How I Teach

Meet the only speech-language pathologist in Colorado’s Teacher Cabinet

Dan Haught, a speech-language pathologist at Mesa Elementary School in Westminster Public Schools, with children in a preschool classroom.

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.

Before he began working as a speech-language pathologist at Mesa Elementary School in Westminster Public Schools, Dan Haught worked mostly with data. He was part of a University of Colorado research team studying school safety and bullying prevention programs.

But during the team’s frequent school visits, he was drawn in by the kids. They were full of joy and potential, he said. And more fun than data.

It was then he knew he wanted to shift gears professionally.

Haught talked to Chalkbeat about the movie that inspired his career choice, the importance of laughter in his classroom, and how he connected with a student who, at first, barely looked at him.

Haught is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state’s Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education on the impact of education policies in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a speech-language pathologist?
This may sound cliché, but there was a movie that provided some of the inspiration. “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” tells the story of a French journalist who had a stroke, which left him without the ability to speak. This was a fascinating concept to me: To be able to hear, process, and understand everything around you, but without the ability to talk or otherwise communicate. Some of the individuals I work with face similar circumstances.

Once I decided that I wanted to become a speech-language pathologist, I had to figure out where to work! Many of us work in medical settings, but I was drawn to the positive and happy climate of public schools. Our kids have long and productive lives ahead of them, and it is an honor to help them along in their journey.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
I couldn’t teach without my amazing co-workers! We have a very talented special education team at Mesa Elementary, and I could not function without them. We are supportive of each other, and not a day goes by where I don’t learn something new. Our school district supports a blended-services model that encourages collaboration among different professionals and disciplines. Because of this, I am exposed to a diverse set of teaching styles and methods. It is always fun to collaborate with colleagues and hear different perspectives.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school where you work?
People often forget about the “language” component of speech-language pathology. It is true that we help children improve their speech production and articulation, but we also help children establish solid foundations of phonological awareness and grammar skills. Part of our work also involves determining whether there is a language difference or a language delay, which is an important distinction among our English language learners.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
In recent years I’ve been fortunate to gain more experience working with children on the autism spectrum. Working with children who have autism has been a complete paradigm shift in the way I think about my caseload. One particular child was so affected by autism that he rarely looked at me or even acknowledged that I was in the same room with him. Finding a way to connect with him was extremely challenging at first, but every day I kept trying to build a relationship.

Eventually, I found that this student loved music, and that opened up a whole new world for us. We learned how to sing simple songs and nursery rhymes together, with each of us taking our own part. I even purchased a toy microphone that we would pass back and forth to each other. Eventually, he started greeting me every time I entered the room, and now he gets excited when we work together.

From this experience, I learned that making a connection can require a lot of trial and error, as well as a lot of time and patience. I try to not take things personally, and if I have difficulty connecting with a particular child on one occasion, it’s okay to keep trying because you never know when (or how) you will achieve a breakthrough.

What does your classroom look like?
I don’t think my classroom is anything special. In fact, I’m usually envious of other people’s colorful and creative classroom ideas. But you will find laughter in my classroom. Even though what we do is serious, we need to remember to keep things fun and engaging. I also think it’s important to take time to celebrate success. Because of this, we cheer, clap, sing songs, and provide encouragement for students who are making progress.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I have learned over the years that some of our families face hardships that are beyond my imagination. Because of this, I try to listen more than I talk, especially when I first meet a family. It is important to remember that parents are the true experts on their children, and we can learn a lot about our students by being receptive listeners. It is true that you never know what someone is going through until you have walked a mile in their shoes.

I remember one time where parents started a meeting by stating their house had just burned down. We were all taken off guard by this news. However, as we began to talk about their child’s progress and some of the meaningful steps their child had taken over the last year, the meeting began to take a much more positive note. Instead of focusing on tragedy, we began to focus on joy and celebration. The meeting became a bright spot in an otherwise difficult week for the family.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I try to build relationships with students by showing that I care about them, as well as their personal interests. I like to make therapy materials related to their interests and hobbies, and I try to offer as many choices in their learning as possible. It is important to remember that it is not the child’s fault if we are having difficulty connecting. Because of this, I try to think about how I can adjust my practice or think about how I can do things differently. Building a meaningful relationship takes time, so it is important to be patient. We also need to remember to laugh and have fun. I’m a silly person by nature, so that helps.

What is the hardest part of your job?
I work with children who have a wide range of educational needs. The way we treat children who have articulation challenges is very different from the way we treat children who need to learn language skills. Even within a particular diagnostic category, there can be significant variation. For example, autism is indeed a spectrum. Some children with autism are nonverbal, while others are highly functioning. Still others have difficulty with sensory and emotional regulation. As a speech-language pathologist, I have to be knowledgeable in many different subject areas. It can be overwhelming at times.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
I love it when people remind me to “keep it focused on the kids.” Too often, we get caught up in workplace drama, new initiatives, or testing requirements. I think it is important to take a fresh breath and remember why we chose this occupation. We owe it to our kids to keep the focus on them.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
Like most Coloradans, I love being outdoors. I’ve climbed more than half of the fourteeners — mountain peaks with an elevation of at least 14,000 feet — and I love to go camping with friends. On some evenings, you can find me in my favorite chair with a good mystery novel.

How I Teach

Why students’ birthdays are the perfect icebreaker for this award-winning Tennessee teacher

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Paula Franklin gets a hug from one of her students after the announcement that she was one of two Tennessee teachers to win a Milken Educator Award.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Paula Franklin’s students describe her teaching style as “relaxingly engaging.”

Maybe that’s because she starts out by building relationships with her students, then begins to introduce the content in her Advanced Placement government class at West High School in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Since she took on the course, enrollment has doubled. And more than 80 percent of her students exceed the national average on their final AP test scores.

Her efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. Last year, Franklin was one of two Tennessee teachers chosen by the Milken Family Foundation for their prestigious national teaching award. The honor includes a no-strings-attached check for $25,000.

We spoke with Franklin about why she became a teacher, how she uses birthdays to build relationships with her students, and why campaign finance reform is her favorite lesson to teach. (Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity.).

Why did you become a teacher?

My high school AP Biology teacher, Mr. Wheatley, was my inspiration. He cared about his students as people first and whatever we learned about biology was secondary. As a result, I learned a lot of biology, and a tremendous amount about myself, for which I am forever grateful. I work every day to provide the same type of environment to my students. I try to teach them about themselves through the lens of civic education. I want my students to leave my class not only more confident in their knowledge of our government, but also as inquirers and risk-takers who are equipped to ask questions and find the answers.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them?

I spend the first two to three days of class using Kagan class-building strategies to get to know my students and to get them to know each other. I can always make up time for content later, but the time spent building a classroom culture at the beginning of the year can’t be made up.

Another of my favorite things is finding out my students’ birthdays to celebrate them with the class by asking them three questions: Are you going to drive? What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment,? What do you hope to accomplish before your next birthday?

This allows me to spotlight my students and have them think critically about themselves and their goals. I have asked these same three questions for years, and students have started coming to me on their birthdays after they have left my class to share their accomplishments and goals.

What does your classroom look like?

I love to display student work in my classroom, both from my current and former students, so my walls are pretty well covered in posters and art. I think it’s important to make a classroom into a reflection of the students who learn there and goes a long way toward building community.  I arrange the desks in small sections of rows so that I can easily get to all the students to provide support on a difficult concept or assignment or encouragement to stay on task.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Lowell Milken, chairman and co-founder of the Milken Family Foundation, and Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen surprise Franklin with her award.

Google Drive! I am a huge reflector and save all of my lesson materials and reflections on my Drive. That way, I can easily access previous lessons and see how to best adapt them for my current students or the current social-political climate.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

One of my favorite lessons to teach began as my absolute least favorite: Campaign finance reform. The first couple of years, it went terribly. Students didn’t come away with an understanding of campaign finance but were more confused than when we started.

I am big on incorporating technology in my classroom, but for this lesson, I have them write down the original limitations of campaign finance and then cross them off in a different color as we learn about repeals. The action of crossing an item off of the list and annotating with the case or law that repealed it really sticks with them. This lesson is one of my favorites because I get to teach a relatively small amount of content over a class period, students get to work in groups and really wrestle with the content, and they have the opportunity to share their understanding with the whole class.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?

I try to figure out what it was about the lesson they did not understand. I can usually do this by reviewing data from a quiz or test or other assessment or just by asking them. I spend a lot of time in my class focusing on how to ask and answer questions to encourage my students to be advocates for their education both in and out of my classroom. After I figure out what I need to remediate with my classes, I do my best to come up with an example or analogy that is relevant to them. If that doesn’t work, then I ask a colleague how they teach that topic and try that. I am constantly looking for new and different ways to teach content that my students typically struggle with so that I am prepared to switch it up if my plan isn’t working.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

It is OK to leave it on your desk; it will still be there in the morning. You are not a bad teacher for needing time for yourself.

How I Teach

Crazy contraptions, Chemistry Cat, and climbing stories: How this Colorado science teacher connects with kids

PHOTO: Courtesy of Shannon Wachowski
Shannon Wachowski, a science teacher at Platte Valley High School, holds a toothpick bridge as a her students look on.

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.

Shannon Wachowski once started a parent-teacher conference by sharing that she was concerned about the student’s lack of motivation. The boy’s mother quickly began adding criticisms of her own — alarming Wachowski enough that she started defending the teen.

It was then the student’s behavior began to make more sense to Wachowski, who teaches everything from ninth-grade earth science to college-level chemistry at Platte Valley High School in northeastern Colorado. She realized that school, not home, was the boy’s safe place.

Wachowski is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education.

She talked to Chalkbeat about how she uses parent conferences and classwork to learn students’ stories, why making Rube Goldberg contraptions boosts kids’ confidence, and what happens when she raises her hand in the middle of class.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
Originally a practicing chemical engineer, I became a teacher because I wanted a more fulfilling career. I had tutored chemistry in college and really enjoyed it.

What does your classroom look like?
Because my students work in teams 90 percent of the time, my tables are arranged so that students can sit in groups of four. I wrote a grant last summer for standing desks so each two person desk raises up and down. They are convenient for labs or when students need a change of scenery. My walls contain student-made license plates (an activity I do on the first day of school) and other student work from class, including various Chemistry Cat memes!

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ________. Why?
My heart. Initially I became a teacher because I loved my content. I soon realized however, that while content is important, developing relationships with students is paramount. No learning will happen if positive relationships are not established first. When I am frustrated with student behavior, I try to put myself in their place and respond in a caring and compassionate manner.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite lessons is when my students build Rube Goldberg devices. It gets somewhat chaotic because they are working in teams and materials are everywhere, but every single student is engaged. In the end, they can apply what they know about energy to design a multi-step contraption. I have seen very low-confidence students excel at this activity, and it is very rewarding to see them experience success in a science class.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
One strategy I’ve recently started using came from my experience leading professional development for other teachers. I will be somewhere in the middle of the room (usually not the front) and raise my hand. When students see me raise my hand, they will raise theirs and pause their conversation. Then other students see those students and raise their hand, etc. Once everyone is quiet, then I’ll make my announcement. Like all other strategies, I need to practice being consistent with it.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I always plan the first couple of days for “get to know you” activities. My students design their own paper license plates using whatever letters, numbers, or design they would like. They then have 30 seconds to talk about their license plates.
I noticed that in some of my more challenging classes I needed a way to better connect with my students. At the beginning of most class periods I share some sort of funny story about what happened to me the evening prior — for some reason, I am never short of these stories — or a picture of my dog, or my latest climbing adventure. Sharing this information does not take long and eventually, students will ask if I have a story to share if I haven’t done so in a while. This also leads to them sharing stories with me, and finding that we may have more in common than we think.

Tell us about a memorable time-good or bad-when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
At parent-teacher conferences one year I had a parent come in with their student. This student was not the most motivated individual — not disrespectful, just did not seem to want to do anything with his time. As I was explaining this to his parent, the parent started talking very negatively to and about the student, so much so that I found myself trying to defend the student and bring up positive qualities about his character. This interaction helped me to understand some of the student’s behavior in class, as well as realize that for some students, school is their safe place. There are often lots of reasons for a student’s behavior that I may not be aware of, which is why it is important to get to know each student and their situation as best as possible.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
When I have time outside of school, one of the things I enjoy doing is throwing pottery. I am currently reading “Science for Potters” by Linda Bloomfield. It combines my love of science and art into one book.

What is the best advice you ever received?
Since I teach a variety of levels, I often have one class that challenges my classroom management skills. This can be frustrating as I am the type of person that would like to achieve perfection in every circumstance. When I have a discipline issue in my class, I often see it as a personal failure. My husband often reminds me that “You can’t control other people’s behavior, you can only control your response to it.”