Being Adopted (Part 2): Paige Adams Strickland teaches with fun

We are all more alike than we are different.

Your professional background is that of an educator, both of Spanish and for students with special needs. Apparently, you are quite good at what you do, given that you were presented with the “Terrific Teacher” award at your place of work in 2003. You’ve also been a Zumba, ™ Fitness instructor since 2011, which I understand to be a fitness program that was developed by a Colombian-born dancer and choreographer a couple decades ago. What does it take to be a good teacher, and how does being a teacher influence the way that you write?

I am licensed in Spanish, grades 7-12. I love working with special needs people too and lately I have been able to blend a lot of the two areas together. Most of the kids I tutor in Spanish also have a special need or two. I have even lead Zumba, ™ for special needs kids and adults, which is a ton of fun because all they want to do is have fun and yell out “Fireball!!!” LOL 

Being a “good” teacher is an ongoing thing. Like being adopted, it doesn’t just stop at some point. You have to WANT to keep learning yourself; you have to keep finding something new to do with students so you and they do not burn out; you have to be OK with the extra hours you put in that are not always paid…and you have to have support and understanding from your own colleagues, friends and family. You have to love the kids, even if they don’t love you or the class you teach. You don’t give up on a kid, just as you wouldn’t want someone to give up on you or your kid.

At some point, I will write a teaching memoir…. Correction: At some point I will FINISH my teaching memoir! That’s not something I can feel free to publish to the world until I have truly chosen to not work as a teacher any longer. Not that it’s going to be a tell-all “bad” account of my work, but some school systems I work with might not like everything I have to say about the profession in general even if I do change names and keep things as confidential as possible. Actually, I blame the states’ interference more so, which is often lead by government leaders who have (1) never taught professionally or (2) have quit the profession and have no current experience. (OK…off my soapbox for now.)

 

My wife would definitely be able to relate to your efforts at being a good teacher. While she was teaching English to Russian-speaking students in her homeland (and Polish speakers here where we live today), she had that same intensely emotional commitment that caused her to put in long hours preparing lessons. I tried it myself, and I know that I don’t have it in me like a good teacher has. So, I definitely appreciate people who are talented in that line of work. Certainly, I don’t think there is a country on Earth that funds education or pays teachers enough.

If I were to get you back on your soapbox, in what ways could your state be more helpful in supporting teachers? What would the ideal school system look like?

Oh gosh, I don’t know if I have all the answers to all the problems. I will say I do currently work in a very good and successful district. They are working hard at being more progressive in areas of student diversity and mental health. Academics are a huge focus and so many schools intentionally or not put students…. even young students…under real pressure to excel in all areas of learning and activities.

The pressure is too much most of the time. These schools want their state awards and banners for achievement on all the standardized tests, championships, etc, but all this extra wonderfulness comes at a price. I would like to see this cycle ease up. It’s burning out educators and exhausting students.

The mentality that every kid must get into Harvard or their career is over needs to stop. The world needs good electricians, mechanics, plumbers, landscapers, artists, etc, .too. Not every kid wants to or should become a doctor, lawyer or famous general.

 

It seems that in the past, we measured academic success based on good grades and entry into highly competitive fields. That’s probably how we got here. Is there a better way?

I don’t know if there is a better way. Right now, the current scene for so many junior and senior high kids is incredibly intense and jam-packed with so many activities plus jobs on top of all the school work. The pace is insane for kids and parents. Everyone is exhausted during the school year.  Somehow, we need to slow down the hamster wheel and get back to more family time, friend time and just being with people without always having such an agenda.

 

I’d have to agree. Seems like we’re exchanging well-rounded childhood for some sort of dystopian blend of success and alienation. To change the subject to something happier, I’m kind of fascinated by Zumba, ™ . Could you tell me how you found it, what got you started, and how you became a teacher of it?

Back around 2009-ish, my daughter’s boyfriend’s mom found a nearby Zumba, ™  class to take and invited me to go. My sister who lives on the west coast had been going to a class for a while and enjoyed it. Back in the 90s I took step aerobics and Jazzercise, ™ class and I was looking for something convenient to home that wasn’t going to cost a fortune. This new little Zumba, ™  class at a local rec center was a perfect fit.

Turned out, when I got there I sort of knew the instructor. Her brother was a former student of mine, and I had become friends with the parents after that. This instructor had joined the US Marines for a few years, so my first impression was that this girl is going to kick my a$$! Well, she didn’t, and I felt pretty good about surviving a class taught by a Marine! LOL The instructor eventually quit to resume college, and we got a new instructor who was also very good.

Strickland leading a Zumba class for her high school in 2013. Photo via Paige Adams Strickland.

I think my favorite time in being in the Marines was toward the end of Boot Camp, despite the daily trauma. It sounds like your first Zumba, ™ instructor found the way to get people to achieve, and experience the pride of achieving, minus the drill instructor routine. Of course, drill instructor-induced trauma is the source of most of the amusing stories that comes from that sort of environment.

True!

 

Was there anything that she did that you later emulated in your teaching?

I learned… memorized some of her routines so that when I started teaching, I had a small bank of “moves” that I could use, that were proven effective, do-able and easy for me to demonstrate to others. Lucky thing that our Zumba, ™ routines are not copyright protected or regulated. We are free to pick the brains of fellow instructors and use their routines and moves. So much is out there on YouTube anyway if you want to find ideas.

 

That’s cool. But much more cooler is that you are teaching special ed students. However, I’m afraid my understanding of special education students and differently-abled people in general is rather limited. I sort of follow Christopher Titus from my vantage point overseas – I guess he produced a police film a couple years ago called “Special Unit” that not only employed actors with disabilities, but also included them in just about every aspect of its production and direction – among his goals, he apparently wanted to help create on-screen role models for such kids.

Cool! I am going to have to check this guy out!

 

I’m going to show off my ignorance here even further (of course that’s never stopped me before). If one had the opportunity to interact with a person with disability, particularly a young person, how should one approach that interaction? What is the mindset one should have when teaching such kids?

We are all more alike than we are different. Special needs are a huge “spectrum” from very mild: minor ADD or a slight vision or hearing issue but no cognitive impairment …to super-severe: non-verbal, requiring 24-7 medical care, non-ambulatory with mental impairment. I have seen both extremes and a lot in between. The spectrum of autism, (they seem to no longer accept the word, “Asperger’s” any longer), is one of the most common. A lot of autistic people have at least one super-amazing skill or talent: art, music, math, memorizing, etc. So many autistic people have no IQ impairment, it’s just the disability that hinders their learning unless we find ways to make connections and reach them. I’ve worked with one guy the past four years who does beautiful drawings. His work is unique and outstanding, honestly. I was assigned to also help him in world history and also US history and his government classes. I found out he has a curiosity about current events and stories about how the world has come to be what it is today. He asked great questions and did a lot of work independently at grade level!

So…

  1. We are all more alike than we are different.
  2. We all have a talent, a passion we are good at or hung-ho about.
  3. We all may have a secret “super-power,” we just have not figured out yet, so never give up!
  4. We all like to have fun!