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Podcast Minisode: Creating an Accessible Learning Environment with Eric Cavalli in TX on Teachers in America

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Photo: Adapted physical education teacher Eric Cavalli

Welcome back to Teachers in America, where we celebrate teachers and their lasting impact on students' learning journeys and lives.

Today we are joined by Eric Cavalli, an adapted physical education teacher from the Manor Independent School District in Texas. Eric uses a wheelchair for mobility and is an inspiration to his students, showing them that having a disability does not limit your ability to accomplish your goals. This episode was recorded at the Model Schools Conference, where Eric was awarded the HMH Lighthouse Award for his work in education. Hear his strategies for creating an accessible learning environment.

A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.

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

Noelle Morris: Welcome to Teachers in America, a production of HMH, where we celebrate teachers and recognize their triumphs, challenges, sacrifices, and dedication to students.

I am the Senior Director of Community Engagement, Noelle Morris. Each episode, I meet a new teacher friend to learn about the latest lessons and innovations from the classroom.

This summer, I had a chance to meet Lighthouse Winner Eric Cavalli, who is a K-12 adapted physical education teacher for the Manor Independent School District in Texas.

Eric uses a wheelchair for mobility and is an inspiration to his students. He’s an example of someone who knows firsthand that having a disability does not limit your ability to accomplish your goals.

In his role as an adapted PE teacher, Eric has encouraged more students to participate in the Special Olympics program, with participation tripling in the last school year.

In today’s episode, Eric shares strategies to create an accessible learning environment, including how to support students physically and emotionally and how to encourage students to advocate for themselves.

Now let’s get to the episode!

Noelle Morris: Hey listeners, welcome back to another episode of Teachers in America. Today I get the pleasure of being with Eric Cavalli, who is one of our Lighthouse winners, in the first year of launching that. And he is an adapted physical education teacher. So, I know y’all are going to have a wonderful time listening to him and learning from him.

So, Eric, I ask every teacher first, to describe their teacher journey in three words.

Eric Cavalli: So, if I had to use three words to describe my teacher journey, I think I would say love, passion, and perseverance.

Noelle: Wow. Why do you lead with love?

Eric: Because for me, teaching is all about the love for the students. And that is really what drives me and is why I stay in it.

Noelle: Why did you put perseverance last?

Eric: Because I definitely have had a lot of difficult times where I’ve thought about if I’ve really wanted to stay in education, but having the perseverance to stick with it. And it is tied with the love and the passion also, right? Because those two things are what allows me to persevere.

Noelle: Do you ever notice when you’re having one of those hard days and then, all of a sudden, a student says something at the right time and you’re like, “Okay.”

Eric: A hundred percent. A thousand percent. Yeah. That’s the love, right? That is why I love to do the job is because the kids.

Noelle: And what grade level do you teach?

Eric: So, I do K through 12.

Noelle: Wow.

Eric: Yeah. So, I go into PE classes in our district, because I’m the only adapted PE teacher in our district. So, I work with all the students on my caseload in elementary, middle, and high school classes.

Noelle: Okay, so what does a day in a life look like for you? I mean, do you have a schedule by building or by grade level, or could you be working with fourth graders and then traveling across the district and then working with tenth graders.

Eric: Yeah. Actually, I make my own schedule. So, depending on what aligns with the PE classes that my students have, since I’m always trying to do the least restrictive environment for my students. I go into the inclusion PE classes that they’re in.

I make it around their schedules. But I also do try to use proximity, right? Cause I don’t want to have to be driving back and forth and back and forth. But I also do the Special Olympics for the district too. So, I have my own office on an elementary school campus too.

When I’m not meeting in the PE classes, I’m planning for that or holding practices for Special Olympics. It’s been dynamic, which is fun.

Inline Graphic 3

As the only adapted PE teacher in his district, Eric supports students in grades K-12.

Noelle: What has been—if you’re okay with me asking this question—when you go in, how are you looking for those limited environments that you need to support the school, having it become more accessible?

Eric: This was my first year doing it, but at the beginning of the year I started with observing the kids, and getting to know the kids, before I started doing a lot of interventions. That was kind of my initial way of trying to figure out what would work best. Because if you just read their paperwork, that doesn’t really do much, right? It can mean so many different things. Seeing them in the classrooms, interacting with the other students and the teacher, then I know, "Okay, this student doesn’t actually need that much extra support from me socially or emotionally, but they need more support when they’re doing a specific skill." Versus some students really need me to be there so they feel safe. It kind of just depends from kid to kid, which that’s been a really cool part of the job too.

Noelle: So, you’re differentiating based on their need socially, emotionally as well as physically?

Eric : Yeah. Since I’m doing adapted physical education, the bigger part of the job that you would normally think of is the physical side, the skills. But the social-emotional has been a really big part of it for me as well, and I’ve noticed you can’t really work on skills with a student if they’re not socially, emotionally feeling safe.

Noelle: What brought you to the Lighthouse Awards? Who nominated you? Was the whole process a surprise?

Eric: It was a surprise to me. The director of Special Education in Manor she went to a conference, I think, with the author of The Lighthouse Effect book. So, she nominated me, and I didn’t know that she had even nominated me until I had heard from y’all that I was one of the finalists. And I was like, “Oh, wow, this is really, this is amazing.” And then, they recognized me at the district in Manor. And then, I got the email from y’all that I had won. And then all this, being here for the weekend, and everything has been amazing.

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As an HMH Lighthouse Award winner, Eric was invited to the 2023 Model Schools Conference. He is pictured with his award alongside Steve Pemberton, author of The Lighthouse Effect, and Carmen Ortiz-McGhee, chief operating officer at National Association of Investment Companies (NAIC).

Noelle: So, Eric, I’m very confused because I know when we were talking—we had a chance to have a pre-conversation—you’re from California. Where is the y’all coming from?

Eric: So, I’ve been in Austin, Texas, for six years. And I am married to a Texan. And so I like using y’all a lot more too. Because I always used to say you guys, but it’s just not as inclusive.

Noelle: Isn’t y’all just so easy?

Eric: It’s easier. It rolls off the tongue and especially in the beginning when I started working in Austin with my students, I would say, “all right you guys,” and the students would be like, “We’re not guys, not all of us are guys. Why are you using that?” And I’m like, “I’m so sorry y’all.” So that they taught me really quick.

Noelle: So, have you learned that all y’all is plural for y’all?

Eric: All y’all, yes. Yes. I have heard that all y’all.

Noelle: Okay.

Eric: Yes. I have heard that all y’all. Yeah. Cause you can’t just say, wait, I guess you could just say y’all need to. . .

Noelle: Like if I’m talking to the four people that are around here, I’d be like, “Y’all, we're going to go somewhere.” But if I’m to my class or my students, I’m like, “All y’all need to look up here.”

Eric: Yeah, and I use it in text too, not even thinking about it.

Noelle: I’m also curious about this. What food did you start eating when you moved to Texas that was different from California?

Eric: Breakfast tacos for sure. Y’all know about breakfast tacos being a big thing. That was not a thing in California. We had breakfast burritos, but everywhere you go in Austin, there’s breakfast tacos and they’re delicious and I love them. So that was definitely probably the biggest.

And every time people come to visit from California, they’re like, “Why don’t we have breakfast tacos? We should start this thing in California. It would be huge.”

Noelle: So now we’ve taken a whole completely different direction. But now we have our fans that are like, “Oh, I say y’all too. And I eat breakfast tacos, and I’m from Austin.”

Did you have someone in your educational journey that you would consider your lighthouse?

Eric: So really, my wife that I met in teaching. She’s been such an amazing lighthouse for me and has pushed me to become a more passionate educator, I guess I would say. She’s started a food pantry at Del Valle High School, where I used to teach. She started the Women’s Empowerment Club there as well, and just does so much for not anything but just to help.

[She’s] not doing it for any incentives, because we know how it is in public education. You’re not getting paid more for doing more work. So that, for me, has been something that’s really pushed me to be a better educator.

Noelle: So, I met Firefly, who is your service dog.

Eric: Yes.

Noelle: Do you get to take her to school with you?

Eric: Yes, I do. So that’s been amazing. The last five years before I did adapted PE, I was doing AP World History. In that classroom environment, she was really good for helping with test anxiety, creating that classroom culture. And now working in adapted PE, she’s been amazing to help motivate the students. Just for students who are having a tough day, they feel safe and happy seeing her. So, that’s been awesome. And even actually having students, some of them are afraid of dogs, and then after getting to know Firefly, they’re not. They don’t have that same fear as much, so that’s been really cool as well.

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Eric's service dog, Firefly, has helped create a positive classroom environment, providing a sense a comfort and safety to students.

Noelle: Are there programs out there for families who might have a child that is disabled where they can find out about getting their own service dog? How does a family or a student advocate for themselves if they find observing you that that’s something that would support themselves?

Eric: Thank you so much for asking that because this organization actually, Canine Companions for Independence, they have been amazing. I found out about this program. I got hurt snowboarding when I was 18 and when I was in spinal cord injury rehab, because it was a spinal cord injury. One of my occupational therapists had a dog from the same organization, because you can have a dog as a therapist and that dog you like to work with your clients or your students or whoever it is that you’re helping. Or you can have a service dog through this program that’ll help you to have more independence in your life.

And so, after I met her dog, I was like, “Okay, I really want to get one of these dogs for myself too.” It’s a process, but if you go online, canine.org is where they are. And if you are a professional working in education, a therapist, counselor, you can also apply. They have all the info on there so you can see if it would be a good fit.

But I do advocate it in our meetings with students and parents. “This program would be a great fit for your child. You guys should really look into it because it’s free. It’s a nonprofit organization.” When she [Firefly] retires because, you work with the dog for six years, and so once she retires, I’ll move to the top of the list to get a new service dog and she’ll just be my pet.

So you keep the dog forever. Don’t worry. I don’t have to give the dog back. I know that would be like tear in my heart.

Noelle: We’re going to have to have you back on to the podcast because I have so many other questions. And I want to talk more about helping a child learn to advocate for themselves and understand themselves more based on you.

And how open and authentic and vulnerable you’ve been to share your story. When you go to work every day, what is the first word that pops in your mind? Do you have some sort of mantra or anything that’s a routine for you for mindfulness.

Eric: I really try to keep a positive mindset. Mindfulness is something that’s really important to me. And not getting like too wrapped up when you do have those tough emotions or are having those tough mornings. I don’t know if you’ve heard the song “Sunday Best,” where it’s like, “feeling good, like I should.” Having that kind of positive—even though obviously can’t always be positive—but having that as kind of a mantra.

Noelle: Well, it has been a pleasure meeting you. I definitely am going to follow you. I’ve got to figure out how we can continue to have conversations.

Eric: Yeah.

Noelle: And congratulations. I’m glad that someone recognized you and that you were selected as a Lighthouse winner, and I think you have a platform and a voice that needs to be out there and being heard. So, thank you so much.

Eric: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

Noelle: If you or someone you know would like to be a guest on the Teachers in America podcast, please email us at shaped@hmhco.com. Be the first to hear new episodes of Teachers in America by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you enjoy today's show, please rate, review, and share it with your network. You can find the transcript of this episode on our Shaped blog by visiting hmhco.com/shaped. The link is in the show notes. Teachers in America is produced by HMH. Until next time, your friend, Noelle.

The Teachers in America podcast is a production of HMH. Executive producers are Christine Condon and Tim Lee. Editorial direction is by Christine Condon. It is creatively directed, and audio engineered by Tim Lee. Our producer and editor is Jennifer Corujo. Production designers are Mio Frye and Thomas Velazquez. Shaped blog post editors for the podcast are Christine Condon, Jennifer Corujo, and Alicia Ivory.  

Thanks again for listening!

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