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Cathy Gibbs - Mentor Teacher

By: Cathy Gibbs (2003)

"I can't imagine anywhere more exciting to be"

The Midnight Club and more…

This month's mentor teacher, Cathy Gibbs, heads the Department of Special Education at Central Commerce Collegiate in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

What sets her apart is her passion for teaching, her dedication to her students and her committment to mentoring new teachers. Talking with Ms. Gibbs can revive one's spirit and desire to work with students on the cusp of adult life. Some of her students will go on to university, others to more specialized post secondary training. Others will move directly into jobs after graduation.

"What has made their challenge 'double' has been Cathy," says Central Commerce Collegiate principal, Peggy Aitchison. "She has worked in a number of settings including gifted education. She is creative and resourceful. She is relentless when it comes to doing what is best for students. Senior students know they owe their graduation diplomas to her." Central Commerce Collegiate principal also shared Cathy's views on the important role of parents along with a letter she received last fall from the parent of one of Ms. Gibbs' students.

What truly sets Cathy Gibbs apart is her willingness to do whatever it takes. Sometimes this results in the truly unexpected....such as the Midnight Club. Near semester's end students often have many projects and papers to complete. Many of the students at Commerce Central Collegiate also often work. Most of Cathy's students work. Her students thought it would really help if they could get help after work. Cathy agreed and the Midnight Club was initiated. The Midnight Club is a group of students with LD who come in after work to get help completing classwork and projects.

Cathy and Students

"Even at 2:00 A.M students were still working," said Cathy. "We were committed to working until the projects were completed. Even our high school principal came in. I could not do projects like this without her support." "What happened this year is that there were so many projects the students needed to do for end of semester. Teachers give them packets to help them know what work is needed. They usually give them out three weeks in advance. That really is not enough time for students with learning difficulties. And most of the students in my class work as well. This means that they can have a very difficult time getting the work done. The best time to meet was late at night and that is what we did."

Ms. Gibbs students also often spend their lunch periods with Ms. Gibbs seeking help. Her students also attend school regularily.

This year Ms. Gibbs also worked extensively to mentor two new teachers who did not have certification in teaching students with special education needs. Canada, too, finds it difficult to fill special education teacher positions.

"Neither Torie nor Konrad, the two newly hired teachers, have training or qualifications in teaching Special Education students," noted principal Aitchison." However, when it came to hiring time for us, no qualified special education teachers were available. We were given permission to interview teachers who had qualifications in other subjects and ask if they were interested in the special education assignment and from the group chose Torie and Konrad. We've been very fortunate...they are both excellent, committed teachers. I am very proud of all three of them--Torie and Konrad for the way they have embraced their teaching assignments and Cathy for the mentorship she has provided them."

Central Commerce Collegiate was originally founded as a school of business and commerce but now has students who enter a broad range of high school programs. Courses are also offered at the University for Grade 12 students as well. Most graduates from the school proceed to post-secondary education. Central Commerce offers a wide variety of special education programs. Students' exceptionalities are identified through a formal review process, the IPRC, Identification, Placement and Review Committee. Ontario, Canada determines placements based on provisions in Regulation 181/98.

Central Commerce Collegiate is also the "Home of the Riders, Award-Winning Scholars, Athletes and Artists!"

Cathy Gibbs is both a classroom teacher and a mentor teacher. We asked her several questions about each role.

Classroom teacher

Do the students really come in to get the work done. Or is this just a one time crunch situation?

Students would like many more "starlight sessions." Most spend their lunch period in my room working on assignments. These are students who really know I care. When they know a teacher really cares about them and their work, the students feel better about themselves and are able to really try harder. They want to learn and work to graduate from high school. They have cell phones. I call them or they call me for help with assignments. The kids can turn their phones off, or not accept my calls, but they do. They want to learn. They even call me to let me know if they are running late but "still on the way to school."

Flowers for the teacher

One student who was struggling in school came to see me. He needed help. He asked me to help him get ready for graduation. He only needed four credits to graduate. I reviewed his record and he was qualified to receive services. During that time problems at home erupted. His mother threw him out. We kept working. His 84 year-old-grandmother took him in. I talked a lot with her and with the student as we worked to get his work done. One day it was clear his grandmother was in tears as she and I talked on the phone. We were working to help him find success. I told him the next day that if you give her one more reason to cry "you haven't seen anything until you see me cry." The student graduated in February.

When he came to me he was ready to ask for help. That is often the turning point for students with learning disabilities. Once they know they can ask for help they are on the road to success.

That is not to say that the students and I do not get into some really pronounced arguments. They always know, though, that I care about them. We work it out. The bottom line is that you really need to like students. If you do not like them they know it. No amount of teacher training will get a teacher's lack of genuine liking for her students. I have never been able to understand the teachers who come in just before the day is to begin and leave right after school. The most exciting time of the day for me is when the students can sit with you and learn and that is most often in the afterschool setting.

Mentor teacher

Ms. Gibbs is also often very busy helping new special education teachers at Central Commerce hone their teaching skills. She works to train both new special education teachers and to help those who have been at Central Commerce Collegiate in both general and special eduction for a number of years.

It sounds like you now have a major role in special education teacher training. Dr. Robert Pasternack, Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, for the U.S. Department of Education, suggested in Atlanta, at International Dyslexia Association (IDA) Convention in November 2002, that teachers might receive more effective teacher training if those on the front lines, the teachers in the everyday classrooms, were actually involved directly in their training. Their involvement, he suggested, might be more effective than current practices offered by universities. Is this a normal process in Canada where special education teachers actually train new teachers "on the job."

No. I am not working with the university. But I am really running a "virtual crash course in special education." Ontario is currently featuring a significant teacher shortage. In part this has been caused by a wave of teacher retirements. This year alone, Ontario schools have allowed a record 1,167 teachers to teach in subject areas for which they have no specialized training.

In the field of special education the need is even more acute. No one wants to go into special education. There is a lot of paper work..a paper trail from here to kingdom come. There also is a new curriculum, new report cards that take extensive time to complete in addition to the IEP process and feedback forms.

Teachers are given a one-year pass to teach. 353 of these teachers are filling positions in special education. Two of our teachers fall within this category. It is difficult for them. They are excellent teachers. They want to be perfect but what they really need is the "bag of tricks" that really comes with a lot of teaching experience. You need to know how to motivate and how to let the students find ways to achieve success. This comes in very small steps sometimes. New teachers often expect great progress in each class. I work with them to help them understand that success will come....maybe in June and not in the first month of classes.

Teachers who work in the field of special education need special skills. Sometimes I need to reassure them that they will be successful. Many teachers are not trained to understand the needs of students with short attention spans or reading problems. This can be a real challenge for new teachers who have no specialized training.

What is your teaching background?

I have been teaching for thirty years. I began teaching Physical Education, Health and Science. I really enjoyed the aspects of coaching. You get to work with the students more in a one-on-one situation to help them find success. I then taught for several years in a program for inner city youth at risk. This was in an area of high poverty. For the past seven years I have been working with students in special education classes. I will be taking next year off to complete my Master's Degree in Divinity at the University of Toronto but I have told the students they can call me and I will tutor them. There are some who will be graduating next year and I want to make certain they have all the help they need.

Are there special techniques or points that you teach the new teachers?

First teachers need to learn how to make their classes relevant to students. For example, rather than making them memorize a whole map of provincial capitals, it is more important that they learn how to read a map of all the subway routes, a TTC map.

Other important strategies are to:

  1. Break down lessons into small chunks. Test those pieces of information with a small daily quiz. This lets students build up self-esteem day after day. When students feel good about themselves they come to school more often. They will learn more.
  2. Give preliminary tests several days before a real test. Knowing what to expect is crucial for students with special needs.
  3. Know the rules and know when to bend them. In short, "pick your fights." For example, it can really be "crazy- making" to have students come late to class but if you send them to the office are you accomplishing your goal of helping them learn?

Canadian high schools had Grade 13. Does that still exist?

No, and I think that may actually make it more difficult for students with LD. They really need that extra time to complete all of the work required for the diploma. I expect for many it will still take them 4 1/2 to 5 years to complete their secondary education.

What do you see for the future? Do you plan to retire from teaching?

I really can't imagine retiring. I enjoy every day. That is not to say I have not been tired, or frazzled at times but I love working with the students. If I really love what I do why would I want to quit.

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