Podcast: SEL in the Face of Natural Disaster with Garrett Jackson on Teachers in America

21 Min Read
Podcast: SEL in the Face of Natural Disaster with Garrett Jackson on Teachers in America

Welcome to our eighth episode of the Teachers in America series.

Our guest is Garrett Jackson, a Special Education Teacher at Saipan Southern High School in Saipan, the largest of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. Commonwealth in the Western Pacific. Garrett received a Bachelor of Arts in History from The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, where he was a member of the Corps of Cadets. It was during this time that Garrett learned to serve those who are less fortunate, something he has carried with him into his education career. Before moving to Saipan with his wife and son, Garrett taught high school history and government in Lawton, Oklahoma. He recently received his master’s in Autism and Developmental Disabilities from the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. In his spare time, Garrett enjoys playing with his son, traveling, hunting, fishing, and amateur radio.

Below is a full transcript of the episode.

The views expressed in this podcast are those of the guest and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

Onalee Smith: Welcome to HMH Learning Moments. I'm Onalee and for today's episode of Teachers in America, we sit down with Garrett Jackson. Garrett is a special education teacher in Saipan which is the largest of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth in the western Pacific. In the fall of 2018 the islands were hit by Typhoon Yutu which devastated their community and left Garrett and his students without power for months. Before moving to Saipan with his family, Garrett taught high school on the mainland in Lawton, Oklahoma. Now I'll turn it over to Garrett.

HMH: Garrett thanks for joining us on HMH Learning Moments: Teachers in America. It's good to have you here.

Garrett Jackson: Thanks for having me.

HMH: So you've taken a long journey to come talk with me, right? You live right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Garrett: I do. I live on the island of Saipan which is part of the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands and it is a U.S. territory. One of the lesser-known U.S. territories.

[The Northern Mariana Islands is one of the sixteen U.S. territories. Learn more about the island and its demographics.]

HMH: What took you to a teaching job in the middle of the Pacific Ocean?

Garrett: Well I was in a school district in Lawton, Oklahoma, where I had taught 10 years and was looking for a way to learn some other things and expand. My dad and my grandfather had always encouraged people in our family to look for work outside the United States as part of our career path to learn more. And my wife is from the Philippines and she said, “You know, you don't look as happy as you used to. Why don't we look for a job elsewhere? And oh, by the way, why don't we move closer to my family since it's quite a plane trip?” And I said OK we can do that. I had known about the Mariana Islands from classes I took in college and started looking for a job out there and was pleasantly surprised when I got hired.

HMH: Was it hard to…?

Garrett: Not particularly in my field. I'm a special ed teacher so it's not hard to find a job. But they had several openings and it just took a little bit of paperwork and some odd-hour phone calls because of the time difference.

July Garrett Jackson 1

HMH: So is there a lot of turnover or once people are there they're really committed to being local?

Garrett: I would say yes and no. Anytime you're going to go to someplace remote like that you're going to find a lot of challenges that you're not prepared for.

HMH: Like what?

Garrett: Typhoons. We just had a typhoon, Yutu, that devastated our island. My particular apartment, we had no power and water for 65 days.

[Typhoon Yutu, which hit the Northern Mariana Islands in October 2018, was the largest storm to hit U.S. soil since 1935, yet there was very little mainstream news coverage of it. Read more about the storm and its effects on the Northern Mariana Islands on The Atlantic.]

HMH: 65 days! What did you do?

Garrett: I sent my wife and son to the Philippines to hang out with her family and I called my dad and said mail me a generator, and you just open the windows and you do what you can.

HMH: What about school? What happened to the kids?

Garrett: The schools were shut down for most of the end of October, all of November, and part of December. And so some of my students went and checked on and took home food and stuff to those that needed it. And they've. . . basically they had to move around some. Their houses were destroyed. Some of them, just like us, had no power and you start the clean-up and you start working as fast as you can as long as you can.

HMH: Does that mean you didn't teach and they weren't learning for sixty-five days at least?

Garrett: I wasn't in the classroom teaching, no, but I don't know that the learning stopped. I've learned a lot of skills and refreshed some skills that I had from my youth that were good. And, you know, you learn about things through disaster and you learn how resilient you are. So there's always learning going on whether it's in the classroom or not.

HMH: Yeah, it's a tough way to learn, especially for those kids that have been displaced. What does the recovery look like?

Garrett: So the recovery looks pretty good. Right away, we got a lot of good support from FEMA. The Air Force came in. There's an Air Force Base in Guam. But we got a lot of support from the Air Force base in Japan. With personnel coming in to help with the clean-up and really it was a community-wide effort to start cleaning up the island.

HMH: And would kids help with that?

Garrett: A lot of high school kids did. A lot of high school kids took on other responsibilities at home because everybody was affected. People still had to go to work at some places and there was a lot of things that needed to be done at home, cleanup and stuff like that, that a lot of kids took part in.

HMH: What was it like when it was the first day after the typhoon and schools opened again?

Garrett: It was different. We came back to work before the students did. My classroom had a door ripped off and so we spent time cleaning up water and mess that had come in from the storm. I brought tools from home and we took some of the sheet metal that had blown off the roof and basically drove in the concrete to put up a door so that, you know, animals wouldn't come in. And we just got things ready for the kids to come back and when they came back a lot of them it was good to get them back into the routine. Routine is one of those things that kids thrive on especially those with special needs.

HMH: So how were they affected by what had happened?

Garrett: Every kid's going to be different. We had a lot of kids that were really glad to be back in the routine. We had a lot of kids who had some behaviors that we needed to address. I have a student whose parents don't really have a vehicle. She lives with her grandmother so I went to check on them over the course and found that they had no food, so I got them some MREs [Meal, Ready-to-Eat] and dropped them off at their house because they had difficulty getting to where some of the drop-off locations were. We used cell phones to talk to parents and just check on them. Couldn't do it for every parent because it's not always feasible. But we try to reach out the best we can.

HMH: So when you started back, how did you have the kids talk about what had happened?

Garrett: We didn't really have like a group session. A lot of my students are nonverbal so we just let them kind of tell us what they needed and kind of watch for what they were going through and we talked to their parents and we tried to provide the supports that they needed and get them back in the routine of things that they were doing before the storm. And kids are pretty resilient so when they came back to school a lot of them were really happy and they got back into that routine and it was a stabilizing force for them.

HMH: That's often the case for students that have any kind of disruption in their lives, but particularly if all of them had that sort of shared disruption.

[Studies show that natural disasters can have a profound, long-lasting effect on children’s mental health. Read more on the Washington Post.]

HMH: What about you? What did you do? I mean we talked about how you tried to take care of your students and see how they were doing. What about you and your family?

Garrett: So about a week after the typhoon I sent my wife and son to her family in the Philippines for 90 days and then I went back to the basically to our apartment and I kind of waited things out and tried to help my neighbors with what they needed to have done. Because I wasn't sure when school was gonna start back up and I'm taking some classes online. I'm taking some special ed classes, trying to get through that but it was kind of distracting. So you do what you can.

HMH: Were you anxious?

Garrett: Oh absolutely. When you don't have air conditioning and fans and the bugs are eating you up, you get irritable. And there’s not really good ways to take showers and stuff like that. Just uncomfortable is the way I would describe it. That was one reason why I decided to get my wife and son to her family in the Philippines. Comfort, you know?

HMH: Is he in school?

Garrett: My son is two. So he's not in school. He slept through the typhoon.

HMH: I want to be a two-year-old, right?

Garrett: I know, right? My wife was screaming like she was not happy and he was sleeping through.

HMH: Best place to be, probably.

Garrett: Yeah.

HMH: When you're working with these students are there particular challenges that you feel like you can't always reach them? Particularly, maybe it's about their being nonverbal or is it about how many kids are in the class at once? What are some of the challenges you experience?

Garrett: I think a lot of the challenges that we experience within the high school itself is the fact that we're so isolated from the rest of the mainland and getting services to our students. We have very few speech language pathologists and occupational therapists on the island, so we use a teleconference type setup for those types of services. And so being able to get the students learning on the computer with a person at the other end and working with them, those are always the challenges that we are faced with and that's just providing those services they need. We sometimes have to do it in a non-traditional way. Traditionally you'd have a speech language pathologist that comes to your school and works individually with a student. And we really don't have that. We have to use a service called TinyEYE and our TinyEYE service provider is located. . . Well, one is located in Canada and the other one is located in Dallas, Texas, and they're great people and they work really well so we work with them.

HMH: Tell us a little bit about how TinyEYE works.

Garrett: So TinyEYE works by having a computer at each end. So, we have a computer setup with a webcam.

HMH: Just a regular computer?

Garrett: Mmhmm. Our particular computer is touchscreen so it makes it easier for some of our kids who can't use a mouse or keyboard to be able to interact. And then on the other end the service provider either OT or the speech language pathologist works with the student and we sit close by or sometimes we sit directly next to the student to act as the guiding force. You know, to get instructions. Some of our students need constant prompting, redirection to tasks, those sorts of things. Sometimes they need to do something like with our OT. We work with TheraBands or TheraPutty and we have to set it up or help the student manipulate it because they're not able to and so we work really closely with our OT doing those sorts of tasks for them.

HMH: So they're even working with OTs remotely.

Garrett: Yeah absolutely.

HMH: So that's a wonderful thing that technology can provide services that you couldn't get at scale or locally at all on the island. Are there other ways that the Mariana Islands use those kinds of sort of virtual and remote supports to enhance teaching and learning?

[Learn more about how ed-tech advancements support better ways to serve SPED students.]

Garrett: Well, yes and no. We've got some online classes that we do through an online setup through Blackboard because the Mariana Islands has two other islands that're remote, Tinian and Rota. I see that there may be more opportunities for interaction through live streaming of classes, for example if we have a few students at Rota maybe 100. Not all of them will want to take calculus but that class could be offered at Saipan so we could do a virtual classroom where the students could attend and that would provide more educational opportunities for the more remote islands that we have.

HMH: Right, more efficient really to be able to combine forces and input classes together. And as kids obviously who live remotely I'm sure they're highly reliant on all kinds of social media and other things to connect to the greater world.

Garrett: Yeah. That is something that we have or at least I've observed. I have students who use Facebook to keep contact with family that's in the U.S. mainland and other parts of the world. Certainly being away from the mainland, I think the kids are a little bit more aware of the other countries that are around the other islands. There's a lot of different demographics on the island. We have a lot of Chinese, a lot of Korean. Of course we have the local Chamorro and the Carolinians, but we also have a good number of Filipinos. We have a good number of people from the US mainland, so a pretty good mix.

HMH: How many students altogether?

Garrett: I don't know for the whole, but from my school we're just about 900 students and our special ed population is about 80 that we've identified in our school.

HMH: Right. So pretty similar to percentages elsewhere.

[Learn more about the number of students in the US who receive disability services.]

HMH: It sounds like you have to use a lot of technology as part of the work that you're doing. Obviously the remote tools are the kinds of management systems. What are the challenges around doing that. Obviously we talked about the opportunities because it gives you access and your students access to other providers.

Garrett: So typhoons aren't the only things that can disrupt the island. We have power outages just like anybody else. Internet goes down. We get internet through an undersea cable. Cell phone towers don't always work. I mean there's a lot of things. So high tech is not always the best tech. Sometimes low tech is really good too. I think a lot of times with special ed one of the things that we like to focus on is what is going to provide the best amount of services for what the student can take back to their home. Because a lot of times we can have a lot of technology at school but based on the personal situation of the parents they may not be able to provide that same avenue. So we want to make sure whatever we do in the classroom can be also done at home. So we may not always need an iPad. We may need just a touch board or something like that that's not as dependent on the internet.

HMH: Right. Yeah. You've got to have the optionality.

Garrett: Absolutely.

HMH: Yeah.

HMH: So when you were a government teacher what was your favorite part of the curriculum or topic to teach?

Garrett: Gosh that's hard because I liked several parts of it. I guess it would have to be the Constitution. And then some of the Supreme Court cases of the United States that I thought were the most interesting and enjoy teaching. I like getting the students into a debate and that was a lot of fun. One of the nice things I liked about the school I taught at in Lawton is I was friends with the school police chief. So when we got to Miranda v. Arizona I'd invite him in and have him talk about police powers and what happens when you get arrested, because everybody needs to know what happens if they have an unfortunate engagement with law enforcement. But it's also they need to know what their rights are. And so we would do things like I'd invite guest speakers and that sort of thing and that was always fun.

HMH: Can you think about the best lesson you ever taught?

Garrett: When I was teaching government my first year I wanted my kids to think about all the problems that we have in society. And I came up with what I call the Constitution Project and what I did was I said “Congratulations. Each group has their own country. You have three weeks to write a constitution.” And then I invited guests to come in as a panel. They had to turn in their assignment at the end of three weeks and then they had to defend their constitution in front of a panel of selected individuals from the community. I picked a federal judge. I picked the principal. I picked some other teachers to come in and they had 15 minutes to defend their constitution kind of in the same way that Supreme Court works. And that was probably one of the best lessons I ever created.

HMH: How old were those kids?

Garrett: They were I believe sophomores and juniors.

HMH: That sounds so fun. Makes me want to come be in your class right now.

Garrett: Yeah it was a lot of fun. The federal judge that I got to come in thought it was a lot of fun too because he got the assignments ahead of time and was able to read through them with his background on constitutional law. He had some really good questions. Kids like to argue and debate too.

HMH: They do. Yeah it's good to get that out in a constructive way in class. Are you in touch with any of your past students?

Garrett: I am. A lot of them have reached out through Facebook and so I keep in touch with those that reach out to me.

HMH: How does that make you feel?

Garrett: Makes me feel good. I've had students come back and tell the class, “Hey whatever he's telling you, you need to listen to.” It's always nice. But it's always good when you're out in the community and a former student comes up and says, “Do you remember me?” Yes. I don't remember your name, but I remember when you were in fourth period and you sat right here and I didn't have to send you to the principal's office.

HMH: So obviously you're at the end of a school year. As you look back on the past year that you had, what was your real high point this past year and then what was the point?

Garrett: Graduation was the high point. The students that we just graduated from Saipan Southern, their freshman year they had another terrible typhoon called Soudelor and it devastated the island as bad as Yutu did. And so their senior year they had another typhoon that devastated the island. So for them to be able to make it through all four years with two massively terrible typhoons, it was really a high point because a lot of students . . . you know, that's a lot of challenges to add on top of the academics. That was really the high point.

HMH: So do the kids when they graduate, do they stay on the island?

Garrett: Some do, some don't. We encourage students to go get an education. We have a couple different tracks on the island that they can do. One is through NMTI which is the Northern Mariana Islands Technical Institute. It's like a vocational technical school, and they can learn a trade like welding, plumbing, electrical. And then we have the Northern Mariana College, which does offers some associate degrees, a couple bachelor's degrees. And then students, a lot of them go to the University of Guam. But we also encourage them apply to schools here in the U.S. mainland. And some of the other schools that are in the region.

HMH: And how many don't go to college at all?

Garrett: I'm not real sure what those numbers are. Because of the high poverty rate, I would say it's probably pretty high.

HMH: Yeah. Right. So graduation was the high point?

Garrett: Mm hmm.

HMH: The low point was the typhoon?

Garrett: Absolutely right.

HMH: And that was a long, low point.

Garrett: It was.

HMH: Despite the most sort of extreme situations this past school year, you have a pretty stoic attitude to all your work in schools, working with some of the most challenged kids and in really challenging physical and geographic circumstances. Is there anything that you'd change about teaching or your job if you could?

Garrett: I would have gotten my master's sooner.

HMH: How come?

Garrett: Well I was really content with having just a bachelor's degree until I moved out to the island. There was an economic incentive for me to get a master's degree, but with the lack of services I picked a particular master's degree to help where I'm at. So I have a master's now in special education.

HMH: Congratulations.

Garrett: Thank you. Thank you. And the area is Autism and Developmental Disabilities. So I got that from the University of Texas of the Permian Basin and I hadn't planned on getting a master's degree. In the mainland where I was teaching there wasn't much economic incentive to do that. But here there is that economic incentive. And really the need to have more education in my field.

HMH: And why is that?

Garrett: Well, being so isolated. I started to take on more problems and responsibilities that I hadn't previously had to. And so I needed more knowledge to draw from. So it's always good to have extra tools in your tool chest to be able to address new problems and really work with other professionals from other areas and kind of bounce ideas off of them.

HMH: Yeah, I think that's part of the point of professional learning or any kind of advanced learning is that teachers are generally pretty isolated. And so you can actually start to share.

Garrett: Absolutely.

HMH: Plans and best practices. What would you say to somebody who is about to enter the profession to be a special ed teacher. What advice would you give to them?

Garrett: Wow, that's kind of a big question because there's lots of things I would tell people. First thing I'd say is keep good notes when your students give you a letter that says what a good thing you did. Save it because there's going to be days where you have bad days and we go back and read those. Remember that parents are frustrated just like you get frustrated. So don't take things too personally and get friends and get a lot of friends in a lot of different areas. It helps.

HMH: You know what, that's great advice not just for special ed teachers. That's great advice for any teacher and not just new teachers either. Well it's been great talking with you Garrett.

Garrett: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Onalee: Thanks for listening and learning with us. Join our community and read our shaped blog by visiting hmhco.com/shaped. That's hmhco.com/shaped. You can follow HMH Learning Moments on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you prefer to listen to podcasts. We hope you enjoyed today's show and will please consider rating and reviewing and sharing with your network. HMH Learning Moments is produced by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, The Learning Company. Thanks again for listening.


Learn more about how HMH supports special education educators and teaching students with disabilities.


You can follow HMH Learning Moments: Teachers in America on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Please consider rating, reviewing, and sharing with your network.

We value our listeners' support and feedback. Email us at Shaped@hmhco.com.


Research for this piece includes contributions from Joanna Miral, Shaped staff.

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