Editors Note: Teachers@ED profiles some of the hundreds of current and former educators who work at the U.S. Department of Education, and how their experiences in schools inform their work for the agency.
When Newton Piper started out as a teacher in Thailand, he decided he would demonstrate students how plants absorb water by transforming himself into a human root system. So he went out and bought his own supplies—all it took was some creative placement of tubing and several buckets of water.
“I ran the tubes up and down my legs and arms and I put the two buckets of water next to me at each side and sucked the water up,” he said. “The kids were really amused. They’ve e-mailed me about it [years later]. You do bizarre things as a teacher, and sometimes kids remember it.”
Piper was a math and science teacher for students in first through ninth grade as part of an English immersion program in a town outside of Bangkok. Transitioning from a first grade class to a ninth grade class during the one-minute walk from one classroom to the other required what he calls “the Clark Kent spin” to get into a different teaching mindset. The experience required learning to employ a variety of instructional techniques and taught him a lot about how a child’s English ability can act as a fundamental barrier to his or her learning.
“The kids who had done well early on in English could keep up. For those who had fallen behind, however, limited English proficiency made accessing the content extremely difficult at times,” Piper said. “Sometimes I had to teach multiple lessons at the same time and reorganize the class in a way that would work for all of my students. I had kids in ninth grade who were practically fluent, and other kids who could barely tell me their name in English.”
Meeting those individual needs has given Piper valuable perspective as a customer service specialist in the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) at the U.S. Department of Education. Lessons learned while teaching have led him to believe that student needs associated with “fundamental barriers” such as English proficiency, disability, or family background, need to be accommodated early and aggressively to ensure that all students are empowered with critical foundational skills that will enable future learning. It is critically important to address these issues before what might be an achievement “gap” in first grade becomes an insurmountable “chasm” only a few years later.
When Piper returned to the U.S. in 2009, he began working towards a master’s degree in educational leadership and administration from The George Washington University, which he has since completed. During that time he entered the Department of Education through the Student Career Experience Program. He began working as the assistant to the deputy director of OSEP, then assistant to the director, before moving into his current position responding to constituent inquiries related to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for the Office of Special Education Program’s monitoring division.
In describing some of the challenges associated with delivering services under IDEA, Piper explained that, “schools are often very overwhelmed with limited resources and a lot on their plate. Some kids have greater needs than others and cannot fit in a figurative box, which presents a challenge.” In explaining OSEP’s role, he explained that, “OSEP is focused on supporting States, including through connecting them to technical assistance providers that we fund. There has been a shift from a compliance orientation to administering the IDEA, to a focus on the bottom line, which is improving results for students with disabilities across the country.”
Piper believes that by helping provide States with supportive resources, ED is contributing to a system in which passionate teachers can effectively meet the needs of all of their students. The perspective he gained during his three years teaching in Thailand has allowed him to appreciate just how invaluable such support can be.
Natalie Torentinos is a graduate student at The George Washington University and an intern in the Office of Communications and Outreach.