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My Teaching Portfolio

Relationships for Learning

Environments for Learning

Professional Engagement

Relationships  for Learning:
Understanding
before teaching. 

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I stood frozen at the centre of a chaotic, menacing, vibrant maelstrom in a tiny classroom, two thousand and seven hundred kilometres from home. My first attempt at teaching in a classroom full of students had just taken place. I was in a small, remote town in the middle of red dirt nowhere, and I vibrated with the knowledge that the fiercely muzzled doubts and fears about my ability to become a teacher had finally unleashed themselves, to rampage as stark reality before me. My failure stood spotlighted at the eye of the storm I had provoked, currently raging about me.

 

The storm consisted of nineteen children, aged from eight to ten, incongruously sweet-faced, their bright eyes glowing with mutual celebration, power-lust, and accomplishment. A classroom away, my mentor teacher (The Child Whisperer) sat: a lighthouse beaming out calm reassurance as he smiled and calmly nodded at me as if to say, ‘you’ve got this…stay calm, you can do it.’

 

Thoughts pulsed through me as I stood, eyes locked with his:

                                                                                      ‘Please…rescue me.’

                                                                                                    ‘I am not going to cry.’  

                                                                                                                   ‘They are going to eat me alive…’

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Figure 1: Class context and description of student diversity.

Context

Relationships are the key to unlocking any meaningful exchange of information (Jones & Shindler, 2016). This is especially true in a classroom where a historically significant power differential between teacher and student threatens their sense of safety and belonging (Bunda, 2008; Buckskin, 2012; Gunstone, 2012; Beresford, 2012). The students from my first teaching experience had diverse encounters with authority. Their experiences taught them to expect frequent teacher replacements (Schultz, 2007; Osbourne & Guenther, 2013) and to deeply mistrust a strange ‘teacher’ who might come and destroy their secure, safe space and replace a teacher whom they loved and trusted to support their needs. Of the nineteen children, twelve had significant traumatic life events, and several were presently living in chaotic situations. In addition, there were a number of other significant challenges to learning, as identified in my class context description (Figure 1). The students’ ability to tolerate and self-regulate in the face of any divergence expectations could elicit significant, fear-based responses, resulting in potentially dangerous fight, flight, fawn and freeze behaviours (Department of Families, Fairness and Housing, 2022).

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Action

After a private cry, I sat down with my mentor teacher and unpacked the entire scenario.  My mentor had written copious notes detailing verbal and non-verbal interactions between my students and I (Figure 2) and we waded through these together identifying triggers I had unintentionally activated and reflecting on ways I could have responded differently to achieve more positive outcomes. We identified aspects of body language, voice, and response to challenging behaviours which unintentionally triggered the chaotic outcome. This learning process continued daily, and each day I would identify a communication skill that I would focus on improving. These skills included personal check ins to identify private emotions and attitudes I was bringing into the classroom and responding to these with self-acceptance and self-care strategies, projecting a lower and softer tone of voice and using my voice as a tool to capture interest and attention in non-threatening ways, using confiding, intentional and open body posture and modulating my height to reduce threat perception, developing positive behaviour management strategies including focusing on and celebrating strong choices for learning, communicating clear and non-emotive expectations, avoiding spotlighting poor behavioural choices and using the power or pause (Department of Families, Fairness and Housing, 2022).

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After my initial, seemingly catastrophic attempt to teach, I used the ‘5R Framework for Reflection’ (Bain, Ballantyne, Mills & Lester, 2002) to unpack and break down the events as they occurred and to reconstruct what I could do differently in my teaching practice to improve outcomes for my learners. I identified that building trust alongside each individual must be my priority in order to successfully interact with these students. I created a whiteboard with student’s names in my cabin, and every night I updated it with information, notes, and thoughts regarding each student (Figure 3). This helped me to identify my priorities for ongoing interactions with specific students, with the ultimate aim of ensuring that I was achieving breakthroughs and building connections with every student in my class.

I discovered that it was extremely important that I understood each child’s circumstances, stories, interests and needs on order to connect with and to teach them. Reviewing my progress on building a strong connection with each child, I identified that there were specific students whose behaviours influenced and were copied by others. I targeted building trust with these influential students first, in order to accelerate the process for others. I realised that students with significantly more complex circumstances would require, focused, ongoing trust building, to establish profitable relationships (Miller, Flint Stipp & Bazemore-Bertrand, 2023). The most difficult students to connect with and engage were the quietest ones, with shutdown responses to trauma. Their apathy towards me did not cause behavioural management difficulties but presented significant barriers to engagement in learning (Department of Families, Fairness and Housing, 2022). I spent time researching effective practices, strategies, and pedagogies to support my developing trauma-safe teaching practice.  

 

One of the first things I did was prepare and deliver a presentation about myself, my family, my story, and interests so that my students could begin to know me as a relatable human (Figure 4). This helped us to connect through storying, and the stories of themselves that they shared with me became deeper as their trust in my response to their sharing increased (Phillips & Bunda, 2018). Through sharing my interests and activities outside the classroom, the students began to perceive me as a regular human being who they could relate to and began to share their activities and interests with me which I carefully took note of and used to create my learning designs (Sousa & Tomlinson, 2019). I took the opportunity to attend a full day workshop on trauma sensitive teaching, run by a psychologist from the Northern Territory Trauma Service. She provided practical, evidence-based strategies which I continue implement in my everyday teaching practice. During social and emotional learning lessons, I explicitly taught students effective strategies to better identify, understand and manage difficult emotions and anxiety (Figure 5).



Figure 4: All about me: The project to ‘humanise’ Mrs. Barnett and connect with my students.
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Figure 5: All about A.N.T.S.
Explicit learning about anxiety and managing difficult emotions. One child was suffering from extreme anxiety which was manifesting as nausea with frequent absences from the classroom. Towards the end of my stay, he reported suicidal ideation to me. I was able to report this to my mentor teacher and he was able to access much needed help through leadership, his parents, and the greater educational specialist support community. I spent time teaching him visualisation techniques such as ‘coloured smoke breathing’ which he began to use to effectively calm his system when he was feeling sick.
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To understand the students in context of their family and community, I attended extra-curricular school and local community activities (Figure 6) and parent teacher meetings. I used humanist strategies of unconditional positive regard, active listening, and open questioning to better understand the student’s point of view and respond with empathy (Koslouski, 2022; Duchesne & McMaugh, 2019). I incorporated the ‘8 Aboriginal ways of learning’ (Yunkaporta, 2019) into my learning design, including narrative driven learning, land-based learning, learning maps, non-verbal learning, modelling, deconstruction and reconstruction and community links (Figure 7). I consulted with school leadership to better understand school policies regarding behavioural support and restitution strategies to ensure that my practices aligned with school policy (Figure 8). At all times, I explicitly separated aspects of behavioural choice from the self when reflecting with the child and assisted them to identify strategies to make stronger choices and reframe negative thought patterns.

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Figure 7: Tyson Yunkaporta’s 8 Ways of Aboriginal Learning are inherently inclusive pedagogies and inform my learning design to engage all students in meaningful learning activities. https://www.8ways.online
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Results

After a week of concerted effort, students began to seek me out to ask for help with learning and to accept me as a teacher in their classroom. By the end of week two I was successfully engaging most of the students in the class (Figure 9, 11). On different days, one or two would arrive at school impacted by personal circumstances which would make that day challenging for them. I focussed on identifying and supporting each child’s basic needs, whether that be for sleep, food, to feel safe or to feel seen and heard, prioritising these above learning because I understood that a child experiencing active trauma cannot effectively engage in learning until these needs are met, as comprehensively explained by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs (Figure 10) (Koslouski, 2022; Duchesne & McMaugh, 2019).

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Artwork we created in free time after lunch, based on the 'Dear Zoo' book by Rod Campbell, which the girls wanted to read over and over, gaining confidence each time.
Figure 10: Daily decisions needed to be made to identify and prioritise essential student needs. The balance could be tricky to determine at times. Feedback from mentor.
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At the end of week four, the Northern Territory experienced its first lockdown due to Covid-19. On that day, I was teaching a full load and managing the increasing uncertainty and intrusion into the learning environment through constant interruptions over the public address system to recall different students to the office for caregivers to take them home early. We were initially not permitted to discuss the reason for these circumstances with the children, however the strong trust relationship I had built with my students over the previous weeks meant that they stayed calm and reassured throughout the distractions. When we were allowed to do so, my mentor teacher asked me to communicate with the students about Covid-19, the lockdown and what it would mean for them. Afterwards, my mentor teacher thanked me for communicating with the students in a way that enabled them to feel reassured about circumstances outside of our control (Figure 12).

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The last week was challenging as students became increasingly concerned about my imminent departure from their learning environment. I had developed strong and meaningful relationships with all of my students, they were secure in accessing help and support and generally well engaged during lessons. After I arrived back home, I received a parcel with a handwritten letter from each child, sharing news, asking questions, and encouraging me to visit them again soon (Figure 13).   

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Evaluation

My time spent teaching in this classroom was one of the most difficult and rewarding experiences of my entire life. I have developed a passion for creating positive learning environments, where power differentials are managed sensitively, and students access strong agency and voice. From this formative experience, my confidence in my ability to communicate and teach, while also meeting individual students’ needs for learning has increased dramatically. I understand the importance of sensitive and culturally appropriate learning design, effective verbal and non-verbal communication, incorporation of explicit social and emotional learning, flexible and responsive behavioural support strategies and the importance of family and community engagement (Figure 14). The most important thing I learnt through this process is that a teacher must deeply know and understand their students, in order to teach effectively.

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Standards

Standard 1: Know students and how they learn.

1.1 Physical, social, and intellectual development and characteristics of students. I attended a trauma safe teaching practices professional development workshop to understand the way that trauma effects child development, social and learning experiences. I further developed my understanding of supporting the learning of students with trauma, ADHD, ASD, and intellectual disability.

1.2 Understand how students learn. I incorporated culturally and learner-readiness appropriate pedagogies to support my learners in their preferred learning styles. I built relationships with students and created a safe and positive learning environment to support maximum engagement in learning. I reflected on how students were learning and adapted my practice.

1.3 Students with diverse linguistic, cultural, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds. I have designed and delivered teaching for students from a diverse range of backgrounds and cultures. Many students in my classroom have EAL/EALD.

1.4 Strategies for teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. I have created and taught culturally sensitive content and pedagogy to students with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander background.

1.5 Strategies to support full participation of students with disability. I created inclusive learning design using UDL strategies to support all students in my classroom to access, actively and meaningfully participate in their learning. I seek to understand and educate myself on the individual needs of students and ask them and their caregivers for input in supporting their learning.

Standard 2: Know the content and how to teach it.

2.4 Understand and respect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to promote reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. I have engaged with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and seek to understand and deeply listen to their stories. I protect and represent authentic Indigenous voices in my classroom.

Standard 3: Plan for and implement effective teaching and learning.

3.5 Use effective classroom communication. I used body language, voice, height, and response to challenging behaviours to maintain engagement with all students.

3.7 Engage parents / carers in the educative process.Through involvement in school and community events and parent/carer teacher meetings I was able to engage parents and carers in their child’s education.

​Standard 4: Create and maintain supportive and safe learning environments.

4.1 Support student participation. I created a classroom environment that was welcoming and safe so that students would feel comfortable expressing themselves.

4.3 Manage challenging behaviour. I used positive behaviour strategies with particular focus on celebrating strong choices, avoided triggering trauma responses, and allowed rapid restitution.

4.4 Maintain student safety. I maintained a classroom environment where it was safe for all children to express themselves and expect to have their basic needs as well as their learner needs met. I diffused potentially dangerous situations with calm and controlled responses to aggressive behaviours and maintained student safety.

Standard 6: Engage in professional learning.

6.1 Identify and plan professional learning needs. I attended a trauma safe teaching practices professional development workshop. I also consulted with school leadership to ensure that my teaching practices aligned with the school philosophy and policies.  

6.2 Engage in professional learning and improve practice. I sought to understand the individual learning needs of each student and develop pedagogy to deliver effective teaching to each student.  

6.3 Engage with colleagues and improve practice. I sought and applied feedback from colleagues and leadership to improve my practice, specifically looking for advice on how to improve my engagement with each student.  

6.4 Apply professional learning and improve student learning. I changed and adapted my learning designs, communication practices and delivery to create better outcomes for my students.

Standard 7: Engage professionally with colleagues, parents/carers, and the community.

7.2 Comply with legislative, administrative and organisational requirements. I investigated, read and applied all relevant school and territory government policies and requirements.

7.3 Engage with parents/carers. I actively sought opportunities to connect with parents and community members.

7.4 Engage with professional teaching networks and broader communities. I participated in school and community events, staff meetings and available professional development opportunities.

References:

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