Deborah Poulos-The Women Who Has Captivated Us All.
Deborah Nichols has already beaten many odds in life, like being diagnosed with ALS even amidst her teaching career. But if there’s one thing that’s apparent, it’s her strength, determination, and pure love of wanting to help her students. The Conscious Teacher: What All Teachers & Engaged Parents Need to Know to Be More Effective is both a personal account of her life during her twenty-seven years of teaching and all the lessons she’s learned to help teach children more effectively.
Can you tell us what "The Conscious Teacher" is about and what some of your approaches are to create a conscious learning environment?
The Conscious Teacher is an up close and personal look at how a truly conscious teacher can help all students reach their full potentials. I taught for twenty-seven years, eight of which were in a fourth-grade self-contained gifted class. My book focuses on the elementary years and covers the basics for everything you need to know to teach fourth through sixth grades.
One of the most important chapters is First Things First. It is so important to set the stage for effective learning. I describe how I get to know students by reading through each cumulative record file before the first day of school. I learn about any issues they have with learning, their family situations, and their report cards from earlier years. I memorize their names with their photos so that I can welcome each one by name on the first day of school. They look up at me with their eyes wide open. I imagine they’re thinking, “Whoa, she already knows me.” This is a powerful tool that tells each student that I think they are important.
I organize a seating chart that puts students who need help next to students who can help them. I put students with behavior issues near the front of the class next to well-behaved students who can buffer them. Students create a behavior management system with consequences if standards are not met, and they sign it. I set up a silent signal so that when a student misbehaves, they take a time-out outside the classroom, coming back in when they are in control of their behavior. In this way I don’t reward bad behavior with attention. That’s the only way to extinguish bad behavior.
I meet each student at his or her level so that I can nurture learning. Students who are working below grade level must be met at their level in order to be pulled up to grade level. Students who can do above grade level work must be pushed to achieve at their level so that they become comfortable with being challenged. I teach students the “five finger rule,” so they can choose books at their reading level.
All of these basic steps are so important to creating a classroom that works for every child. The whole class operates as a team. And I treat all students with dignity and respect no matter what.
What was it that inspired you to write the book?
In 2014 I was reading my autobiography in my memoir-writing group, which was about my struggles with reading and math throughout elementary school, and how that influenced my teaching. They stopped me and said, “Debbie, these ideas are too important for parents and teachers not to learn now. You need to stop and write a book before it’s too late.” I was excited to hear their enthusiasm for a book, but hearing them say, “before it’s too late,” gave me pause.
I realized they were right. I’d been diagnosed with ALS – Lou Gehrig’s disease - in 2006. It usually progresses quite rapidly, in just a few years, to death by suffocation when the diaphragm stops working on the lungs. 2014 was eight years after my diagnosis, so I’d already beaten the odds, so time was of the essence. I stopped right then and began work on this book. Now I hope I live long enough to see if it is widely read.
Who do you think this book will most benefit?
It was written primarily for teachers, but in this time of Covid-19 it will appeal to parents who are now managing their kids’ learning at home. It is subtitled “What all teachers and engaged parents need to know to be more effective.” Almost every chapter has notes for parents. It may also appeal to others who are interested in the relationship of one’s personal life to teaching. It is part
memoir and part “how-to” guide.
What do you feel you learned while writing your book?
I learned how much it takes to be a truly effective teacher. It wasn’t difficult to write. It wasn’t like I had to do research. It all came right out of my memories of what I had done while I was teaching. I just had to organize it so it made sense.
Why should people go out and buy/read your book?
It describes a system that works; it gets results. Year after year students came back to tell me how much being in my class prepared them for later grades, college, and careers. They said it meant so much that I truly cared about them. Whether students came in working below grade level or just coasting as much more capable students did, it’s so important to meet each student at his level and push or pull them up to become self-motivated and help the engines of their own learning.
Readers will learn about the importance of putting kids in charge of their own learning (students should be as autonomous as possible); staying calm all the time, and much more. I want to share a special memory. One of the most exciting things I did with my fourth graders was to perform Shakespeare plays. In different years they did Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and King Lear. I describe in detail how we did this. They amazed me, but, more importantly, they amazed themselves.
Are you working on another book?
Yes. I’m working on Home Schooling: During COVID and Beyond. Elementary Years I think parents need this book more than anyone right now. I focus on what’s most important to manage kids at home.