How to Tell Whether You have Allergies or a Cold
Middle School Language Arts Teacher
In 2002, my good friend and TJS teacher Lynn Negrin and I were talking on the phone. Jokingly I said, “You don’t happen to have an opening where you work, do you?” and she said, “Actually, yes! We do have an opening.”
The Joy School was looking for someone to teach their very first middle school classes. After interviewing with Shara Bumgarner and Michele Joseph, I observed a class. I was drawn to the opportunity to work with kids in small classes, which allowed for individualized attention to students. It gives you more learning and repair time as a teacher, which is so important with at-risk students, which many students with learning differences are. I had a lot of experience with at-risk kids.
The students I taught at my previous job at Alief’s alternative disciplinary campus had been expelled. They had learning struggles similar to students at The Joy School, and it led to them acting out in class. Time after time, I saw students with ADHD and dyslexia who exemplified what Rick Lavoie says about students: “On any given day, a kid would rather be seen as the bad kid than the dumb kid.” Working with those students and trying to build them up was good experience for coming to TJS.
There are several reasons I love teaching at TJS to this day.
The kids top that list.
These kids give me the opportunity to see what I love about teaching. You give them a technique or tool that works for them, and you recognize that they’re succeeding, and then they just light up.
When you have time and resources to concentrate on a student, that’s golden for a teacher. In large class sizes, it’s harder to get that because your resources are spread so thin. You have to bring your a-game to class, whether you have 25 kids or eight kids. But when you can bring your best game to eight students, they’re getting more out of you.
The second reason I keep teaching at TJS is the support from the admin team. Particularly the vision and support of Shara. She is interested in the growth and development of everyone who works at TJS. She wants to give you everything you need to be successful. Shara has always been open to experimentation, trying new things and bringing in new resources.
I had a dyslexic student, Will. They had been using Orton-Gillingham on him for years to no avail. Orton-Gillingham is great. It works a lot, but it doesn’t always work. I got this kid in my class, and I asked, “Why should I keep doing what isn’t working? The kid can talk. What if whatever he said was typed out on a computer?”
I went to Shara and asked the School to purchase software that translates voice into typed text. She said yes without hesitation.
I tried the software with Will and had partial success. Seeing him achieve any level of success was fantastic. Even partial success, because he hadn’t experienced that before.
It was so exciting to bring assisted technology like voice recognition, text-to-speech and concept mapping software to these kids. The admin team was very open to that.
The third thing I love about TJS is my colleagues. There are some really great teachers here. Wonderful people who are very talented, very passionate and very analytical. I am grateful for the opportunity to steal their stuff!
It is important to be passionate about teaching. Teaching is my calling. Well, teaching or blues/rock god, but that didn’t happen.
I met a lot of fabulous teachers working in public schools. They are in the trenches, and many of them are to be greatly admired. Some of the best teachers here at TJS are teachers with a public school background. It’s a good background before working here. There’s a lot of trial by fire.
In addition to being passionate, our teachers also have to be analytical. The kids that come to TJS can have profiles that are different from each other, even in the same class grouping.
Our kids are also here because of problems they had at mainstream schools. You have to be able to figure out what a kid needs and devise a new plan. What works for one dyslexic kid may not work for another, because there are different types of dyslexia.
TJS invests in sending us to conferences where we learn things to bring back to the classroom. Thanks to the continuing teacher education that is available to us, we are able to hone those analytical skills and make them even better.
That’s part of Shara’s passion too. She makes sure we get to go to these seminars and conferences so we can continue to grow and bring knowledge of different strategies for different students. In that sense, my colleagues have made the school what it is today. There are teachers here who have been doing wonderful things for many years now, and it’s because if something isn’t working, they have the freedom to try something else until they find what works. Then they share that strategy with other teachers. Nothing succeeds like success.
On top of the respect I have for my colleagues, there is a sense of family here, and our alumni are definitely part of that extended family.
Being a middle school teacher, I’m close enough to a student's journey into high school that alumni come back and see me and tell me how they’re doing. Sometimes they even tell me that something I did helped them. As a teacher, you live for that.
I had a student named Alexandria Thomas. Alex is a dyslexic young lady who had a lot of success here at The Joy School. She started using text-to-speech software and her writing just took off. She was able to couple an incredible work ethic with the liberating use of assistive software.
Years ago, I started assigning an art research paper each spring. Recently, Alex came back from college and said she was majoring in art history and was going to grad school for art and wanted to be a curator. Then she said, “It was because you got me interested in art all the way back when I was in Middle school here at TJS, Mr. King.”
Since then she earned her Master of Fine Arts in Art Leadership from Seattle University.
It’s those moments – the ones that make you cry because you’re so happy – that are golden to a teacher. At TJS we’ve had a lot of students come back to visit and tell us how they were helped here and what it means to them.
We strive to impact the students here every day, but when the kids themselves come back and tell you in their own words, it’s so wonderful. It’s very motivating. It makes you feel like you’re doing something very important.
It’s one of the many things that makes me wake up every morning and look forward to coming to work, which is very fortunate. A lot of people can’t say that.
The main thing for parents of kids with learning differences to know about TJS is that our immediate goal with our students is to make sure two things are happening: 1. That they know they’re safe, and 2. That they can be happy in school.
Once you have those two things going, you’ve created an environment where real academic growth can happen. If you don’t have a safe place, and if a student isn’t happy, it’s hard to learn.
Kids know they’re in safe place at TJS because we don’t penalize students for what they don’t know or what they can’t do. Instead, we celebrate what they learn to do and the progress they make.
At The Joy School, you’re never made to feel like “the dumb kid”. If you look around, you’ll see that all the other kids, all the kids in your class, all your friends that are here, they’re all here because they struggle too. We’re all in this together.