Mary Chamberlain is the longest-serving teacher at Commonwealth Academy, a school in Alexandria, VA that serves neurodiverse students. In her 16 years at Commonwealth, she has taught all levels of high school and middle school Spanish and has supervised the Online Language program. Mary is the parent of two awesome sons, one of whom learns differently.
What do you enjoy most about teaching at C/A?
Students who aren’t neurotypical tend to think out of the box, so it’s always an adventure. The students at Commonwealth have a unique energy and excitement, and there is beauty in what can look like chaos.
Why did you decide to teach Spanish?
I didn’t plan to be a teacher, but what else can you do with a degree in Spanish literature? I taught beginning Spanish classes as a grad student at the University of Kentucky and found teaching to be more rewarding than studying Spanish literature. After completing my degree, I took a job teaching high school Spanish at a small independent school in southern Maryland that was supposed to be temporary until I figured out what I “really” wanted to do. At this point it’s safe to say that teaching Spanish is what I want to do.
What advice do you have for teachers who struggle to reach all of their students
Teachers shouldn’t assume that students who aren’t engaged in class lack motivation or ability. Often a breakdown in executive function skills keeps capable students from performing to their potential. Task initiation, shifting and sustaining effort, processing speed, regulating alertness, accessing one’s working memory, self- monitoring, and modulating emotion all play roles in a student’s ability to engage in class activities and often cause barriers for students. It’s important to work individually with the student to identify where the breakdown is happening and give them a voice in creating a solution.
Fill in the blank, “Educational technology is ________”
“Transformative” if used properly, by both the teacher and the student. I’ve long been interested in using technology to help diverse learners master another language. I have spoken at professional conferences on the specific topic of using mobile technology to promote visual learning strategies. Currently, I’m working on educational research as part of Strategic Edtech’s 2018 SET Lab cohort. My research topic is how I can use executive function coaching strategies to help students self-manage their use of technology in the classroom. You can follow my research at https://medium.com/mary-chamberlain.
What is the best piece of advice you can give to parents of chil-dren with learning differences?
Celebrate their strengths and talents and surround them with people who do the same! It’s important to remember that the goal is progress, not perfection.
After a year in your classroom, what would you want a student to say about their experience?
I would want them to say they had a positive learning experience. Foreign language classes are often a huge hurdle for students who struggle with executive function or with learning differences. Over the years I have worked hard to make Spanish classes at Commonwealth Academy accommodating and welcoming, while still holding students to high standards.