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Deborah Nichols Poulos - The Woman Who Inspired Us All

By Carin Chea

Every hero has a hero. You hear of them often during graduation ceremonies, TED talks, and award acceptance speeches. Being a hero is an honor, but being a hero's hero is the stuff of myths.

Today, I met a woman who is just that. Author and former educator, Deborah Nichols Poulos, has the grit and perseverance that Marvel protagonists are made of - and more.

This is one individual whose life journey needs to be embedded into the world, especially during trying and uncertain times such as these.

Poulos' maiden book, The Conscious Teacher, is part-autobiography, part teaching strategies, and fully inspirational. This is a woman who didn't just overcome barriers; she blatantly refused them. A simple interaction with Deborah Nichols Poulos will galvanize the internal hero within you.

The Conscious Teacher by Deborah Nichols Poulos

In this time of Covid-19, with the kids at home, The Conscious Teacher is more important for parents than ever before. The subtitle of the book is "What All Teachers and Engaged Parents Need to Know to be More Effective." Almost every chapter has notes for parents.

For example, parents must model the behavior they want from their child. They can't reward their child's bad behavior with attention. That's the only way to extinguish bad behavior.

It's really important for parents to put the child in charge of her schoolwork. Don't get caught in the trap of telling your child what to do. Kids need to be as autonomous as possible, with parent and child operating as a team.

The parents should explain that they have their own work to do. Set a time at the end of the day when you and your child can discuss questions and problems they may have had with their schoolwork that day.

Helpful topics include:
  • behavioral standards
  • meeting each child at his or her level
  • creating self-motivation
  • differentiating and individualizing

Nichols Poulos has expertly compiled decades of experience into a life-altering book that is now available. Hear her amazing story below.

You had a long career as an educator. How did you get into writing?

I was an educator for 27 years, but in 1999 I was diagnosed with a progressive degenerative upper motor neuron illness that was going to take my ability to walk. I retired in 2000 so that I could take advantage of what little time I had left to travel with my husband.

Then, in 2006, I was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease), so at that point I really knew that I was under the gun.

We moved to a retirement community in 2011. I joined a memoir-writing group here and I was reading aloud my experiences as a child failing in school (in reading and in math) and talking about how that influenced how I taught and how I approached my students.

The people in the group said to me, "Debbie, this is too important to just do this for your memoir. You need to stop and write a book for teachers and parents, and you need to do it before it's too late."

I was excited that they thought it was important enough to write a book, but saying "before it was too late:" really got me. I started right then to write the book.

Tell us about your book, The Conscious Teacher. Is this your first book? How did you come by the title?

Yes, it's my first book. The title stresses the importance of being truly conscious of the multitude of factors that go into knowing each student, to motivate and educate them.

Teachers must be consciously approaching each student with strategies individualized to meet each one's unique needs.

I didn't learn to read in the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd grades. I could only read the words that I memorized. But there were so many words that were so confusing. I didn't know what it meant to sound out words and I was really mystified by that.

Eventually, after failing so much, I just adopted a strategy of avoidance just to protect myself from trying and failing all the time. That was successful until the beginning of my 7th grade English class and the teacher brought in Time Magazine and gave everyone in the class the same copy.

He said, "Everybody is going to read a paragraph or two, and we're going to talk about what it means."

I thought, "Oh my gosh I'm going to be found out as a failure in front of all these potential new friends." Of course, I sat in the back of the class because I wanted to hide. So, I listened intently to every word I heard and saw. And so, as they came closer to me, I had a chance to figure out which paragraphs were going to be mine, and I practiced over and over.

When it came to my time, I read the paragraphs as if it was no big deal. It sounds crazy, but it made me realize: I could learn to read.

From there, I worked at it instead of avoiding it. I was never a fast reader; I was a plodding reader. I worked hard and became an excellent student.

After high school I went on to the University of California at Davis, earning a BA in English. And, here I am writing a book.

What or who inspired you to write your book?

My husband had been telling me for years that it was important enough to write, but I hadn't really gotten going. As I already said, it was my memoir group saying, "You have to get this out there for teachers and parents now, before it's too late," that got me going.

The book is part-memoir, as well as part "how-to." It's written in a very accessible, conversational style. It's not pedagogy. It's not high-falutin'.

Deborah Nichols Poulos

What is the central message you'd like us to garner from The Conscious Teacher?

The approach I describe in the book got results. The proof is in the pudding. Year after year, class after class, I observed students become engaged in their work.

For the first time ever, students came back and told me what a difference I had made in their lives in high school, college, and even in their careers. I had gifted kids who coasted along, and when I challenged them, they learned to persevere when learning was tough, when they didn't get perfect scores.

Then, I had kids who worked below grade-level who, when supported at their level, began to progress and meet higher and higher expectations, and eventually caught up.

All students must be truly engaged and motivated. I tell teachers and parents how to approach kids so that they become the engines for their own learning.

I really got to know each of my kids. Before the first day of school, I studied the cumulative record files; those are the files that each child has with their biographical information and report cards from previous years and test results. There's also a photograph of the kid.

I read through all of them so I would know who had problems. I would know everything that was in that file before that first day. I lined kids up at the door to the classroom and would say, "'Good morning, Karen. Good morning, Jim'. And they would go, "Whoooooa, how does she know me already?!'"

Welcoming each kid by name, they thought, "Well, I must be important. She must be really good that she already knows who I am."

I set up a seating arrangement so the kids who needed help and support were next to a student who could support him or her. I put all sorts of mechanisms in place so that every kid really knew how important he or she was. The class operated as a team. It was a real community. It was not competitive. We just had fun.

If a student misbehaved, I would have a silent signal and I would make eye contact with them and give them my signal. That meant they'd need to take a time-out outside the classroom. I'd tell them that when they thought they could be in control, they could come back inside.

That's what I meant when I say that the child has to be responsible. If I had given him attention for being naughty, it would motivate him or her to be naughtier. That child really learned his or her own techniques for calming down.

Learning what I did as a child, I wanted other teachers not to make the mistakes my teachers made. And in normal times parents need to help teachers to know what they know. If the child is frustrated or having difficulty doing homework the teacher needs to know.

As I said, whether the kid is gifted or whether she is working below grade level, the teacher needs to find out where she is and get her working at her level.

I had gifted kids who had never been challenged. They were just used to doing the grade level work that was assigned - getting every question correct and getting all A's.

When I started finding out which kids needed to be more challenged, I was able to get them to really be engaged in their work rather than phoning it in, so to speak.

Are there any upcoming projects you'd like our readers to know about?

No, not really. I'm back to writing my autobiography. I thought I might write a book about living with ALS, but that's way down the road. This [The Conscious Teacher] is my big project right now. I'm working to promote it.

You know, I have never asked this question to a non-fiction writer. Usually, I ask what actor would play their fictional protagonist. But, you are so inspiring that I have to ask: If they were to make a biopic on your life, who would play you?

Wow, I have no idea! She has to be tall and slim. (I'm 5'10", and, in my younger days, weighed 130 lbs.) She has to have straight brown hair, a plain, simple face. She smiles a lot. She has a turned-up nose.

If there were a biopic of me, you'd have to also include that I ran for City Council in my town and I won with the most votes. In the process, I met my husband, who was a law professor at the university.

I was also a labor leader at the local teacher's association. My experience of being a failure in elementary school, then overcoming that failure, really turned me into an activist. I didn't accept any barriers.

I also designed and general contracted building three of my own houses. I hired all the subcontractors and supervised their work. It was an awesome experience.

As a City Council woman, I was the first person, who (when asked what my position was on gay rights) said I was for gay rights. That was in 1984 or 1985. I considered it a basic civil right. People who were running for re-election said they wanted me to downplay it.

Davis was one of the first cities in the country that passed a gay-rights ordinance. I tell you that story because I got a real stiff backbone through my experiences of failure and then, finally succeeding.

I've got it: Catherine Keener. She's perfect. She's strong, but also soft.

She'd be good. She has that tough affect, but also compassion.


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