Joanna Brown Learning Letter

The MARIO Framework

After arriving at my current IB world school in Baku, Azerbaijan to serve as the whole-school learning support (LS) coordinator, I immediately realized how much exciting work there was to be done. The school had a rapidly expanding LS student population, many new team members, budding differentiation and inclusive practices, a desire to start a gifted and talented program, and two rather disjointed divisions of school operation. From different daily and weekly schedules to overall management systems, the school operated in such a way that made any whole school collaboration feel almost ‘split personality ’- not an uncommon occurrence at international schools but a challenge nonetheless.

I started my coordination work by creating more universal referral/assessment processes, developing whole school International Individual Learning Plans (IILP), arranging for external therapy and testing services, and organizing schedules and training for the LS staff. One year later, our LS population was hitting record highs as our school had been labeled the international school for learning needs in the region.

By the end of my first year, with 60+ LS students and not enough teaching staff to support the numbers, our department was stretched. Looking out for my fellow LS colleagues’ well-being, I taught well beyond the full-time teaching requirements while maintaining my coordination work. On top of all this, I received the daunting task of creating a Learning Support Handbook to unite both divisions. I was thrilled with the opportunity to create more alignment and clarity throughout the school, and bit by bit, in collaboration with various administrators and departments, I transformed the previous 10-page policy into a 64-page handbook, rich with resources that communicated critical LS information and outlined our processes and roles accurately and effectively in each section.  

Soon into my second year, our administration recognized my leadership potential and kindly offered to add a new primary LS coordinator position for the next academic year to divide the overwhelming job between two divisions, so that I could develop our services in more meaningful ways, ways that would directly impact student learning and well-being. In other words, with my attention solely on the secondary school, I could fine-tune and expand our inclusion services and even create a gifted and talented section of our program that the school so longed for. Everything was finally feeling like it was all coming together; the LS department was genuinely becoming synched up across the school to serve all exceptionalities.

Cue the pandemic.

“Disjointed” now became a dreamy description. Most of our campus was scattered around the globe, and our school’s instruction went fully virtual. Those of us who remained in Azerbaijan were thrown into a four-month quarantine with only two hours outside each day upon police SMS approval. How we all heroically scrambled to make it work for all students and staff! Wellbeing became the name of the game, and we were continually checking on each other as a school community while focusing on getting through the rest of the year with as many students actively engaged and sane as possible.

Finally, in August, the quarantine was lifted, and we had the freedom again to be outside and enjoy the rest of the summer. Our school prepared to return to campus for hybrid learning in mid-August, even though much of the population remained dispersed and unable to leave or return to the country. Still, I remained optimistic that this hiccup would not interfere with all the progress we had made as a department, and now released from the primary section of the school, I was ready to tackle the hurdles of the new year.

We had three glorious weeks of hybrid learning, and on September 27th, a very unexpected war began between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Stress levels were at an all-time high. This whole period was extremely surreal for everyone in Azerbaijan. The school remained online with teaching hours extending far beyond the norm to help the growing number of struggling students, but we didn’t know if we were properly assisting parents and students in this new reality. Further, how could we enforce proper engagement from an ‘audience’ so distracted by all the events unfolding in the world around us?

The new normal was here. With shifting pandemic rules, safety operations, and of course, the oh-so-personable face masks, our students were crumbling in these unprecedented times. It seemed like every classroom was in need of support, as every teacher worked to the bone to help their students slowly recover from an era that we could scarcely process. Equally taxed, our primary and secondary LS teams adapted quite independently to meet the evolving demands faced by each section, and with sweeping senior leadership team changes, the two levels were now again operating very differently from each other. I felt deflated after so much hard work to unite them previously.

Then, The MARIO Framework entered my life.

My good friend and previous colleague and I often message about our latest practices and job developments. Like most special educators, we are mostly alone in our quest to find the latest research, best programs, and teaching strategies out there for our students, so we love staying in touch through this passion. I was introduced to the framework via an Instagram message chat, when she asked me to check out this remarkable course she had taken recently through The MARIO Framework. Knowing our similar mindsets and callings as educators, I investigated immediately and could not stop myself from enrolling in the first course.

The framework with its research-based approach, called The MARIO Approach, turned all my teaching idealism into reality. It took all the personalized and high impact teaching practices that I loved to the next level, added more I had yet to consider, and backed them all up with a surplus of reliable and current research. Even more amazing, the framework itself provided a flexible structure to allow for the pervasive and consistent implementation of its one-to-one conversational strategies. In my past application of some high impact teaching practices, I would unpack and practice them with students in isolation, almost as a unit of exploration. It never occurred to me to utilize them in harmony through a naturally evolving, on-going conversation with a student… where the student is directed to lead the conversation!

After completing the MARIO Educator Level 1 and 2 Certifications, I clearly saw how it could be the innovative solution that my school needed for alignment  while also providing an innovative platform for gifted and talented instruction. The course shook me out of the pandemic slump and kick started this gestalt shift within me. The MARIO Framework truly allows educators to “fall in love with teaching all over again,” and it couldn’t have come at a more needed time. Through its measured practices, we educators can empower all students to become experts in their own learning and recuperation, so we all become more resilient and evolve in our practices as teachers and learners.