An Interview with Deborah Weston

Deborah Weston is a teacher of 20 years having taught the gamut of special education grades in elementary schools.  She “is an advocate/ally for issues dealing with Workplace Health & Safety, Special Education, Mental Wellness, LGBTQT, and Aboriginal topics.”

During these difficult times, she took time from her advocacy and lesson preparation to be interviewed for this blog.  I thank her for that.

Doug:  My first question for these interviews is always this – do you recall when we first met?

Deborah:  Although we have never met in person, I’ve spoken to you online. As I had significant stage fright of speaking and getting recorded on line, it took time to be brave enough to do this work. I had a speech issue when I was a child and I hated hearing my recorded voice. 

I appreciated your August 2020 invitation to comment on other’s blogs. I’ve recently been involved with the Education is a Right Podcast and made new teacher friends through the process. Invite me back!

Doug:  You are a very frequent blogger on ETFO’s Heart and Art of Education Blog.  I find that you write on a wide variety of things and I’m always learning something new from your posts.  Why do you use the blogging medium for delivering your messages?

Deborah: Due to my learning disability, I’ve been an apprehensive writer in the past. Now, after getting over many hurdles, I’ve found my voice in writing about issues that concern or inspire me within education. 

I also have published several children’s books about kids with issues such as dyslexia, ADHD, and anxiety disorder. I tell my students, who also have learning disabilities, that they need to choose their words well as the written word is more powerful than swords!

The Girl Who Couldn’t Read by DPA Weston
(my daughter is reading the book)

Doug:  Have you ever considered starting your own personal blog instead of writing for teachers through ETFO?

Deborah: I did have my own blog which had a very limited audience and it did not inspire me to go further in my writing. 

With an audience of teachers, I word hard to make sure that my posts are relevant to their interests. I also receive a stipend for my work … so I am paid to write!

Doug:  What’s your inspiration and source of topics for blog posts?

Deborah: I write about educational issues that hit me hard or piss me off … can I say this in a podcast? 

Doug:  Because I am such a fan of your blogging, I often include blog posts from you on my Friday “This Week in Ontario Edublogs” post and have talked about you on the voicEd Radio show with the same name.  Do your ears burn when Stephen and I talk about a latest post of yours?

Deborah:  I am too busy writing to have burning ears. I am currently writing articles for LD@Home (teaching math to students with learning disabilities) and ETFO Voice (Ontario Human Rights Commission’s Right to Read). I am also writing an eLearning course for ETFO. 

Doug:  During the summer, we had you on the show as a special guest host and were also featuring one of your blog posts on the show.  “School Re-opening Smart Policy Design”.  Did you find it different/weird to talk about your own work with the two of us?

Deborah: I enjoy talking about my own work as long as my school board or school is not mentioned. I “was spoken to” after an article was published in the Hamilton Spectator.

Thinking back to our conversation, I underestimated how many students would switch to online learning thus delaying a school shut down. My school had 45% of its students switch to online learning. 

My estimation of school closures was to be the 3rd week in September 2020. Now that schools have active cases, they still stay open. With crowded classrooms, students are only about 6 inches instead of six feet apart. In the Ontario Ministry of Education, I believe there is more “smart political policy design” than “smart education policy design” and our staff and most vulnerable students are facing the consequences of this approach.

Doug:  Of course, all educators are having difficulties trying to teach during the time of COVID.  I think we all know the challenges and you’ve mentioned them yourself on Heart and Art.  It’s all tough but do you find it even more of a challenge as a Special Education teacher?  Why or why not?

Deborah: Even as a former Geologist and Marketing Manager and now teacher, this year has been the most challenging year in my history of work. 

I’ve dealt with a great deal of stress trying to meet my students’ needs while synchronously teaching online and in class. I had to work out my own technology issues while paying for a microphone/webcam to replace the Chromebook I was using as a mic and camera. I’ve cut back on the hours I work each week as I cannot sustain this workload. Sometimes things don’t get done as I am so taxed by my work.

I also get few breaks during the school day as the staff room is closed. I refuse to eat my lunch in my car so I eat with my five in class students. We are also short on teaching staff so we are asked to cover classes without teachers. Some classes have monitors instead of certified teachers. My tech also stops working sometimes and I get calls on my cell phone from students’ parents at home.

Doug:  Have you “lost” any students as a result of what’s happening?  Did you end up “finding” them?  How?

Deborah: During the lockdown, a few students stopped attending our online sessions. This was very concerning for me as they are highly learning disabled and need to be “in school” completing work to maintain their literacy. 

In my current hybrid class, I have excellent attendance. I think it is because I work with my students to ensure that they are part of the planning of assignments. I make their learning fun like using a Gingerbread House to calculate perimeter and area in a real life context. For social studies, my students wrote a play on the Underground Railroad in which all students participated (even the students online.) In using Universal Design Learning and Assessment, students can have a say in how they learn and how they show their learning. Ultimately, I teach how I would like to learn.

Doug:  How do you lesson plan for students requiring your assistance?

Deborah: Each of my students needs intensive one-on-one support in learning due to their disabilities. As discussed above, I include my students in the instruction and assessment of the curriculum. Since all my students have very specific learning needs, I fine-tune each interaction with an approach that will work best for them as a learner. Learning how to teach and assess each student is my greatest superpower in developing their literacy so they can return to mainstream classrooms as empowered learners.

Doug:  Despite the challenges, there must be some tremendous rewards that you’ve had assisting students during COVID times.  Obviously we can’t name names, but can you generically share some of these successes?

Deborah: My hard work pays off. It is hard work worth doing.

When I see students increase their reading level by several grades, I know that my work makes a difference. This year, I’ve also had students advocate for their own learning by suggesting different approaches to instruction and assessment. This has given the students a drive to work harder to go beyond their work from the past. I’ve seen some excellent work this term and know, when the students return to mainstream classrooms next year, they will advocate for their own learning needs and produce solid ways to show their learning. 

Many of my students will be returning to mainstream classrooms with reading levels at or above the grade they will enter. Last year I had two students, now in grade 6, return to the mainstream at a grade 10 and 12 reading level.

Doug:  Has COVID arrived at your school community?

Deborah: There are at least two cases in my school with two classrooms shut down. We are not told which class has been impacted so I do  not know if I was in contact with a person in the closed classroom. Several students in the classes also spend time in the Behaviour Teaching Assistants room which is right beside my classroom.

I am in the process of awaiting Covid testing results. As supply teachers are rarely taking jobs in our school now,  I hope my students have a teacher while I am off waiting for results.

Doug:  The Premier, Minister of Education, and School Districts are trying to keep schools open and running the best they can.  If you received a phone call from any of them tomorrow looking for high impact advice, what would you suggest?

Deborah: I would suggest that the PM and MoEd visit some schools so they can see the crowded classroom conditions. Not only do some classrooms have over 25 students, they also have all the coats, winter boots, and lunch bags in the classroom as students cannot use lockers. 

My advice, to keep schools open, is to:

– provide hard caps for classroom of up to only 20 students

– check staff and students temperatures twice a day (as some parents send their child to school with a dose of Tylenol)

– stop using lunchroom monitors as ad hoc classroom teachers for weeks at a time 

– hire more long term occasional teachers as permanent supply teachers to ensure that schools have certified teachers in class to accommodate permanent school based teachers being away for Covid testing and illness

– have every qualified teacher employed in school boards teach students either online or in class to decrease the deficit of available qualified teachers (BTW not all teachers with board position do not want to teach students)

– give principals some time off as they are working very long hours sometimes seven days a week and they are soon to burn out

– give hybrid teachers more planning time as it is twice the work to plan for  online and face to face instruction due to very different formats

Doug:  There will come a time when we emerge from all of the immediate dangers of COVID.  What will school look like post-COVID?  Are there positive learnings that teachers and the education system take away from this experience?

Deborah: A positive outcome in post-Covid would be to provide equal access to technology for all students regarding technology and the internet. This way, all students can take advantage of the assistive technology like Google Read/Write … an app I use to write all my blogs. I cannot see any future in which teachers will be appreciated more by ministries of education nor can I see teachers being compensated more for their time. Teachers may be treated more like a commodity and instead of a profession.

Other trends I expect

More online learning, especially in the upper grades – I believe there will be a greater online component to teaching and learning as students will be doing more work online. This will impact students from lower socioeconomic communities who lack the tech resources and reliable internet to fully participate. These students will not get the teacher support and encouragement to go further as parents are not teachers. More online instruction will mean that parents (i.e. mothers) will have to spend more time supporting their child in doing the work of education as unpaid teaching assistants.

More monetization of education – I see companies in the educational industry taking advantage of online learning by providing more paid Secondary courses. School boards may offer more online courses (as these online teachers get paid much less). Students will likely get the first try at the course for “free” but then have to pay if they fail the course. 

More privatization of school – I see more private schools, online and in class, starting up promising a higher quality of education and a more personalized approach to learning. They will sell their schools based on small class sizes and “no special education students” so teachers will have more time for each student in their class. Further, more private special education schools will open promising more individualized attention from teachers as public school classrooms can have up to 30% of the class with special education needs (i.e. IEPs) with no extra support for students’ needs.

Doug:  Can you recommend to readers of this blog, valuable people to follow on social media or worthwhile blogs/podcasts to follow?

Deborah: I recommend the heartandart blog as it is written by teachers for teachers. The would also be a great forum for their own podcast!

Doug:  Thank you so much for taking the time to complete this interview.  I appreciate it.

You can follow Deborah on Twitter at:  @DPAWestonPhD

The ETFO Heart and Art of Teaching and Learning blog can be found at:

Periodically I have the opportunity to interview interesting people like Deborah.  All of the interviews are available here:

4 thoughts on “An Interview with Deborah Weston

  1. Pingback: OTR Links 12/04/2020 – doug — off the record

  2. Doug, thanks for sharing this interview with Deborah, and Deborah, thanks for sharing your story! I do enjoy reading Doug’s interviews, and I’ve actually read this one a few times now. Deborah, I could really connect to your experience with having a learning disability, and I appreciate you being so open about your challenges. I’m also glad that you blog, and share your important voice online with a wider audience. I’ve returned to the answer to your second last question a couple of times. You’ve made me see just how different experiences are across school boards. Your comment about overcrowded classrooms really made me think about this. I’m appreciative that our Board has explored funding options to keep classes small and distanced a minimum of 1 m. between students. I know it’s still not the ideal 2 m., but when I read about some teachers with classes of 26, 27, 28, and 29 students, I feel very fortunate to have our class of 19 with space. I just wish there was a way to make this a reality everywhere. I’d be curious to hear about other people’s stories/realities, and any problem solving that schools, educators, and Boards have done to try and keep everyone safe.

    Hope you get some good news about your COVID test, and that you and others stay safe!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: My Week Ending 2020-12-06 – doug — off the record

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