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How to Adapt Teaching to Students' Needs with Melissa Townsend

Our teacher series continues with Melissa Townsend. Melissa has taught for 9 years. For seven years, she taught at the middle school level in a self contained class for children who were struggling in a standard classroom environment. In this episode, Melissa shares some of her strategies that helped her to adapt a classroom that works, no matter the issues your class may struggle with.

Melissa Townsend Background:

Melissa has been teaching for 9 years. She started off teaching students with severe emotional disabilities at the middle school. She worked with students who struggled in a traditional middle school environment and taught in a self-contained class. She has also taught at the high school level.

What do you wish you had known before you started teaching?

You can fill in the blank, they don’t teach it in college. So much of what goes on in schools, none of that is taught in college. I wish I had known that there were going to be a lot of things I didn’t know how to do.

For example, dealing with hostile parents. We weren’t taught that parents are defensive because they want to protect their child but don’t know how to compete with an educated teacher.

I try to really hear what parents are trying to say and meet them where they are so we can build a program that will support their children.

It’s never the same two years in a row, even if you have the same students. The students themselves change. If you have new students you have to teach in a new way. Every time a new student comes in you have to adjust your classroom.

Sometimes the curriculum doesn’t meet the needs of all the students. Teachers have to be able to adapt.

What would help prepare teachers for classroom teaching better?

It would never be a popular idea, but extending the internship would really help students prepare. It would be helpful to have a chart of things to look for and ways to respond.

One thing I have found out in the course of teaching is that we are unprepared for the level of roles our job entails.

We are educational doctors. We assess, we run tests, we have to diagnose where our students needs are, we have to prescribe, and nobody would turn a four year medical student out to take on patients, but an extra year that included a longer internship would better prepare teachers. It would also increase our retention rate.

What are you doing in the classroom now that you wish everyone else was doing?

I do two things. I make a connection with the students and I help them make a connection with each other. This is social educational activity so we have a chance to develop relationships. I also don’t start teaching content until I’ve taught procedures.

I teach procedures for everything that could be a disruption for the learning environment before I ever start teaching content. Things like how to get a pencil.

I believe in teaching responsibility. I do a pencil challenge. I take these pencils and number them and then give them to each student and then I do pencil checks to make sure they are holding on to that pencil and they get a prize.

This has eliminated the concern of students that they don’t shave supplies. Students who have supplies usually work.

How are you making a difference in the classroom?

I always make sure students know that the goals we set are attainable. Ron Clark said treat your students like they are honors students and they will act like it. That’s what I do. Even with students who haven’t been successful, I flip that. I draw the bar high and I scaffold like crazy so they can reach the bar.

I teach the grade level work and I plug in mini lessons with the skills they don’t have.

I teach choices, self government. I don’t over-react. When students are having a hard time, I give them time to settle down. After that I let them know that every fifteen minutes after that they don’t begin working, they lose a point. We have a tight point system. That is usually motivation for them to get to work. All students get choices and respect. Most of the time they operate within acceptable parameters.

What is your point system?

We have a points and levels system for behavior. My students need a lot of positive feedback, for every 15 minutes of the day, I check them for three things.

1. Are they on task?

2. Did they follow directions?

3. Did they speak respectfully?

Those are three things they are going to need to be able to do on their own when they are out in the world. Successful people have to do all of those things.

The point system gives them privileges in the classroom.

By giving them opportunities to choose their level and get caught going good, will have a chance to focus on the good parts of their day.

What are your favorite books?

I love books. I would read aloud to my middle schoolers. People don’t read to middle schoolers and they love it.

My life in Dog Years by Gary Paulsen. It’s a beautiful story. It’s a biography of a boy growing into a man through the series of dogs that have come into his life. Its humorous and relatable. He’s had some really amazing adventure. Without realizing it, kids are learning about a role model.

Hachiko Waits is a Japanese story. I love to see how the kids relate to the loyalty that dog had to his master. They really develop a level of compassion. It shows them what’s possible because it’s based on a true story.

Seed Folks by Paul Fleishman. It’s a series of stories centered around a community garden started by a little girl. Each of these stories shows what life looked like for each of these people. I love the way the students are able to connect to the characters and how they see people from very diverse backgrounds.

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