training dogs for the Nebraska Humane Society to creating electronic scavenger
hunts for Joslyn Art Museum.
3. What has been your biggest "ah ha!" moment as a teacher?
That you never know who
you are going to reach, so it is important to never give up on students. Every
day truly should be viewed as a time to start anew. When teachers can do
that, they build relationships with students, which is the real birth of
learning. Once a student trusts you enough to let you see where their
learning vulnerabilities lie, you can help them grow into the person they are
supposed to be. And seeing them bloom, especially students who have
struggled, is a beautiful thing indeed. Most kids really do want to
succeed in school and life. That stated, it is also
important to remember that the teacher must never work harder than the student.
4. How has technology changed the way you teach?
Many of our courses are electronically delivered and I serve as facilitator and support. This enables our students to access the best of instruction and not just the "world according to me"--whew! In addition, any question or topic about which we want to learn more is at our fingertips. When we did our literacy project at the Joslyn, we actually used students' smartphones to create museum "treks." It was fun to show students inventive ways to use electronics in an educational setting.
Being a dinosaur, I am still amazed at how easy it is to research topical areas without having to delve through dusty tomes. Just once, I may have to have this new generation learn something the "old school" way!
Of course, we also teach
to appropriate use of technology. This is such an important topic to
address--over and over again. My broken record refrain remains, "Facebook
5. It's no secret that being a teacher can be extremely frustrating and challenging at times. How do you keep a positive outlook and stay focused on the task at hand? What advice would you give other teachers who find themselves wondering if they're getting through to their students?
First, I chose this as a career--and I don't mean teaching reading or math or any other subject area. I chose to work with children, and children are who I get. Children who excel at school but not at relationships, children who can't read and are mad about it, children who want to graduate, children who are here as a condition of liberty, children who haven't eaten since yesterday...all kinds of children. Not just the well-behaved, the clean and the friendly. They don't need us to like them as much.
You have to remember that they are kids, so they will frustrate and annoy you. You can't personalize their behavior or be mad at them for "not knowing." That is your job security! Those are called "teachable moments," opportunities to show another way of doing something--be it a comprehension strategy or a social faux pas. You have to remember to shake it off and start over if something goes awry, because you are a professional. That doesn't mean you have to take yourself seriously!
There isn't always reciprocity, so you have to keep your bucket filled with external reinforcers that enable you to come in and start again. Hobbies, learning and travel opportunities, committees, political action, etc. refresh you and make you better able to handle the vagaries of what you do on a daily basis.
Don't become disheartened by reading the newspapers. They don't understand that your students test scores are apples and oranges with students who have started from very different places. Your success can not be predicated on comparisons with other teachers in other places but with what you accomplish with your students on a daily basis. People aren't numbers. Most teachers know if they are reaching their students. If they aren't, they need to ask for help. We are all in this together--no one can be expected to be successful at everything. Most importantly--when you need a break, take one!