Monthly Archives: August 2014

Big Shoes to Fill


Kelsey big shoesI think my daughter was about 3 when I snapped this photo of her.  Look closely at her feet.  You’ll see she is trying on my high heels she found near the front door even though she isn’t even really dressed for the day yet.  Doesn’t every kid do that at one time or another?  My shoes look so big on her feet.  As it turns out, those shoes and that role became her dream.  I’m sure those are the heels I had on as a taught that day.  Kelsey attended the school where I taught, so it wasn’t such a stretch to understand why she wanted to grow up to become a teacher.

But life did a reversal on us and today I try to fill her shoes.  You see, Kelsey was diagnosed with brain cancer when she was only five.  The brain radiation required for her to survive, altered her IQ significantly.  Radiation that kills cancer cells also kills healthy brain cells.  So not only did Kelsey battle cancer she was changed from having an above average intelligence to becoming what society politely calls “special needs.”

Watching this happen to her changed me dramatically as a teacher.  I learned what it feels like to sit on the uncomfortable side (the parents’ side) of the IEP table.  I experienced how it felt to see her friends begin to turn away from her.  I helplessly watched her social loneliness during the high school years.  This changed me as a mom, a person and especially as a teacher.

So what did I do about it?  I’m not a celebrity.  I can’t challenge big stars on TV to dump buckets of ice water over their heads even though watching Kelsey’s battles felt like ice water being dumped on me daily.  Celebrities wouldn’t answer any challenge from me.  Day in and day out, what did I do?  I’m a teacher.  So I talked about Kelsey in my classroom.  I made students understand her battles.  I made them think about what it would feel like to walk in her shoes.

In one way I was very lucky.  I happened to teach high school students who wanted to become teachers.  I assigned each of them to write an essay about what it would feel like to walk through a day of high school with a disability.  I made them put into words what it would feel like to walk into a cafeteria full of typical kids if they had a disability. How would it feel to walk in the hallways or go to a dance?  I made them share those essays out loud.  They hated this assignment because it made them feel so uncomfortable, but they did it…for a grade.  Before they wrote these essays I read an essay that I had written about Kelsey.  I wrote it in Kelsey’s voice even though she didn’t actually write it.  I used exactly the words she had shared with me about the rejections she experienced.  To hear her true story made them squirm in their seats.

When I spoke at teacher conferences, I used to give out my essay to other teachers.  I’ve received letters and emails from teachers all over the country who have used this essay in their classrooms.  The title?  ‘Nobody Wants to Have a Disability, But I Have One.”  I made each of them start their essay with the words, “My name is (and they had to use their own names) and I have (name a disability).  Then they had to write about a full day of school with that disability.  I made them focus on their feelings, not just the facts of the disability.  How did it feel to walk through a day of school with that disability.

As they read these essays orally one after another, I could feel a shift in my classroom.   They hated the activity but they won’t ever forget it.

Then I had my Teacher Academy kids (high school juniors and seniors who wanted to become teachers) start a Friendship Club with the high school kids in our school with disabilities.  We planned monthly shared activities with them.  I watched true friendships form.  No matter what subject they planned to teach in their futures I wanted them to understand how it feels to be excluded.  I wanted all of them to become teachers who included everyone.  I wanted them to change the culture within their future school buildings.  I believe once we actually have to face the feeling of being excluded, once we can link a personality and an actual person to a disability it can’t help but change us inside.

Often I am invited to give speeches to special educators and I enjoy those invitations.  But I MOST like to talk to what we call “regular educators.”  I like to share stories with teachers who haven’t been specifically trained to work with kids with special needs.  Those are the teachers who most need the messages Kelsey shared with me.  I’m a “regular educator” myself and Kelsey experiences first had to change me.

A strange and unexpected thing happened as I shared Kelsey’s message.  This is something I didn’t plan at all.  As a direct result of hearing about Kelsey’s experiences, an amazing number of my students became special educators themselves.  (Today we call them intervention specialists).  Let me repeat, this wasn’t at all my goal, it just happened.  Without even trying I dumped buckets of ice all over them.  Just putting a person’s name and face to the experience drenched them with new understanding.  They now wanted to become change agents themselves.

Kelsey's lessonsSadly Kelsey didn’t live to fill my shoes and become a teacher herself.  She died at age 16 after an eleven year on-and-off battle with brain cancer.  Today I still attempt to fill her shoes as I share her story one student at a time.  We teachers sometimes have more power than a celebrity.  One day at a time, one student at a time, one story at a time, we change the world.  We have the power of a thousand buckets of ice if we just recognze it and use it for a positive purpose.

One day while teaching some aspect of child development in the classroom, I told another story about Kelsey.  A student asked with impatience in her voice, “Why do you talk about Kelsey so much?”

Now you know.  I have big shoes to fill.

TEACH...To Change Lives

TEACH…To Change Lives

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Those Little Moments


teach with passionJust before this new school year begins I was reminded of something important.  Something I need to share with my readers…especially teachers getting ready to return to the classroom or those ready to enter the classroom for the first time.

This important reminder happened at a wedding.  I was honored to be invited and was there to witness a beautiful bride and her groom beginning their new life together.  The bride was a former student of mine, Kaitlyn.  I taught this young lady in high school in a Teacher Academy program.  She was a gal who was always fun to have in the classroom.  She was friendly, upbeat and creative.  Today she has just finished her second year of teaching and is half way through her Masters program.  She is an intervention specialist in an elementary school who also wants to become a school administrator.   Last Saturday she was a bride.

At her gorgeous wedding reception her dad walked past me.  I recognized him easily because he was one of those great “go-t0” fathers you could count on whenever you were up to your ear lobes with a project that needed a father’s touch.  He once helped the kids turn a grocery cart into a  fabulous float “they” had designed for the Homecoming Parade.  As he passed me at the wedding reception I put my hand on his arm and joked, “Hey, I have another school project I could use some help with.”

His face broke into a wonderful smile.  We talked about how beautiful his daughter looked as a bride.  Then he delivered the message I want to share with you.  This is what he said.

You are the lady who changed my daughter’s life.  My wife and I have talked about it for years. We are so grateful to you for changing her into the wonderful confident young woman she has become.  And you did it with one phone call.  Did I ever tell you that?  One single phone call from you and she became a completely different person.  We can never thank you enough.

One Phone Call ??

One Phone Call ??

Here’s the important point teachers.  Listen carefully.  I have no memory of that phone call.  NONE!  Not… one… word.   That is the way it is in the teaching profession.  This has happened to me enough times that I swear to you that this fact is true.

Frequently you will be making your greatest impact when you are completely unaware of it.

The first time this happened to me it was mind-boggling.  I couldn’t believe it.  But by now, after decades of teaching, I know to trust those words and their sincerity.  I cherish and appreciate the moment when it occurs.  We teachers frequently never know about the ways we change lives.  But if you are passionate about teaching and making students feel valued, it will happen to you.  I hope you are committed enough to the field of teaching to stay with the profession long enough to allow this to happen in your life.  The satisfaction it will bring you defies description.

Later on during this special wedding evening, the mother of the bride approached me and repeated the words her husband had shared.  The bride even stopped by and told me in person while her groom verified her words.

While I still have no recollection of that phone call the dad gave me just enough details that I can imagine it.  He said something about she didn’t show up for an event and I called her.

Perhaps she registered for Teacher Academy and then got cold feet about it.  I often invited students into my classroom during the summer months to meet me.  I’d have snacks and let them come in and help me put up bulletin boards or we’d just sit around and talk.

Building a classroom community

It was just a casual event when they could meet some of the other students who wanted to be future teachers.  If she didn’t show up, I know I would have called her to reassure her.  She may have thought she needed a 4.0 GPA to be a teacher.  I would have listened to her fears and reassured her that many students profit the most from teachers who had their own challenges in school. All of us feel like we don’t fit in somewhere from time to time.  I would have stayed on the phone until she and I had built a rapport.   I know I would have done anything possible to make it easier for her to enter my classroom for the first time.  And so Kaitlyn joined my class.

In her second year of Teacher Academy Kaitlyn wrote, filmed and created a video about a program we had in our school called Firebird Link.  This was an initiative that planned activities throughout the school to help all students feel valued.  I wish you could see how creative this film was.  She started her film by showing just the feet of all the students (thousands of them) walking in the hallways of our school.  Her words were poignant.  “Where do I fit in?”  Kaitlyn won the national first place award from Future Educators of America for making an effective video to promote the teaching profession.  I was so proud to see her and her film shared up on that national stage.

Would she have been just as valuable a student if she hadn’t won an award?  Of course!  My classroom was an eclectic mix of brains, athletes, band members, theatre kids and students without any identifying labels at all.  We built a community in our classroom and supported one another.  We had one thing in common.  We wanted to help other students learn.

Some of my best “teaching”, my “change-your-life” moments didn’t happen in front of the classroom.  They happened in those private moments when I had one-on-one conversations with students.  One might show up before school just needing to talk, or hang back before leaving my classroom at the end of a bell.  Some dropped me notes as they left class.  They’d find me at lunch time or come up and chat with me after I went to see a game or a play they were in.  In Kaitlyn’s case it was one phone call that gave her the courage to walk toward a profession she was meant to pursue.  One single phone call.

My hope is that this story will help you start your school year with the goal of making the most of those small moments you have to make a student feel valued.

More Good News!

  • The boomerang kid got a job!  If you haven’t “met” the boomerang kid, scroll back a couple of entries and read the blog post about Michael.
  • Congratulations to all my former students who have landed their first teaching jobs this year!  You make me so proud.
  • I have been booked by several school districts to speak to their teachers and administrators during this school year.  I love to inspire educators face to face and this excites me.
  • A couple of districts are considering my latest book for educators TEACH…To Change Lives as a year-long book club project for their teachers to discuss and reflect on throughout the year.  What a great idea.

TEACH...To Change Lives

TEACH…To Change Lives

Available autographed or in large quantities from the author:

Also available at

Contact Dauna Easley to speak to your