TU Season 2: Episode 1 - Mystra’s Story
By: Abby Twyman | August 1, 2021
“It’s time to show your true self. My name is Mystra the Mysterious Elf. I have a crew of Tipsy Unicorns, and we’re supported by our Thoughtful Krakens. If you know what it means to FBT, then you must be ready to get tipsy. Come on babe, it’s time to act. We welcome you with open arms, and that’s a fact!!”
Welcome to Season 2 of the Tipsy Unicorns podcast! This season we’re focusing on listening to people’s origin stories. We deeply believe that people need to be given the opportunity to tell their stories in the way that is most meaningful to THEM, and that it’s our responsibility to learn how to be better listeners!
Additionally, we need to share our stories openly and honestly, including the emotions and how we were impacted. This open release of information allows us to be able to live as our authentic selves. For too long we have tacitly approved the systematic and systemic oppression of ourselves and others. Based on my personal observations, I’ve come to the conclusion that things haven't changed because we have been conditioned to believe we are POWERLESS!!
It has taken nearly 10 years for me to finally understand that we all have the power to produce positive change in our lives, and it requires the creation and maintenance of brave spaces. These are places where we can fully tell our stories in our way. As we begin to share our stories we will soon realize that we are not alone in this world in believing things will never change. Yet you will also understand that when we show up for ourselves, we’re always right on time.
We truly believe, from the tops of our heads to the tips of our toes, that together we will create a more peaceful world. This is the only way forward. This belief comes not only from studying the science of behavior and learning, it comes from experiencing life as a cis-gendered, white woman who identifies as bisexual and neurodiverse, and has endured a lifetime of adverse experiences including intergenerational issues around mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, and psychological abuse involving racism, homophobia, ableism, classism, and sexism.
Before we begin, it’s important we acknowledge that the work we're doing is being done in Lingít Aaní, the traditional homelands of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people who have stewarded this land for millennia. We are forever grateful to the ancestors of this land and our intention is to always act in the service of ensuring cultural perpetuity for the benefit and betterment of all our future ancestors. We also acknowledge the cause of most chronic systemic issues in this world are rooted in our shared history of colonialism, racism, homophobia, ableism, classism, and sexism. We are committed to always acting in the service of our shared commitment to dismantle systems of oppression which serves as the foundation of our work.
Now… on with the show!!
Hello all you beautiful humans! Welcome to Season 2: Episode 1: Mystra’s Origin Story. Today you will hear the origin story of me… Mystra the Mysterious!
Mystra’s Origin Story
Today is Sunday August 1st, 2021, and it marks the beginning of what my husband and I lovingly call our birth-a-versary month because this is the time of year we celebrate our birthdays (8/10 & 8/27), our wedding anniversary (8/18), and the birthdays of all our pets (8/1). The other day, I was given the opportunity to share space with some highly motivated advocates who are fired up about creating positive change in our systems. Given that we’re in the last quarter moon of the Thunder moon cycle, it feels like the right time to make a little noise!
For my share today, I’d like to tell you the story of where I am today, and the 5 years leading up to my arrival in this space. This story begins in April of 2016 when I began to realize that there were many things about myself and my family I had been actively avoiding. This realization wasn’t pretty - there were lots of tears, a little yelling, and a strongly worded letter.
A little over a month later, I attended a conference in Chicago during which I heard many moving stories and had many pivotal personal experiences. It was soon after this that I began to realize I needed to make some significant changes in my life, but it wasn’t clear what those were. This was the time I began exploring possibilities about the next right action.
In July of 2016, my husband and I visited my family on Prince of Wales Island. Our mission was to enjoy time with family, and also to determine whether or not we were ready to make a huge shift in our lives. While I had spent the past 12 years serving neurodiverse people and their families, I had reached such a deep level of burnout that I needed to do something about it.
What we decided to do was sell everything we owned in Arizona and move back to Prince of Wales Island, where I had gone to high school, to help my dad and stepmom run their oyster farm. This was a drastic move, yet we were hopeful that this was going to be a great opportunity for us to use our individual talents and take a much needed sabbatical from practice.
We moved to Naukati Bay, Alaska, in February of 2017. What we had hoped was going to be a rejuvenating experience during which we would reconnect with ourselves, each other, and our family, quickly turned into a toxic cycle of coercion and harassment that was intolerable. We made the decision to leave the oyster farm in December of 2017. Yet, we remained in Naukati.
The decision to remain in Naukati was not easy, but the reality was that we had sold everything and spent everything we had to move up here. Additionally, part of the reason we left the farm was that we were not being paid. We had come up here agreeing to below minimum wage and the business was not even able to maintain that. Had we had more accurate data before deciding to come up here, we would have made a different decision, that’s 100% for sure.
At that point in time we were super broke and desperate. We were living on 4 acres of property my dad had signed over to us in June of 2017. Initially, we were living in a 5th-wheel trailer, but when we left the oyster farm, my dad and step mom demanded the trailer be returned to them as it was their property. That was true, so we returned the trailer in July of 2018. It took time to complete this transaction as we had very little money and no alternative housing options.
During the time we were still living in the trailer, trying to work as much as possible, and attempting to find alternative housing options, my dad continued to harass us in an attempt to drive us out of the community. He posted flyers around town, spread rumors, sent derogatory emails about us to the community, and when our paths crossed he’d posture threateningly. Despite all this, we continued to develop relationships in the community and live our lives.
We found an 8x10 wall tent on sale on a local buy-sell-trade page. The person selling it happened to have worked for the Forest Service training people, so he was able to quickly teach us how to set up and care for the tent. We took it home and for a few weeks slept in the wall tent, on the rocky ground, on an air mattress with holes in it, that flooded with water when it rained. We quickly built a platform on which to place the tent to get it up off the ground.
In this tent, we accommodated a queen sized mattress, desk, and TV stand/cabinet. It was very cozy, and we kept it warm with a small electric heater. We also got an electric blanket which helped immensely! And, we had our dog Marley to keep us extra warm at night! We lived in this tent until March of 2020, so just under two years. For part of this time we stayed at a rental cabin, at lodges we were caretaking, and at houses we were housesitting. But mostly in the tent.
During this time, my husband continued to work as a website designer, and I worked as many odd-jobs as I could find to fill my time and do my part to help pay our bills. What most people don’t know is that on August 4th, 2018, we had a lawsuit filed against us by my dad and stepmom which claimed they had rights to the property on which we were living and demanded it back. This is also the day I attempted to talk to him in person and was assaulted in response.
August 2018 to March 2020
In mid-August of 2018 I began working as the Migrant Education recruiter for Southeast Island School District. This was a very interesting experience. I was sent to Anchorage for training. During this time, I was able to visit with family in addition to attending the training. When I returned from the training I began the job of identifying families who qualified for this program. What was interesting is that it seemed this program was being used to pull more money into the school district to address the needs of economically disadvantaged students, but it wasn’t clear to me that there was actually a direct benefit to children and their families.
In December of 2019, a tragedy struck the Special Education teacher in Thorne Bay which caused the family to have to leave the community suddenly. This meant there was an immediate need for a teacher to take over her position. Given I had previously been certified as a special education teacher in Washington State, I decided to apply and ended up getting the job. This job required me to drive an hour each way from my home, to serve students in Thorne Bay and also serve students in Kasaan. The caseload seemed manageable given my skill set, and I was greatly looking forward to the opportunity to serve my community.
While the job seemed feasible given the drive, the caseload, and everything else I had going on in my life behind the scenes, what I didn’t know is that things were about to get complicated.
Soon after I began working as a Special Education teacher at Thorne Bay, my dad began posting extremely derogatory and defamatory flyers all over the island. Given the small and close-knit nature of this community, he was attempting to rally support from others in the service of forcing us off the island. What he didn’t know is that once I have a mission, there is next to nothing that can be done to throw me off my course. After seeing the state of the schools, I knew I had to stay and see this mission through to the end. No matter how bad he tried to hurt me.
The other thing that happened to complicate things was that in January, three students transferred into the Thorne Bay School who had extreme problem behavior secondary to having young lives filled with traumatic life experiences to which mine pale in comparison. The school district, and I, was not fully prepared to address the needs of these children. While the majority of my training and experience is serving neurodiverse children with complex needs, the environment in which I was being asked to serve these children did not meet those needs. Therefore, everyone in this situation was set up for failure, and created a toxic environment.
There are quite a few memories from this time in my life that bring me great sadness as I felt very stuck and didn’t know what to do. Not only was I trying to serve the needs of these children and their families, I was trying to support the teaching team who was grossly underprepared, while also attempting to navigate a working relationship with an aggressive administrator, and then add the context of the underlayment of what was happening in my home environment.
At the end of the school year, I decided not to return to that position as it was taking too big of a toll on my mental health and I was unable to serve the children effectively. During that 6 month period I had witnessed and been the recipient of intentional and unintentional physical and psychological abuse from members of my family, school administrators, school team members, and students. I didn’t do anything to try to fix the problems. I was shut down and needed out.
Over the summer I worked more odd jobs as a housekeeper and caretaker for a couple local lodges, as a landscaper for community members, and a weed farmer. At this time, I was also serving as the secretary of the Naukati Bay Community and Prince of Wales Chamber of Commerce boards. I just kept pushing, and pushing, and pushing… trying to find the path.
In August 2019, I began my second year as the Migrant Education Recruiter. While I was doing this job, I was also working on the details to launch our new venture Action for a Peaceful World. The plan was to provide continuing education courses for behavioral scientists who were looking for a change in their lives and practice that would start with making sure they were okay as individuals so they could show up as their authentic, whole, and effective selves.
During this time, we were also working with a lawyer to deal with the property lawsuit as well as frequently communicating with the prosecuting attorney in regard to the criminal case against my dad for assaulting me. All of this came to an apex between November 2019 and March 2020. This is also the period of time in which our dog Marley was hit by a truck, had her leg amputated, and then ended up dying on Christmas Day. We were staying at a local lodge during this time thanks to a few awesome friends. We stayed there until March 2020.
The criminal case against my dad was concluded with a guilty charge that got him sentenced with 10-days in jail, which could be converted to community service, and the requirement he undergo a comprehensive mental health evaluation. The civil case concluded with us agreeing to pay him and my stepmom $60,000 for the property he had originally signed over to us. We were more than OK with the settlement, if only just to be done with that era of our lives.
In January, an opportunity came up at Naukati Bay School to take over as a long-term substitute for the teacher who had been there but was being transferred to Thorne Bay School to take over for someone who was going out on long-term medical leave. This gave me an opportunity to see the challenges that were occuring in the General Education program as well as the Special Education program under the leadership of the new administration.
March 2020 to May 2021
From January 2020 to May 2020, I served as the long-term substitute teacher in Naukati Bay and I was supposed to function as both the general education teacher and the special education teacher. The school environment was very toxic with lots of coercive behavioral management strategies being implemented. Any attempt to try to address this was met with resistance and shifting of blame for chronic issues. Someone was brought in to attempt to help us with training, coaching, and support, but this had just barely gotten started when COVID hit.
Everyone did their very best in responding to the uncertainty that came with COVID. We all did the very best we could and there were definitely some good things that came out of that experience, such as the realization that one-on-one services delivered via the internet can be effective - and sometimes more effective - when working with students on remedial academics. We also took time to create professional learning opportunities for teaching team members to learn more about the brain, behavior, trauma, and how to support children and families.
During this time, an opportunity came up to serve the district as an Itinerant Special Education teacher who would serve students in Naukati Bay and Coffman Cove. This position seemed like the perfect opportunity to support the students, families, teaching team, and administration. It seemed as if all the stars were aligning and we were finally starting to make some positive changes under the new leadership. I was excited for the opportunity to be part of the solution.
Over the Summer of 2020, I continued to work on Action for a Peaceful World. At the beginning of COVID, after the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, we had shifted our focus slightly and were working to develop a program for behavioral scientists who were ready to take their work to the next level in the realm of applications to social justice movements. This is also the time the teaching teams and administrators were working on plans for the school year to mitigate the risk of COVID while also attempting to effectively educate children.
This was a very difficult period of time for everyone because we were all trying to do our very best to plan for an uncertain future - in an environment that was already strained.
In August of 2020, I began my new job as the Itinerant Special Education Teacher assigned to serve students in Naukati Bay and Coffman Cove. In September, following the abrupt departure of the Special Education teacher in Thorne Bay, I was told after an IEP meeting that I was being transferred to Thorne Bay the next day. This was a very difficult decision for me to accept because I was just getting settled in with my new students and families, and there were already myriad challenges we were facing due to having to follow a strict mitigation plan.
The other aspect of this point in time that many do not know about, is that there was a lot of toxicity in the environment due to the need for “continuous flexibility” and the use of coercive management strategies. It’s unclear whether or not any of this was intentional, but the impact was a constant undercurrent of toxicity that put everyone on edge. There were decisions being made that were questionable due to them being too quick and not effectively including all voices. This repeated pattern caused a lot of friction, tension, and stress for all parties involved.
I was given a draft schedule created by the administrative team that required me to drive to Thorne Bay on a daily basis in the morning, serve numerous students there, and then travel back to Naukati to serve the students there. There was no inclusion of students from Coffman Cove on the schedule, and there was very little time allotted for report writing.
Given that the majority of the students had files that were drastically out of compliance, there were many evaluation reports and IEPs that needed to be completed. While administrators would say in writing they valued the teachers’ time, and fought to uphold their rights, the reality was that it was expected to come early, stay late, and work on weekends. This was a very overwhelming proposition, and I responded via email indicating as such and making a counter-proposal that I felt would better meet the needs of the students, families, and myself.
My response was not well received, and a meeting was scheduled for the next morning. It wasn’t until I was almost to Thorne Bay that morning, that the panic finally set in. Not only was I already feeling unsafe and unheard by the current administration, I was going back to the place where I had experienced very traumatic experiences in 2019 under the previous administration. By the time I reached the parking lot, I was sobbing uncontrollably, and was gasping for breath.
That day, I worked the best I could and also had my meeting with two administrators. I began the meeting by self-disclosing that I had a panic-attack earlier in the day, was feeling unsafe and unsupported due to changes being made without being consulted first and seemingly without prioritization of student needs, needed to record the meeting to ensure I had an accurate way to remember given the impact of stress on my memory, and shared the history of trauma with the previous administors that was likely exacerbating my anxiety. The meeting went fine and I left feeling as though they understood my perspective and were willing to work with me.
In mid-September 2020, I held the Naukati Bay Community Echo Circle, which was my attempt to use the community organizing strategies I was learning to get feedback from the community as part of my work for Action for a Peaceful World. My intention was to utilize this feedback, which was directly from community members who were frustrated because they weren’t being included in decision making, to the administrative team of the school district. While I had spoken briefly to the team about this prior to me doing it, there was a backlash following this meeting.
The outcomes from this community meeting were shared with a few people on the teaching and administrative teams, but the response was lack-luster. They didn’t seem to think that this was valuable information which should be used to inform decisions. On the contrary, I was verbally berated by a fellow teacher, and was chastised over the phone by an administrator who took my actions to be an overstep of my position and a threat to her reputation with other administrators.
In late September and early October, there were a series of events involving a student with significant support needs for whom I attempted to advocate for appropriate services. Due to the fact the student had a history of being underserved, administrators were concerned about the potential for a lawsuit and were making decisions that were rushed and didn’t fully consider the context and best practices for serving children with complex disabilities and significant needs.
On the day we were to meet with the family, it was brought to my attention that the administrator was not going to be in attendance at the meeting. Given the sensitive nature of this case, I spoke with the principal and suggested she ask the family to record it for everyone’s protection. When I arrived at the meeting, the administrator whom I thought would be absent was there.
This was good news to me as I felt it was extremely important for her to take the lead in this conversation, but I was met with verbal harassment about the suggestion to record the meeting. She said something along the lines of, “you need to go put your phone and all other electronics in another room as you are not allowed to record any meetings unless the parent requests it be done. You can’t just record meetings because of your memory issues.”
Over the next few months, I put my head down and did what I could to simply meet the needs of the students and families as best I could. I reached out to multiple professional colleagues for advice and support. Their guidance was very helpful and guided me to begin advocating for myself and the team to be trained in Direct Instruction and Precision Teaching. It took a while to get this approved, but I was able to get funding for this which began in January.
While I was extremely grateful for the opportunity, it came at a cost. Because it was a rushed implementation, rather than a thoughtful and strategic one, it was challenging to learn, organize, train, implement, and supervise all at the same time. Additionally, during this time I was attempting to support students who were struggling due to the environment not being conducive to learning for those with behavioral and academic challenges. It was an extremely difficult situation because although I could see the problems, I couldn’t communicate effectively with the team in a way that would resolve these issues in a collaborative and sustainable manner.
Following an incident in which a student left the Thorne Bay school campus without permission, ended up being picked up and transported home by law enforcement, and the parent not being contacted by school administrators, I was contacted by the parent for support. The next day, I received an email from the administrative team that stated in no uncertain terms that my duties were changing immediately.
I was instructed to only work with students and families at Naukati Bay and Coffman Cove, not to contact anyone from the Thorne Bay school, and to leave everything to the administrative team. When I expressed concerns about discontinuation of intervention services, I was allowed to work on a very limited basis with a couple of students in Thorne Bay and two in Kasaan. This allowed me to continue providing guidance to a few team members as well as provide Direct Instruction services to a few students who were in need of remedial academic services.
Over the next few months, I continued to serve the students and the families as best I could given the circumstances. Near the end of March, teachers were beginning to receive contracts for the coming school year. When it seemed like all contracts had been given out, I became very concerned because I had not received one. This was odd because despite all the challenges across the year, it felt as though we were on the right track and moving in the right direction albeit slowly.
After reaching out directly to administration, it became clear that there was no motivation to find a way to keep me on the team. I received a “Notice of Non-Retention” and was given the opportunity to learn the rationale behind the decision and appeal it before the school board. The reasons stated were that enrollment was down, thus the budget wouldn’t support a full-time special education teacher, and due to the fact I was SpEd-only I didn’t qualify for other jobs. Additionally, it was stated that there was no need for Direct Instruction and that the current special education administrator was capable of managing all responsibilities.
Although I disagreed with the rationale and requested a hearing before the board, I made the decision not to appeal the non-retention, but rather to use the opportunity to have my voice heard by those on the school board who were charged with making informed decisions. This was at the very end of the school year. Once the school year was over, the first week of June, I hit the ground running on my campaign to effect positive change on the island.
June 2021 and beyond
We have established the beginnings of a network of community members, local organizations, and professional supporters who are similarly motivated to effect positive change. We’re on a mission to develop a network of people who are trained in Direct Instruction and Precision Teaching so they can provide effective supplemental educational support to learners on the island of all ages. There is a lot of work to be done, and we are very excited for the future!
Over the coming year, we are hopeful that we can come together to create a plan that is 100% for us and by us. To do this, we are going to need to gather all of our resources and focus on our shared vision and mission. We will start this process by spending the next 4 months gathering all the necessary people power and material resources to make this successful. This will allow us to fully train a team to be Direct Instruction Literacy Coaches, as well as get more people involved in this movement. Our goal is to create a model that will serve as a framework for meaningful and sustainable systems change that will ensure cultural perpetuity for all.
Our Gratitude and Invitation to YOU!
Thank you so much for listening to my origin story. The past five years have been quite an adventure and we are extremely excited for the future. For far too long the people of this land have been neglected. Whether this was intentional or unintentional, is relatively irrelevant. The reality is that it’s true and we can see this reflected in the current and historical data. At this point in history we have an opportunity to do something to effect positive change. We know where the problems are, we know there are tools and resources that will adequately address these challenges, and now we must commit to acting in the service of our values.
There are many ways you can get involved and support our work:
- Join us on Mondays at 5:00 PM for an action circle focused on organization: Click Here to Register
- Join us on Fridays at 9:00 AM for an action circle focused on implementation: Click Here to Register
- Share our work with your family, friends, and colleagues and tag #OurAO
- Support our work with a financial contribution: Our Go Fund Me
Given that the school year is starting, we’re seeing the emergence of the COVID-19 Delta Variant, and there is a National Movement starting focused on Educational Justice, we’re looking forward to engaging you all in the organization and implementation of our plans. As Helen Keller is often quoted as saying, “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much!”
Below is an outline of the starting point for our organization and implementation planning
#ACTwithPRIDE Action Circles - Community Transformation Projects
- What are areas in which there are socially significant problems? Discuss, Rate and Rank
- Teaching teams are not adequately trained
- Students not getting effective intervention
- Inconsistent scheduling
- Unsure of student assignments
- Parents having difficulty motivating
- Incomplete programming
- Complex programming
- Unclear about what they (paras and parents) can do
- Unclear about what we (teachers) can do
- Evaluations and IEPs need to be done
- Have not effectively collaborated
- Things moving too quickly
- Need to do home visits
- Need to meet many needs
- Feeling unsupported and misalignment of values
- Disorganized and reactive
- False sense of hope
- Kids falling further behind
- What would it look like once these issues have been resolved? Discuss
- Integrate and coordinate services across systems
- What are our shared values? Discuss, Rate and Rank
- Advocate Effectively
- Explore Possibilities
- Positive Influence
- Inspire Action
- Nurture Partnerships
- Values Voices
- Compassionate Care
- Creative Solutions
- Empowered People
- Energized People
- Harmonious Communities
- Honest Communication
- Inspirational Interactions
- Soulful Strategic Plans
- Proactive Solutions
- Collaborative Solutions
- Resourceful Usage
- Safe Interactions
- Whole-Family Service
- What are the potential options to get us from baseline to AIM? Discuss
- Applied Behavior Analysis
- Contextual Behavioral Science
- Neurobehavioral Education
- Positive Behavior Support
- Special Education Law
- Direct Instruction Curriculum
- Precision Teaching & Coaching
- Standard Celeration Charting
- Acceptance and Commitment
- Actively Caring for People
- Collaborative & Proactive Solutions
- PAX Good Behavior Game
- Self-Directed Education
- Personalized Systems of Instruction
- Foundational Toolbox for Life
- Appreciative Inquiry Method
- Strengths-Based Approaches
- What resources do we have available? Discuss
- What do we need to procure? Discuss
- How will we get what we need? Discuss
- Who will do what and by when? Discuss
- How will we do what needs doing? Discuss
- What are we committed to doing? Discuss
- How will we know we’ve accomplished our individual and collective goals? Discuss