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The Conscious Teacher: Deborah Nichols Poulos Puts Students First in Book

April 15, 2020

As a grade school student, Deborah Nichols Poulos feared reading out loud in front of her peers, something she says that at the time, felt like torture. Overcoming her learning struggles, she went on to become an excellent student, and eventually taught for 27 years.

Gathering her experiences both as a learner and instructor, Deborah has penned The Conscious Teacher: What All Teachers & Engaged Parents Need to Know to Be More Effective. Part memoir, part how-to, the book seeks to share with parents and teachers the importance of truly knowing each student, urging them to nurture self-motivation by individualizing and differentiating to meet each child at their own level.

“I knew I had to truly get to know each student and meet them at their own level, whether it was low like I was, or high like many voracious readers, or somewhere in between,” Deborah said of her experience as a teacher. “It was really exciting to see each student feel known and understood. They became self-motivated. We worked together as a team. They knew I wanted the best for them,” she said.

Diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neurodegenerative disease affecting nerve cells for which there is currently no cure, Deborah has been unable to walk for almost two decades. Even writing is a challenge for the author, but she nonetheless remains positive.

With just 10% of individuals diagnosed with ALS living a decade or more, according to the ALS Association, Deborah has already beaten the odds and hopes that the experiences and wisdom she shares in her book will influence readers to become conscious teachers.

“When I started writing this book in 2014, time was of the essence…it certainly was a long process,” she said. “Now I just hope I live long enough to see that it becomes widely read. At least that is my hope.”

Published in December 2019, The Conscious Teacher is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. The National Herald interviewed Deborah Nichols Poulos on becoming a conscious teacher.

The National Herald: What inspired you to write The Conscious Teacher?

Deborah Nichols Poulos: In 2014, I was reading my autobiography in my memoir group, about my difficulties with reading and math throughout elementary school, and how that influenced my teaching. They stopped me and said, “Debbie, these ideas are too important for parents and teachers not to learn now. You need to stop and write a book before it’s too late.” I realized they were right…I stopped right then and began work on this book. Now I hope I live long enough to see if it is widely read.

TNH: What can readers expect to learn from reading your book?

DNP: Whether parents, teachers, or readers, you will learn about the importance of truly “knowing” each student…how to individualize and differentiate to meet each child at their own level in order to nurture self-motivation, putting them in charge of their learning, creating behavior standards and consequences when the standards are not met, having students sign a behavior contract, treating each child with dignity and respect no matter what…to name just a few.

There is a wealth of information on all kinds of issues, with a table of contents that is detailed enough that it is easy to find what you need. Parents will be glad to have its help and support.

TNH: How have your experiences as a student influenced your work as an instructor?

DNP: As an elementary student, I struggled to learn to read…In the reading group my first day we were sitting on the floor in a line, like birds on a wire. I was near the end of the line, but eventually it was my turn. I got off to a good start, stumbled, then completely fell apart. The teacher went on to the last student on my left, and the group returned to our desks. I sat at my desk, book in hand, feeling exposed as stupid in front of all these potential new friends. And the routine continued every day, like torture. It wasn’t until my junior high English class that I flipped the switch that sent me on my way to becoming a reader and an excellent student.

TNH: If you could give one piece of advice to instructors, what would it be?

DNP: I would say start getting to know each student before they even walk into class on that first day. I went through all my students’ cumulative record folders, CUMs, before school started. I learned about all their school history, issues at home, etc. I memorized the

students’ names with their photos.

On the first day of school I’d line them up at the door to the classroom and welcome them by name. It was awesome to see the expressions on their faces. I think they thought, “I’m important to her.” This conveyed a powerful message…I had placed students who might need help next to students who could help them. I seated students who had behavior issues near the front of the class next to students who could buffer them. The students became a team that helped and supported each other. It’s important for every child to feel known and to be able to relax as they learn.

TNH: How has ALS affected your ability to work in the environment you were used to, and, for those who are not familiar, what are the major challenges of living with ALS?

DNP: I was diagnosed with Primary Lateral Sclerosis (PLS), a progressive degenerative impairment of the voluntary muscles in 1999…I decided to retire at the end of the school year in 2000. I was 55. I wanted to be able to travel and do other things while I could still walk.

I was diagnosed with ALS in 2006. So when I started writing this book in 2014, time was of the essence. It took me a year to write the book, then four more years to add, rewrite, and edit…It certainly was a long process. Now I just hope I live long enough to see that it becomes widely read. At least that is my hope.

My fingers are compromised so it is not easy to type. It is slow and tedious. I have been in a wheelchair 24 hours a day since about 2013. I have not been able to walk since 2002. Basically everything is a challenge. However, when we were flying back to California from Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, after having the PLS diagnosis confirmed at the Eleanor and Lou Gehrig clinic there, I said to my husband, “I am not going to let this ruin our lives. I am going to focus on what I can do and not worry about what I can’t do.” And that is what I have done.

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