My sister the doctor (of education): Part three.

Wherein we finish this series about my sister, Dr. Juliana Nichols-Hazlett.

Last we spoke, Juliana had not yet begun her career in special education. She hit the ground running, first teaching in Canyon and Amarillo, TX. She found her footing there and began to develop her educational style. She positively impacted many students and their families and made enduring partnerships and friendships with her colleagues. During this time she was awarded District Teacher of the Year—an amazing accomplishment for any educator, but for one just a few years out of college it is astounding. Even more impressive was that she went on to win Teacher of the Year for the entire Texas Panhandle region, placing her in the top sixteen of all teachers for the State of Texas that year. That she got these awards is impressive, that she won these awards as a SPED (special education) teacher is damn near impossible. Can I get a “Hell Yeah!” for my badass sister.

Mom, a “Heck yes!” would also work.

One of the things that comes up in the scholarship repeatedly in my sister’s doctoral dissertation is the othering and neglect of SPED educators by the American educational system. How they are relegated to second class status, not by any nefarious plot, but almost more maddeningly, by an indifference that thinks that it is benevolent. This is my editorializing, but SPED students, in general (there are exceptions, obviously), do not bring in the academic accolades, high standardized test scores, scholarships, and football trophies that make school districts look impressive, thus they are considered less important. No one would say this out loud, of course, but their actions are deafeningly loud. Juliana has made it her mission to celebrate and lift up these students and their teachers, and getting her doctorate is in service of her being able to better help this community of learners and educators.

After Amarillo, Juliana came to Chicago. Her career in my adopted city did not begin auspiciously. She went from teaching underserved children in a decently-funded school in a medium-sized city to teaching on the South Side of Chicago in the notoriously dysfunctional Chicago Public Schools. CPS is dysfunctional and tragicomical in the disparity of its funding. There are public schools in Chicago that issue laptops and tablets to every student, but there are ones like my sister’s first school that do not have toilet paper or soap for the students. My sister was expected to provide them out of her own pocket. She’s a veteran of TP and hand sanitizer shortages going way back.

The supply room at my sister’s old school.

She was teaching a full load of regular education classes, while also being expected to do inclusion and IEPs (individual educational plans) for the SPED kids she was also teaching. We lived together at this time, and every day she would leave early, come home very late, and be just bloody exhausted. She had taught poor children before, but this was the first time where the majority of her kids were living below the poverty line. There was some acting out, violence, and general kid discipline problems in the school, but Juliana connected with her kids very quickly and did the best she could to see them as children that wanted to learn and not the “problem children” that society saw. Other educators marveled at how well behaved her classes were, but the only secret was that she made sure that every student in that overcrowded class was seen and heard as a person first and foremost. Neglect, abuse, and poverty were a part of many of these children’s lives and Juliana began to see the real driving force in the academic lives of her students was trauma. Trauma stalked the halls of the schools that Juliana taught at, robbing so many children of their potential. Trauma was burning out her peers. Trauma was everywhere. Juliana decided to do something about it. While teachers can and do have impact on individual children, they are stymied when seeking systemic change, and so Juliana decided to go into administration.

Juliana got her first masters degree in 2012 in school leadership, and was an acting vice principal for her last two years in Chicago. She continued to have a large positive impact on many students and teachers, but six years ago—almost to the day, a tragedy happened that changed her life and career forever.

RIP Marc Campbell aka Lil Marc

Marc Campbell was the first student my sister met when she came to Chicago. He immediately tried to test her and acted out writing “Ms. Nichols Smells Like Dick” on the whiteboard. Juliana gave him the most blasé look imaginable, and asked him in an even more blasé tone, “How do you know what that smells like?” Laughter erupted from his fellow students, and Marc knew that Ms. Nichols was no mark. Marc never entirely stopped testing her boundaries, but Juliana and Marc developed a bond and understanding based on love and respect that lasted until his untimely death. He was her favorite. In spite of himself. I met Marc a few times while he was my sister’s student, and I will never forget his sad, old beyond their years, eyes. Nor shall I forget the twinkle that would temporarily go into his eyes when he would smile his wry, crooked smile. RIP Marc.

Just days before his murder, Marc, who was a drill rapper and member of a South Side gang called 051 Young Money released a diss track calling out other rappers and rival gang members alive and dead. The track is called “No Competition”, and Marc had considerable skills as an MC. He was made of charisma. I will put a link below, if you wish to watch it. Content warning: a lot of implied violence and guns.

Needless to say, Juliana was devastated. So devastated that she decided to move back to Texas. That was not the only reason, but I do believe that it was a large one. That summer she packed her car and her dog Emmy, who was banned for life on at least one airline, and moved back to Texas.

RIP sweet and naughty Emma Louise aka Emmy Lou aka Devil Dog aka Emmy Loudini.

After moving back to Texas, Juliana worked as a vice principal, an adjunct professor of education, and as a specialist in professional development, acquired a second masters degree in special education and has now completed the work for her doctorate. Going forward her passions are going to be in trauma-responsive education for students and in social and emotional well-being for adults.

A couple of years ago she had what she describes as a professional faceplant that changed her whole worldview. In an excellent podcast episode that I will link below, she tells this story far better than I can, but I will do a very short summary. Having always prided herself on being “kids first” in her approach to education, she just assumed that the teachers who agreed with her were her people, and that the others who didn’t have the same approach were well meaning but incorrect. While the majority of responses were positive, she was upset to see that some of the staff evaluations of her as a vice principal labeled her as bossy (something she’s been called since she was a two-year-old), dismissive, rude etc. This upset her greatly, and to her immense credit, she didn’t try to shrug it off, but sat with how bad it made her feel, and then decided to change some things about herself. Which is the hardest work there is. She has been working on this for the past couple of years while getting a masters degree, a doctorate, and holding down two jobs. You never need to wonder why my sister is a hero to so many people, myself included.

Y’all can listen and ponder the mystery of why I’m the only member of my family without a Texas accent.

Juliana is currently trying to help the SPED teachers of her district figure out how to best deliver distance learning to special needs learners on the fly. She is also writing a book on trauma-responsive education and the social and emotional well-being of the adults that are engaged in it. She lives in Dallas with her husband, Curt and dog JoJo.

On a completely personal, but newsletter related note:

Juliana is a huge supporter of me and this newsletter. People who wish to can have a paid subscription to this blog. It is totally and completely optional, but the day that paid subscriptions went live, my sister was my very first subscriber. It was so touching. I think that that vote of confidence made me take it seriously enough to keep it going when I would have already quit normally. It meant so very much to me and was so encouraging. Thank you to her and all of my other paid subscribers. I think that those paid subscriptions haven give me the confidence to get back up and try again, even when I have fall down or am going through a depressive episode.

On a completely unrelated note:

On Sunday I made a short film that was inspired by this Facebook post of my friend, Tiffany Todd.

It was also inspired by the many, many posts from other Facebook friends that show that they are clearly not social distancing. Thank you to my wife, Jennifer Peepas, for filming and directing. It’s called “Stay the Fuck at Home”, and is based on “Go the F**k to Sleep” by Adam Mansbach illustrated by Ricardo Cortés, made most famous by the audiobook which was read by Samuel L. Jackson. I would love for Mr. Jackson to read my little homage if any of y’all know him.

I would also like people that can, to stay the fuck at home. It is dedicated to my other sister, Jessica, who is an ICU nurse bracing for the day that this pandemic crashes down on her already stressful work life. She cannot stay at home—so if you can, please do. Link below.

Thank you, as always, for reading.

Drop me a line:

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Marc’s video, “No Competition”:

The podcast where Juliana is the guest:

My short film:

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