Author Interview "Deborah Nichols Poulos"
Deborah Poulos: The Conscious Teacher
There is no occupation that is more important and less appreciated than that of a teacher. I know most of my memories from school are good but some of them are not. And that is in large part due to the frustration felt when not being able to understand something. The Conscious Teacher, written by Deborah Poulos, who as a child also struggled in school, has created a how-to guide for current, future and veteran educators.
After 27-plus years teaching, Deborah decided to put all of her unique techniques into this very helpful and insightful book. Even her struggle with ALS has not stopped her. Not only does Deborah’s book benefit teachers but it’s also a one-of-a-kind tool parents can use to help their children reach their full potential.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey to writing the book?
I am a 74-year-old retired elementary school teacher (having taught 27 years). In 2000 when I was 55, I was diagnosed with primary lateral sclerosis (PLS), a progressive degenerative neuromuscular illness of the voluntary nervous system. I was told it would gradually take my ability to walk. And as I wanted time to do some traveling before that happened, I retired that year. In 2006 I was diagnosed with ALS, and I have been in a power wheelchair full-time since 2011. My husband, an emeritus law professor at the University of California at Davis, and I live in a retirement complex, University Retirement Community (URC), in Davis, California. It was in URC’s memoir group that this book got its start. I was reading an excerpt about my early reading and math failures and how those early experiences influenced my teaching when the group stopped me and said, “Debbie, this material is too important for just our memoir group. You have to stop and write a book about all your ideas before it’s too late.”
Well, that gave me pause. Not only were they saying my writing was important enough that it deserved a wider audience, but they were also bringing to my attention how little time I had left to accomplish it. With my 2006 diagnosis of ALS, time was of the essence. I started right then. That was in 2014. In my memoir class I had already written about my difficulties with reading through my first six grades; I couldn’t progress beyond the words I had memorized. I figured I must be stupid, because I certainly couldn’t read like everyone else in the class. During that time, neither my teachers nor my parents looked into why I wasn’t doing well in school, and I didn’t help things by completely avoiding reading. Then again, after being required to read aloud in class was discontinued in the 4th grade, people weren’t as aware of my reading difficulties. I obviously didn’t do as well as I could have, but I guess I wasn’t a complete failure because I could pick up information from discussions in class. It wasn’t until well after I had graduated from UC Davis that my mom told me that when I was five, I had tested in the gifted range on the Stanford-Binet.
At that time my dad was a chemistry professor at San Diego State, and one of his colleagues in the SDS Psychology Department needed guinea pigs for testing. Evidently my parents considered that my poor school performance was due to a lack of effort rather than learning disabilities. Then, when I was in the 7th grade, I had an “Aha” moment, and a switch flipped that set me on my way to reading and academic success. I had similar troubles in arithmetic, primarily because it was taught algorithmically. I realized later that I was a visual/spatial learner, as I had trouble memorizing steps to solve equations, a deficiency that reached its peak with 4th grade long division. I managed to get by, but it wasn’t until 8th grade—in a class taught by a teacher who had taken courses at the University of Illinois Committee on School Mathematics (UICSM)—that I turned the corner and began to excel in math, as well. From that time on in math—through my junior year in high school in Advanced Algebra/Trigonometry—I received mostly A’s. My school struggles and ultimate successes motivated me to go into teaching. Therefore, in my book I share my own story as part of what taught me how to be a better teacher than the teachers I had had. Writing the book wasn’t difficult; it all just came out of my head. Editing, however, took a long time, as I thought of things that needed to be added and/or rewritten. Each time I sent changes in to the publisher I had to wait for them to make those changes in the manuscript. The only real difficulty was with my fingers doing the typing; the ALS had compromised their effectiveness. I realized while I was writing that the book would also be helpful for parents. If my parents had had a book like this, they would have known what to do to help me rather than let me deal with it alone. I explain how the book is for “engaged parents,” that the relationship between the student, teacher, and a parent is like the legs of a three-legged stool. For the stool to work, and not fall over, each leg has to do its part. It is important for parents to know how they can assist and support their children at home, and that they know how to coordinate with the teacher. In this time of Covid-19 isolation, parents are especially in need of the ideas in this book in order to know how they can help their children while they are doing all of their schoolwork at home.
Can you briefly describe the premise of The Conscious Teacher?
The premise of the book is that teachers have to get to know each student in depth—and forge a personal connection—in order to meet their unique individual needs. Teachers can’t just go through the motions of teaching as if all students are learning at grade level. They must be truly conscious in their approach in order to motivate each student to work hard and put forth their best efforts. And using standard practices is not enough. Teachers must differentiate and individualize the curriculum and teaching techniques so that every student is able to engage with what is being taught.
What initially inspired you to write this story?
(Personal life experiences, events, and/or current events/news) As I’ve explained above, the book was inspired by my experience in a memoir-writing group, though my husband had long urged me to write about my teaching. And given that my ALS had progressed to the point that I could no longer walk and could barely use my arms (and was in my late 60s), I needed to get to writing in earnest right away. Even so, it basically took five years to come to fruition. Now I just hope I live long enough to see if it becomes widely read and used.
Can you explain why you chose the title, The Conscious Teacher?
The title stresses the importance of teachers being truly conscious of a multitude of factors to know their students in order to motivate and educate them. They must consciously approach each student with strategies individualized to meet each one’s unique needs.
You’ve been diagnosed with ALS. How do you think that impacted your approach to the book?
My having ALS motivated me to begin concentrating immediately on writing the book once my memoir writing class said my ideas deserved a wider audience.
What was your writing process like when writing the book?
I worked on it every day. I started early, beginning to write as I drank my morning cup of coffee, and I usually wrote for two to three hours each day. The format is basically sequential. It starts with my own autobiographical story, then it goes to laying the groundwork for an effectively-run classroom.
It describes how I got to know each of my students so that I could meet their individual needs. From there it goes into how to teach and manage each curriculum area. And finally, I tell of my experiences in two important areas. First, I talk about teaching gifted students—both in a self-contained classroom and in a regular classroom. Then I describe how I integrated students with special needs, which in my experience were students who had autism, Down syndrome, and cerebral palsy.
What is the main message you hope people take away from your book?
To be a truly effective teacher, you need to constantly, consciously consider the unique needs of each student in your class—and teach to those needs. Yes, it takes much more time than does teaching all students the same way all the time. But the result is so exhilarating, and so ongoing—the looks on the students’ faces as they understand a point you are making is so thrilling—that it carries you forward and makes everything worthwhile. And even if my readers don’t incorporate every technique I describe, I’d like to think that many of my points will inspire them to create their own techniques that will improve their teaching. For that’s what I did, as I was never taught in school how to teach. I had to find that out for myself.
Are you working on any other books?
I am back to working on my autobiography, the full story of my life. I’m doing this mostly for my children and grandchildren, and I do hope to finish it if my hands continue to be able to type. I have considered writing a book about living with ALS, but I won’t pursue that until I finish my autobiography.