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An Indianapolis teacher uses his own school struggles to help students with special needs

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

For Shay Daily, teaching is personal.

His own struggles in school — learning in different ways, dealing with anxiety, and managing attention deficit disorder — inspired him to help students who face challenges themselves at school.

At Damar Charter Academy, a public charter school in Indianapolis focused on serving students with disabilities, Daily teaches middle-school students with a mix of behavioral, emotional, and developmental needs.

“To be honest, I can see education from the perspective of a kid who is possibly heading down the wrong path,” Daily told Chalkbeat. “I was fortunate enough to have people in my circle to help me out. After growing up and having a better understanding about life and all that goes along with it, I decided I very much wanted to help kids who may be going through similar situations.”

Daily recently won the 2019 Teach Like a Champion Award from Teachers’ Treasures, an Indianapolis nonprofit that provides school supplies. He recently talked to Chalkbeat about how he got into teaching, how he forges deep connections with students, and how he helps students work through obstacles.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

It wasn’t super early on. One of the reasons why I became a teacher, and especially a special education teacher, is I struggled quite a bit when I was in school growing up. It was never easy for me.

As I grew up, I was going to college off and on, and I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. The one thing I knew I wanted to do was try to help kids who were in similar situations to when I was younger. I just didn’t know how I wanted to do that yet.

I got a job working one-on-one with kids, going to different schools in their classrooms, and I just fell in love with doing that. While I was in the classrooms, I started noticing the teaching, and thinking, “I could do this differently,” or that what they were doing here was super awesome. That made me really want to be a teacher. So I went back to school and got my degree in special education.

A lot of teachers realize they want to teach in high school, but when I was in high school, I never would’ve thought I would be a teacher. I run into friends now and they say, “Wow, really? You’re a teacher?” But I just feel like there’s no better person to help someone who is struggling in school than someone who was struggling in school themselves.

How do you get to know your students?

Simply talk to them — but on their level, and more than some people typically do. So I eat lunch with my kids. I know a lot of times that’s not something the teacher does. But taking time like that, for me, is when I really get to know my students: when we’re not in the classroom. I go to gym with them and play games, too.

We have a morning meeting, and we do a sharing activity where kids share what’s going on in their lives or what they did over the weekend. I can use that to bring up something at lunch, like, “Hey, you’re going to King’s Island this weekend?”

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

One thing I’m really interested in is technology in education. I got a grant for virtual reality headsets and phones in order to teach virtual reality lessons. Those are my favorite, especially for the kids who have never seen anything like that. To see them put on the headsets and all of a sudden, they’re on the moon and walking on the moon — it’s super cool to see them react to that and be engaged like that.

A lot of the kids I work with haven’t really been out of Indiana, so we do a lot looking into other countries. It’s something different to use in the classroom. It’s interesting to see what they get out of the lesson.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

A good thing is Teachers’ Treasures. It’s in the community, and they help so many schools and definitely my class. They allow us to go there one time a month, and I’m able to get so many supplies for my class that the students don’t have themselves, but that they need and that our school can’t always afford. So they really fill in the gaps there.

It’s not always just the typical pens and papers, but different supplies that we can be creative with in the classroom, like for art lessons or books for the classroom library. A lot of my students don’t have a lot of access to books or libraries. So Teachers’ Treasures is a huge positive in the community, and they absolutely help out a lot.

And then also a lot of my kids come from pretty tough backgrounds and tough areas. They bring a lot of that baggage into the classroom with them, from a lot of the stuff that’s going on in the community, like the violence. You’ll hear, “So-and-so got shot down the street last night.” It’s a lot of trauma. That definitely affects the classroom also.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

A lot of my students come to my class and my school from other schools, because they weren’t able to be in that school and often many other schools before that. I was just recently in a meeting with one parent, and she was explaining how much better this student is doing — tremendously better within just a couple of months of switching to my school. It wasn’t even as far as grades but his outlook: how he feels when he comes home and things like that.

Hearing the positive stories like that and hearing what we’re doing is working just kind of revived me. It makes me think what we’re doing is right, the culture we’re providing is right, the environment we’re providing is right.

It really helps to hear what the parents have to say. I’ve had a couple of students who went home and said they were starving and couldn’t eat lunch due to sensory issues. So I had to have kids start eating in different areas. I know from experience that a lot of schools don’t have that one-on-one ability to address, “Hey, my kid’s not eating well, what can you do about it?” We think about what we can do for this one student to change the outcomes. And I think the focus on the one-on-one things is one thing we’re able to do very well.

What part of your job is most difficult?

Some of the behavior, the impulsiveness, the trauma that’s there with my students and that has been there for their entire lives — we have to break through that negativity before we can do any sort of learning. Before we can do any academic learning, or before they’re going to accept that learning, we have to get through that. And that’s some of the most difficult work.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

It’s not all about academics. You think teaching, and you think math, English, social studies. A lot of it is, but some of is basic necessities. It’s hygiene, it’s getting a kid to be engaged, things like that. I think that’s one misconception I had. I thought, OK, I’m going to become a teacher. I’m going to teach this and teach that. But that’s not how the day goes a lot of the time. There’s just so much else included in teaching than actually teaching.

And the paperwork, of course. I have a lot of Individualized Education Programs.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I recently read “The Tao of Pooh.” It was a very short and easy read. I actually took it to the classroom and read from it. We work on different mindfulness type of things, so it was pretty interesting to hear the kids’ take on stuff.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

Do it for the right reasons. If it’s not something that you’re doing for a reason, if you don’t have anything behind what you’re doing, it might not be something you succeed at or excel at. You have to have something that motivates you. For me, it’s a personal thing.