A high school special education teacher who teaches in a self-contained classroom discusses positive changes to his practice and classroom community during distance learning. He describes practical tips for strengthening communication in classrooms where the first language of many parents is not English, while also improving overall relationships with your classroom community.
Six weeks ago, someone asked me if there was something positive happening as a result of stay-at-home orders in my state. My answer at that time was that, for my students, I couldn’t report even one positive thing. I teach students with pretty significant learning differences in a self-contained high school classroom. We were going through all of the training for online teaching, planning, and instruction. I was pretty frustrated, because I felt that my students’ special needs would not be met and that, as usual, they would be hardest affected by the changes. Being a teacher, I could not think of anything besides student progress and effective instruction. Fortunately, my district (Phoenix Union High School District) made the wise decision for us to use the first week to simply contact parents and figure out how to communicate with all students and their families. That week opened my eyes and chipped away at my blind pessimism.
For the last three school years, I’ve used a great communication, academic, and behavior support “tool” called ClassDojo. It’s an online site and phone app that does a few things that are super helpful for educators. First, it works as a token economy. You can use it to track positive behaviors as well as behaviors that need to improve. That’s primarily how I’ve used the tool for the past three years. Second, it allows you to show off student work, activities, field trips, etc., to parents, using a story board where you can post pictures. Third, it has lessons on social-emotional topics that are helpful to students of all ages. (The site is geared toward elementary-level students but can be repurposed for older students.) Lastly, it’s a way to communicate to all parents or to individual parents. Parents who download the app will get messages like a text from you without having to connect through cell phone numbers. The site automatically translates to the language that you use. (I type my messages in English and my Spanish-speaking parents see the message in Spanish, and vice versa.) This feature, which I hadn’t used until the last six weeks, has greatly improved my connection with parents.
When I first started reaching out to parents by phone, I had one of the paraprofessionals in my classroom, Carla Esparza, help me call parents to tell them how to pick up their free laptops from school and log in to Microsoft Teams to join academic sessions with me. We spent a great deal of time on the phone with each parent, and we realized that we had still only gotten through one step in the process of preparing them for daily instruction. That’s when I had the idea to use ClassDojo. I knew that I needed a way to communicate with everyone at once. And I also knew that I needed to be able to communicate with my Spanish-speaking parents without always having an interpreter.
“When school does start back up, I know that it will be the best year yet, because our connection has grown. The bond that my class had will be stronger and I feel like our room has even more allies than it had before. Now, when someone asks what is the best part of my job, I will be able to say, “my classroom community”.”
I got on a Zoom call with Carla and told her that we were going to contact the parents who had not been using ClassDojo, so that I could help make this transition easier. So, the next call that we made to all parents was to either help them set up ClassDojo, help them use it better, or just give them a heads-up that I would be using the site for most communication during the school’s closure. It took us approximately two days to complete this process. And since then, I’ve been able to communicate with every single parent, every day. Not only have I been able to contact them easily, but they have also been able to contact me easily.
I jumped into using ClassDojo by posting individual video messages to parents from our three paraprofessionals (Carla, Reyna, and Paulina) and from me. We posted these videos in our classroom story for everyone to see and comment on. And it immediately seemed to connect us again. When a parent even sees a message, I get a notification. This is a super-useful feature. If a parent hasn’t checked in for a couple days, we call to make sure they’re OK and that they aren’t having computer or internet issues.
Students quickly began posting videos back to us and their classmates. It was amazing! From there, I set up the first all-class Microsoft Teams meeting. Almost everyone attended, including the paraprofessionals. The students immediately greeted the staff and their classmates upon entering. This prompted greetings and ongoing conversations between students who typically don’t speak to each other in class. The meeting felt more like a speech group than a typical day with my students. Everyone was visibly excited when seeing different classmates enter the room. It felt like the staff and students had realized that seeing each other every day is something they’d taken for granted, and that they wanted to make amends by making sure every classmate participated in the conversation in any way they could (verbal, gestures, smiles). Even parents got involved by saying hello to students they’d heard about through their child.
I posted to all parents that I’d be sending out a schedule of times when I’d be working with each student in my class. This message appeared in their inboxes on ClassDojo, and as a kind of text message on their phones. I started to schedule times for these individual sessions, and I began meeting with students. Parents who had to cancel for any reason sent me a quick inbox message to make sure I would know what was happening. It has saved us all so much time. More importantly, it has helped me form stronger relationships with parents, students, and my colleagues.
During the school year, my day looks a lot like that of a large majority of teachers. I go in, teach until the final bell, and prep for an hour. After school, the time goes by quickly. I run a club at school two days a week, work the clock and microphone at sporting events, and attend staff meetings. Then I go home with my computer and do a little more work. I say this not as a complaint, because I love it. But it does point out that something critical is missing: communication with parents.
Like many other educators, I communicate with parents before and during IEP meetings, around back-to-school nights, and if any behavioral or medical issue happens. But until six weeks ago, I hadn’t communicated with my students’ parents on a daily basis. I hadn’t formed strong connections and relationships with all the parents in my classroom.
So now, after weeks of distance learning and using ClassDojo, if someone asks if anything positive is happening for my students as a result of stay-at-home orders, I’ll have a new answer. With distance learning, I finally have the time, willingness, and desire to make better connections with our complete classroom community. I’m seeing parents—some of them are sitting right there during lessons and joking with me about things that are happening in their home. My students’ siblings are coming to our online sessions to say hello. The paraprofessionals in my class are talking to parents too, and not just to interpret. I have valuable new insight into the home life of my students. Parents in my class have met the other parents. I used to tell anyone who listened to me that the best part of my job is “my little family in room 421.” Well, now that family is extended.
I don’t know if school is going to start on August 3 as scheduled or if it’ll be later. I sincerely wish for nothing more than to return to school. But if it’s delayed, I feel a bit better about online instruction for my students because of our new communication strategy and the relationships it has helped us build. When school does start back up, I know that it’ll be the best year yet, because our connection has grown. The bond that my class had will be stronger, and I feel like our room has even more allies than it had before. Now, when someone asks what is the best part of my job, I’ll be able to say “my classroom community.”
What we learned/big takeaway
Relationship building for the entire classroom community—including parents and paraprofessionals—makes instruction much easier. Taking time to build relationships with families creates a much better learning environment for everyone. No one in a classroom community should feel like they aren’t part of the process. That includes students, paraprofessionals, teachers, educators, and parents.
What we are still figuring out
How to ensure that all students and families have working internet and devices. One of my families broke the only computer they had (from our district), and they’ve been unable to communicate outside of the telephone.
What I would tell other leaders during this time
Focus on community building and relationship building, always. Do not stop when school returns. Start if you haven’t already.
About The Author
Kareem Neal is a self-contained special education teacher in Phoenix. He has taught students with severe cognitive delays for 22 years. He is the recipient of the 2019 Arizona Teacher of the Year award and was recently awarded an honorary doctorate from Northern Arizona University for his contributions to special education in Arizona. He is a 2019–2020 Understood Teacher Fellow.
Kareem’s passion is connecting all students in schools, springing from his awareness that students with cognitive delays did not truly feel like members of their school communities. This led him to evaluate his own educational journey and how students in black communities did not feel like education spaces were for them. He is now a restorative justice trainer for the Phoenix Union High School District. He focuses on building community through eliminating implicit bias. This work has led him to winning the Arizona Education Association’s Diversity Grant and the Maryvale Revitalization Committee’s Educator Excellence Award, and his being named vice president of the Phoenix Union High School District’s Black Alliance. He also leads the largest social justice club in the Phoenix Union High School District.
Kareem recently submitted all components of his National Board Certification and is awaiting results. He lives in downtown Phoenix and spends much of his free time at social justice events. He was recently honored by NASDTEC as the West Coast Diversity Grant recipient.
Phoenix Union High School District is one of the largest high school districts in the country, with 20 schools, more than 27,000 students, and nearly 3,000 employees. Phoenix Union covers 220 square miles of Arizona’s capital city. If the K–8 students in its 13 elementary partner school districts were included, it would be among the 25 largest school districts in the United States, with more than 110,000 students.
Diversity is a hallmark at Phoenix Union: 95% of its students are minority, including 81% Latino. The students, including a large refugee population, represent over 70 languages. More than half of the students come from a home where English is not the primary language spoken.
Student support is important at Phoenix Union. Every comprehensive high school has a nurse, social worker, psychologist, security staff, school resource officer, student and community liaisons, student prevention interventionist, and a team of academic counselors with the best counselor-to-student ratio in Arizona. Its Exceptional Student Services department is a model for school districts, serving a wide range of students, including those with autism, and those who are medically fragile, hearing impaired, gifted, and more. The English Language Learner program is as comprehensive as any in the state, from placement to testing to reclassification.