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Teacher Spotlight: Lisa Gruen

As we chatted with Lisa Gruen, our latest Teacher Spotlight, it became clear that her classroom management veers consistently toward one discipline.

Compassion.

That sounds lofty, we know. But in spite of all the stress that distracts from teacherly ideals, Ms. Gruen draws a classroom contract that places kindness and citizenship as a primary focus.

First, let’s face facts: this gig is seldom a glamourous affair. Last year, Ms. Gruen donned two masks and a face shield before waltzing inside a freezing classroom to teach 70-plus students—some of them in-person, others over a computer screen. Add in a few other education-specific woes, and you start to wonder how she kept the compassion meter running.

Believe it or not, she used PD. Keep reading—we think you’ll relate to this situation.

Why do teachers need self-care?

When I signed up for the Self-Care Strategies for Teachers class, I was at an all-time low. I was teaching simultaneously all day long.

I had 72 sixth-grade students. 44 were in school during six periods and the others were learning from home. My classroom was 48 degrees. I had to wear a parka, 2 masks, a shield, headphones, a speaker with a microphone, and glasses in order to teach my students in the classroom and those in iPad zoom-land.

I found myself crying every day. My hair was falling out, my joints were inflamed, and even my dental hygienist told me that she had never seen my gums bleed so badly. I realized that I was in trouble physically because I wasn’t well mentally. I plunged into the lessons for this class even though I didn’t think I had time because I knew that I needed help.

Reading the articles, watching the videos, and trying the recommendations presented by the instructors of this class forced me into self-care. They validated my feelings and gave me helpful strategies to make my life better.

I noticed that I added a few moments of mindfulness and self-care each day and little by little my health improved. My husband remarked that actually, things have never been so good in our family. One extra perk has been that my husband, colleagues, and sons are using some of the methods I have shared, and they are doing better as well.

What made you interested in ELA and Social Studies?

I had been a primary teacher for a few years before I became a mother, at which time I resigned and became a full-time mom. I took a part-time job as a one-on-one aide when my boys were enrolled in school full time.

One student was a sixth-grader and the other was an eighth-grader. I realized that I enjoyed the middle-school children more than I could have ever imagined—and they liked me! I especially loved the Ancient History curriculum in sixth grade.

We’ve never met a teacher who fell into the job by accident. What inspired you to take on this role?

I struggled in school before college. My high school career guidance counselor told me that I’d make a good bus driver. No offense to bus drivers, but I took that as a sign that I wasn’t smart enough to amount to anything I had hoped for.

My parents sent me to a small two-year college where I thrived. I was on the dean’s list. Fellow students asked me to help them learn how to write essays or study chemistry with them.

The aha moment came to me when my Early Childhood Development teacher approached me and asked me to tutor the head teacher at her pre-school. She pointed out that I had earned a perfect score on every test, that I was tremendously popular with the toddlers, and I was clearly a natural in education.

Developmental Psychology was my focus from then on and I worked with children all through college. Upon graduating, I became the Program Director of a childcare organization. I was really happy there, but wanted to enjoy summers and holidays off, so I earned my credential. I married a teacher and we’ve been at it ever since!

Can you share any go-to classroom activities?

My primary go-tos in my classroom are kindness, connections, and choice. I greet my students with a smile at the door each day, I believe that this shows the students that I am happy to see them and that I am giving them a fresh welcome. This is particularly important if they’re having a bad day.

I also feel like this first connection of the day sets up for more connection making—like an icebreaker—for the rest of the day. Once children feel welcome and respected, I notice better engagement and participation.

One of my favorite lesson styles that always sparks the most engagement is a “choice” project. This concept even worked during Distance Learning last year.

We set up a menu of choices and asked that students explore a topic and show us what they learned in a way that made sense to them. For example, after reading through the ancient Egyptians topic in the History textbook, I love to ask the students to think about one topic that interests them most and create a driving question of their own to pursue.

Some examples are:

  • What were some of the medical advancements and practices in ancient Egypt?
  • What are some of the games that Egyptians played to pass their time?
  • What were ancient Egyptian instruments and music like?
  • What were some of the rituals that ancient Egyptians performed?
  • How did ancient Egyptians dress?

Students became experts about these topics then decided how to teach us what they learned. Some students made videos, others created diagrams, reports, and even art masterpieces. The passion sparks a variety of projects that come in, so they are actually interesting to sit through.

You mentioned sharing strategies from the course with your colleagues. Can you tell us about that experience?

At first, we were all struggling. I told my colleagues that I enrolled in the course. Then, I shared an article or idea here and there as a random morning pick-me-up text or email. My peers responded well and seemed to appreciate the perk. Then I involved them in some brainstorming that I was doing while creating my artifact.

They had good ideas and began to see that my health was improving. They asked for more resources—they were open to introducing mindfulness into the school day and remarked that they needed the calming as much as the kids do.

Two of us are doing better at self-care in the classroom but all four of us are taking self-care seriously outside of school. We decided to stay with the theme and are going to have a “self-care” themed Christmas gift exchange during our lunch break!

What do you love most about teaching?

I love the students the most. I love their beautiful faces and hair that sparkle and shine. I adore their funny quirks and unique personalities. Nothing gives me goosebumps like a child who is listening and thinking quietly, then they perk up and share their perspective or interpretation of what they learned. They’re amazing when they show compassion. I also love their innocence and open mindedness.

Grown-ups should spend more time with kids.

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