March 22, 2016

Teachers Talk Back: Hannah Nolan-Spohn

Hannah Nolan-Spohn is a middle school special education teacher at Pulaski Elementary School. In this conversation with E4E-Chicago Outreach Director Bridget Lee, Hannah explains why she became a teacher and shares the details of her research project that is empowering her students to advocate for themselves.

Bridget Lee (BL): Tell us about yourself. Why do you teach? 

Hannah Nolan-Spohn (HNS): I’ve always been motivated by a sense of social justice. I’ve been given a lot of opportunity, a lot of privilege, and it’s important for me to find a way to leverage that. Part of that just came out of my upbringing — my parents instilled that sense in me. I also went to a Jesuit college, where they focused on service learning. I learned that you don’t do something just because you like it and you don’t do something just to make money. You do something because it helps make the world a little bit better.

BL: You’re doing impactful and inspiring research with your students. Please tell us a little more about your work. 

HNS: Right now I’m studying how student involvement in the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process can help students build self-advocacy skills and how doing so can positively impact their social-emotional and academic outcomes. Last year, I participated in the Chicago Foundation for Education’s study group, where we talked about how students can understand their own disability, their strengths and their needs in order to advocate for themselves. This really sparked in me the idea that students need to be more involved in the IEP process. So, at the end of last school year, I started bringing my 7th-graders to their IEP meetings.

An IEP is really a living document. It’s something that students experience every single day. IEP goals should not be a mystery to students. They should be participating in writing the goals. Anytime we can add more student choice, more student voice, structures for students to become more self-aware are developed. I found that by meeting with the students in advance and talking about what was going to happen at the meeting, they had more of an idea of what was going on. Instead of IEPs being done to them, they have an active role in shaping their own educational futures.

BL: How have you been able to extend this policy change beyond your own classroom?

HNS: At the beginning of the year, I proposed the idea to the other middle school special education teachers. Then we sat down with administrators and shared the idea. My administrators thought it was great! They told us, “If you guys are willing to put in the extra time to get students to participate, then we think it’s wonderful.”

Now all middle school students at Pulaski Elementary attend their IEP meetings and the special education teachers help get the kids ready. Before each meeting, we talk with students about their IEPs, review past goals and prepare them for what’s going to happen. That’s a new policy we’ve come up with here at Pulaski as a result of my research. Everyone’s gotten used to it, and it definitely affects the way the meetings take place.

BL: It’s incredible that your students have a voice in their IEPs. Can you tell us more about what this looks like inside the classroom?

HNS: I’m interested in how students understand their testing accommodations, so I’ve provided all of the students in my resource classes with information about their testing accommodations in each subject area. The day that I introduced it, we talked about what different terms meant and what they look like in the classroom.

Many of my students were shocked to find out they could receive accommodations in Spanish. Once they knew, we role-played how they could ask for them and what to do if the teacher said no. We went over the problem-solving ways you could be polite yet also show the teacher your document to show what you are entitled to and advocate for your accommodations. This is definitely going to be a building process over time as students gain the confidence to do that. 

I try to be really honest with my students. I explain to them how general education teachers have a lot of kids on their plate and they don’t have IEPs memorized back and forth the way we do because they didn’t write them. I tell them, “You have to be the expert. You have to know what you need. If you can ask for that in a polite and respectful way, that’s going to be a good thing.” As they go through high school and beyond, they really need to have that skill. 

BL: Can you talk about your experience putting together an E4E focus group on teacher evaluation?

HNS: After meeting with you, the thing that stood out is that E4E values teacher input in policy. I feel like most of the time that doesn’t happen. Just as IEPs are often done to students, policy is often done to teachers and not created with teacher input.  So, when you asked if I could get some teachers to participate in a focus group after school, I was excited to reach out and invite my colleagues. I enjoyed having the chance to have my voice heard and bringing together people from around the building who also had interesting ideas. It was a great opportunity to hear different perspectives and take time to talk about something that affects all of us.

During the focus group we generated ideas about how to make teacher evaluation better.  These ideas have been shared with the E4E-Chicago Teacher Policy Team, who are working to draft formal recommendations on how to make teacher evaluations more meaningful. It’s exciting to think about what might be possible if teacher voice is included more often at the district, state and federal level in real, meaningful ways. 

BL: What inspires you each day?

The reason I became a teacher is because of my desire to have an impact. I feel very strongly that it is part of my job to teach in an actively anti-racist way. Kids who have experienced systemic injustice from the day they were born need a teacher who is going to help them fight that. I’m not going to fight it for them, but I’m going to teach them how to fight it for themselves in their own lives. That’s what continues to drive me.