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 this Indiana teacher helps hospitalized students transition back to school

PHOTO: FS Productions / Getty Images
Nurse talking to girl in hospital bed

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 the series here.

When Sara Midura meets her students, they’ve often just gone through a crisis.

As an educational liaison at Riley Hospital for Children, Midura is both a teacher and an educational advocate for patients in the Simon Skjodt Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Unit. She helps them keep up with schoolwork and transition back to school once their hospital stay is over.

“Many times, the students who come to us are either slipping through the cracks or seen as having huge ‘behavior issues,’” Midura said.

Her work includes easing the anxiety of a student returning to school; partnering with the family, school, and treatment team to make sure a student’s behavioral health needs can be met; and finding a “go-to person” at school who understands the student’s situation.

Midura, who was recently named one of the top 25 finalists for 2019 Indiana Teacher of the Year, talked to Chalkbeat about how she supports hospitalized children and how the lack of mental health resources in schools can affect students.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I decided to be a teacher in kindergarten — I loved my teacher and loved school, so it felt like a no-brainer to my 5-year-old self! I proceeded to force my friends to play school with me in my basement and made lesson plans during days that I stayed home sick. I toyed with other ideas for professions through my K-12 education, but solidified my desire to be a teacher as a camp counselor during my high school years.

How do you get to know your students?

Since I only have my students for a short period of time, I try to capitalize on the time I have with them by having them fill out a “school profile,” which really serves two purposes. Since the first time I meet the kiddos is almost always their first day on the unit following a crisis, I know that they are not functioning in their prefrontal cortex and are in crisis mode. They understandably are typically shut off, so the school profile is a great way for them to easily and safely let me get to know them a bit. It starts a good rapport, and I can always connect to something in there. Then each day I just make sure I check in with them, always reminding them that I am their advocate. We talk about school, life, and anything else. It can be easier to get to know them since they are in such a small group setting of up to 10 kids. This is my favorite part of the job!

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I am certified in Applied Educational Neuroscience (I took a nine-credit hour graduate course at Butler University with Lori Desautels), so I run a group on my unit every week called “Brain Club.” In this, I teach students about their brains, stress, emotions, and how the coping skills we teach them in their therapies and on the unit are truly brain regulation strategies. We talk about the different parts of the brain, which ones we function in where, our amygdala and fear, and so much else! The kids typically love brain club and are so engaged!

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

My iPad! Between playing music — I cannot work in silence! — looking up information to help students with their assignments, and using the different educational apps to fit all of my kids’ needs, I bring my iPad with me everywhere.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

Mental health resources, or the lack thereof in many districts, greatly impact what happens inside my classroom and on my unit. There are many schools that are so underfunded and lacking resources, leaving staff burnt out. In my mind, this creates and unsafe environment for my patients returning to school. My patients need a school staff that can understand mental/behavioral health.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

The first really challenging case that I had was a few months into me working on the unit. We had a very high-achieving student who was going through some intensive setbacks, and the student’s dad was extremely concerned about school. I assured him that we would be able to “fix” everything with school and ensure that it went back to his expectation of normal, but that ended up not happening. This experience taught me that I cannot ever promise any outcome, but I can promise families that I will be with them each step of the way to ensure that education matches the treatment needs. This has changed my approach to speaking with families.

What part of your job is most difficult?

Navigating all of the different school systems and cultures during such a short hospitalization period can be very difficult when discussing behavioral health needs. I have my patients for about a week typically, so trying to provide enough support and education to patients, family, and school staff can be very challenging. I often feel like I don’t have the capability to serve schools as well as I would like to with supports! It is also difficult to not know how my students are doing after they are discharged — I wonder about them so often.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I’m not so sure that this was a misconception rather than an underestimation, but I really did not comprehend until I got into teaching how huge of a difference a teacher can make on a child’s life. Now what I know about the brain and mental health is that one positive, intensive relationship with a teacher can absolutely change the course of a student’s life — it’s amazing to watch.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

This is very nerdy of me, but I loved reading books that relate to behavioral health, so currently I am reading “Life Without Ed,” a book told from the perspective of someone who battled an eating disorder. I work with many kids with eating disorders, and it is such a terrible, heartbreaking disease that I greatly misunderstood before working on my unit.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

The best advice I received about teaching was to “fill your four circles consistently.” One of my amazing professors from Butler, Theresa Knipstein Meyer, gave a lecture one day about how crucial self-care is for educators. She showed us the theory of the four circles, where you have to consistently be taking care of different aspects of your health for the circles to be balanced and keep “your fire within” ignited. I think that it is so easy for educators to pour their entire hearts and souls into teaching only to get burnt out, and I have had to be conscious about taking care of every aspect of my life. This makes me a much better teacher and person, and I am so grateful to have learned that.

For this Detroit teacher, math is about teaching ‘what makes something true’

PHOTO: Michael Chrzan
Michael Chrzan teaching math during Math Corps, a summer program at Wayne State University.

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 the series here.

Asked what he teaches, Michael Chrzan says “mathematics.” Because in his classroom at Henry Ford Academy, a charter high school in Detroit, math is more than the calculations you need to tip a server or balance a budget. Chrzan, a third-year teacher, sees the abstract reasoning skills of mathematics — the proofs and deductions — as tools to help his students develop a firmer grasp on every aspect of their world.

This is just one of the ways he is unusual. A Teach for America alumnus, Chrzan also went through a traditional teacher training program in college. He is a African-American male math teacher in a country that produces far too few of them. And remember the Pokemon Go craze? He still plays.

Less than a week before Chrzan is to be honored as Teach for America’s teacher of the year in Detroit, Chalkbeat spoke with him about his dealings with parents, the toughest parts of his job, his social media habits, and how he finds  “greatness” in every student.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I’ve been teaching in some capacity — teaching or tutoring — since high school. I was a teaching assistant at a summer camp at Wayne State called Math Corps. I caught the bug for teaching there. I did that for three summers. I knew at some point in my life that I would get back into teaching. In college, I took a couple of computer science and math and education classes. And the computer science classes were fun, but I was like, this is just a hobby.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I taught geometry the last two years. It’s really a beautiful class because it’s the only class in high school where kids do the work of professional mathematicians. It’s the only class where they do proofs. So we get to have a really rigorous conversation about what makes something true, which is really important in our society right now.

Every year I pull in examples of deductive reasoning from outside of mathematics too.

One of the things I’m going to try this year is bringing in a Supreme Court decision and talking about the deductive reasoning that shows up there.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

I had a conversation with a very young student’s mother who had the frame of mind that he was responsible for himself.

I was calling to talk about some issues that I’d seen on his homework, and just about getting it completed. That’s a really important part of the learning, that independent practice. And she was very much of the mindset that I needed to have that conversation with him, not her. It was not her job for him to get that done.

It changed how I discussed things with him because it got a much deeper understanding of what he has to deal with outside of these four walls.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The hardest part is motivating students. There are some students who have a really long history of messaging that they’ve gotten from schools, of the kind of person and students they are. I try to reverse that. You plant a seed when you’re the one teacher who’s telling them something different, but sometimes you don’t get to see that seed bloom in one year.

What was the biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

That I was ready for it. I did a lot of pre-professional teaching things. In college, I went to New York for two summers and taught in a program called Breakthrough. I did student teaching. I did Teach for America. I was like, I’ve got to be ready for this, I’ve got so much more experience than most people do when they enter the profession.

I was not ready. There’s is nothing that will prepare you for day in and day out being responsible for your kids’ learning.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

“Children of Blood and Bone,” by Tomi Adeyemi. It’s possibly one of my favorite books of all time. As a millennial, I’m very into social media. I will typically lull myself to sleep on Instagram. And I’ve gotten back into Pokemon Go.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

There are two. I can’t decide which I like better. The first would be, ‘don’t take anything personally.’ That really helped me understand that if I’m having a management issue with a kid, it may not have anything to do with me, that’s probably a kid who needs help. And that pairs up with assuming the best of my students. They came to class because they want to learn, and maybe something got in the way. I try to find their greatness, whether it’s math or otherwise. That’s a more human way to see students, and it opens them up to new things, like trying difficult mathematics.