Issue #6: Educator Interview - Reading Specialist

An educator explains why she left the classroom for smaller groups and focused instruction

Megan Byrne, M. Ed.

This week, I am going to highlight an educator I know personally and give you a glimpse into what her job is about. This is Megan Byrne. She taught 1st and 2nd grades for nine years and has been a reading specialist for 10 years. I know this educator because she was my roommate in college. We bonded over a love of cleanliness and episodes of Felicity during our time at MU. Last week, Megan sent this in a group thread we are both in:

I threw her a cry laughing emoji and then immediately asked if she could spare 20 minutes to do an interview with me, for free, during her very limited time off. She said yes, how about President’s Day, the bonus Monday she has off, when her kids are also at home? That little window of time after breakfast, when she should be nursing her coffee in her quiet bedroom while devouring Love Is Blind by herself? I said perfect, that’s the exact time I want. And then I ate up an hour of her time, instead of the 20 minutes I promised. She didn’t even complain because that’s Megan. A consummate educator who struggles to say no and often wonders, If I don’t do it, who will?

When did you know that you wanted to be a teacher?  

I have wanted to be a teacher since second grade. I remember doing one of those assignments where you had to draw what you wanted to be when you grew up. I drew that I wanted to either be a cashier at Walmart or a teacher.

I kind of also wanted to be a nurse, so when it was freshman welcome and you had to pick a career, I was just like, okay, I'll go into education. And then, thankfully I found the classes interesting. I did work as a cashier in college, not a Walmart, so I guess both my second-grade dreams came true.

Do you ever wish that you had gone into nursing? 

No, because I feel like I picked the two professions that are very under-appreciated, under-respected and underpaid. So, I would probably be dealing with the same things in nursing that I am with education. Or, at least the people that I know who are nurses still feel under-appreciated like teachers.

Yes, but nurses get paid more than teachers.

Yes, they do get paid more than us. But I wish that I had the option for different hours. It would be nice to pick up a weekend shift or something if I needed some extra money. Flexibility would be nice with schedules, but I think I'd be a terrible nurse. I mean, being around people who are in pain all the time . . . I would've been a terrible nurse. I get nervous when kids look at all queasy and I send them to the nurse immediately, so that should tell me that wouldn’t have worked out well.

On the left, Megan and me in the earliest pic I could find of us, five years after college. BECAUSE WE ARE SO OLD WE DIDN’T HAVE SOCIAL MEDIA IN COLLEGE. On the right, us landing in Austin to celebrate our former roommate’s 40th b-day. Later, I would throw up after a charcoal margarita.

What made you want to leave the classroom and become a reading specialist?

Honestly, I had a really good relationship with the reading specialist in my building, and always admired her role in my building. As I was becoming more comfortable in the classroom, my favorite part of the day for teaching was reading.

I think that's why I liked teaching first grade — because so much of it was teaching how to read. You know, we're doing reading activities and read-alouds throughout the entire day. So I felt like that was where I was most passionate.

Then, seeing my reading specialist being able to have small groups of kids instead of dealing with an entire class all of the time. I mean, one year I had 25 first graders and it was insane. I felt like I couldn't be effective in any way because I was dealing with behaviors and abilities. I was dealing with 25 different sets of parents. So just thinking about having small groups throughout my day instead of having a large class was very appealing to me.

I was also getting to the point in my life where I was having my own kids. The thought of taking the workload that I was taking home all the time, while having a newborn was not something that I was looking forward to at all.

Being a reading specialist, I don't have to do grade cards. I don't know how that is in every district, but for mine, I don't have to do that. I do have to contact parents, but it's on a different scale than it is in the classroom. Classroom teachers have so much to juggle on a daily basis.  I still have a lot of stress, don’t get me wrong, but it is a different kind of stress that usually comes in spurts.

What was your process for certification for becoming a reading specialist?

I could have gotten a reading specialist degree but that would have required me to go back to school, which I didn't wanna do. It was going to cost a lot of money and it was going to be like maybe 30 hours or something.

So, I decided to get my special reading certificate. It was half the time it would have been to get the specialist and I only had to take an additional 15 credit hours. I had to take a few classes throughout the year, then I had to do a six hour practicum, which I did in the summer. I was nine months pregnant with my son at the time. Like so, so pregnant. I remember going in every day, feeling so huge and hot. I think everyone was really nice to me because they felt sorry for how pregnant I was.

I knew that my reading specialist in my building was going to be retiring in a few years, so I wanted to get that certification completed before she left. I'm glad that I got it done, but it was very miserable at the time.

Is that process pretty standard for every district?

Um, I know that they also will hire at different districts with a provisional contract if you're working towards your degree. I have a friend who had two years, I think, to finish her certification. She’s been teaching while getting her certification.

I would contact your state board of education, send in your transcripts, and they should be able to guide you on the certification process.

What is the best part of your job right now? 

I actually feel pretty fortunate to be in the district that I'm in because they have dedicated a lot of time and money into getting us all trained in Wilson, which is a program that's specifically designed for students who have reading difficulties and dyslexia.

This year I was able finish my Wilson level one practicum. I have been working with a student and I have a trainer that watches me remotely five times throughout the year. It's additional coursework and everything.

With Wilson, I have really seen a huge difference with the kids that I've been doing that program with. I just finished a small group training, so now I'll be able to do Wilson instruction with small groups.

I've been a reading specialist for a long time and for a long time I felt like I was just coming up with stuff to do with them. Now, I am better equipped to work with students who have dyslexia. I feel like, more than ever, that I have a plan for those kids. To be able to reach out to the parents and just know that they're going to be getting instruction that they might have to pay hundreds of dollars for, outside of school. So that's probably been my favorite, is just being able to grow in that area.

Megan, in action, leading that small group.

Isn’t it interesting, that 10 years into a position, you can have a breakthrough where you feel like you finally have things in place to be successful?

Yes! Which is why I am so impressed my district has put money into this Wilson program to have everybody trained properly. I hope that they continue it because it is very expensive, but it is the best education I have received in systematically teaching reading.

I think in the long run we'll see a huge benefit to students who have dyslexia or are just struggling with reading in general. I desperately wish I had been taught some of this when I was in college. I look back now and just hope that college students are learning differently than I was taught.  Because I feel like I had a lot to learn after leaving college.

Does your district give you a stipend for the extra time spent outside of your contract time, to get Wilson certified? 

No, but the certification is thousands of dollars, which they paid for. So, now I could buy myself a Wilson kit and then I could decide that I want to tutor outside of school. I could use this to make money for myself.

What's the worst part of your job?  

The school politics and people who are not living the day-to-day of the job are making decisions for my job. 

I had a friend in high school whose mom was a teacher. I remember going to her house, she was getting her master’s at the time, and she was like, Megan, whatever you do, do not go into education. Do not go into education. And now here I am. She said it isn’t the kids that are the problem, it's the school politics. And now here I am just remembering that conversation so vividly. And here I am trying to tell my niece the same thing, and she will probably come back at me in 25 years and say I was right.

You know, a lot of people complain about administration, which I thankfully have a great principal and assistant principal who really support me and have my back. But I just think in general, the fact that so many things are not up to me that affect me day-to-day.

Like this year, the state mandated that we have to have a reading success plan for anybody that is below the 10th percentile. However it falls, it's different for each grade, but these students that are falling below on their test scores have to have a reading success plan, which then falls on me. Anyone that's on a reading success plan has to see the reading specialist. 

So yeah, that's fine, in theory, that sounds great. You wanna give these kids who are falling below the most support. Except for when you're the only one in the building that is now being mandated to see these kids that are performing below. It keeps my hands tied and my schedule is pretty packed without a lot of flexibility because these kids are on a plan.

So, it's just been really tricky and I feel like every year it's something different that's either being mandated by the district or the state. It's making me have to re-learn how to do my job. So, if I could just do my job without all of that, I think that I could actually get more stuff done.

If you could go back to college, which career path would you choose now?

Well, that's tough. I don't know. I mean, I thought last year that I was going to become a real estate agent. So maybe I would go back and not even go to college? I feel like I've been out of college for almost 20 years and I'm still paying for it.

So, maybe I would choose to just do something that didn't even require a college degree?

Do you think you're going to make it to retirement as an educator? 

I think I will. I don't know. I feel a huge sense of loyalty to my building. I think I'll make it at least to the 25-year mark. I would like to be able to make it. It helps that my husband's an educator too, so we'll both be retiring close to the same time. But he never actually wants to retire. He wants to work forever. So I feel like maybe if I can at least make it to 25, then he can just keep working forever. He can't imagine not working, but I imagine it every day. I've dedicated so much of my life and my education, like I've been working for this, for 20 years. So now I just wanna coast and just know what I'm doing and just stay in the position and just make it to the end. 

And if you're in a good school with good admin . . .  

Yeah, I think that's huge too. Like I, if I didn't have an administrator that supported me, then I probably would've left a long time ago. 

Wait . . . I thought she said she didn’t have any down time?

What's something you want people to know about education?

I think that teachers and educators, in general, are working their asses off. I have never done anything outside of education, but I don't know that I could go into any business and see anybody working harder than if you walked into a school and saw what teachers do on a daily basis. 

They don't have down time in their day. And neither do I. I mean, like every second of our day is planned out. I think everybody thinks, oh, you have a plan time. Well, when I was a classroom teacher, I wanted to write a book about what actually goes down in a teacher's plan time.

Like you only have 55 minutes of plan time. 10 of that is walking your kids to special classes or recess. Half of what’s left is dealing with kids who need additional help or have to finish work. They're still with you. Then you go try to make copies and the copier is broken, so you have to walk to the other copier and there is a line to use that one, so then you have to switch plans altogether since you can’t make copies. Then you try to check your email and see you have 50 emails just from half the day. And then it’s over. So, really, your plan time is non-existent, to actually get any planning done.

If teachers were given time to really plan for their students, if we were given time to actually like try to differentiate instruction for what every kid needs, then I think we would see a huge difference. But, time is not allotted to teachers.

I had someone say to me once, Well you have all these teacher workdays that my kids don’t go to school! The thing is, teacher workdays are non-existent in our district. Everything is professional development. So yeah, kids don’t go to school on those days, but most of that is meetings. Instead, I would love to be trying to target my instruction to meet these kids where they actually are. Or I could be creating a behavior plan for this kid who can't sit still. You know?

So I just feel like the thing that I would want people to know is, that every educator really does care. And I have met a lot of teachers. I do feel like their desire is to help kids and watch them learn, but it's the outside factors that weigh them down. It’s that stuff that makes their job impossible.  

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