Rachel Bossong, Carrie Ross and Abby Sparks huddled around Allison Latham.
One of them rubbed a sheet of paper up against Latham's head, another sang the alphabet song loudly, as another read a paragraph off a purple index card.
Latham, a brand-new exceptional education teacher at Barger Academy, was expected to listen to the paragraph and answer questions about the passage, despite the distractions and invasion of personal body space.
The educators, soon-to-be first-year teachers and employees new to Hamilton County, were taking part in a disability simulation workshop at Hamilton County Schools' second annual New Teacher Academy on Monday at Hixson Middle School.
The workshop was created by Luronda Jennings, exceptional education lead teacher for the Opportunity Zone. Jennings, who works with exceptional, or special, education teachers across the district's 13 highest-needs and lowest-performing schools, said it is her passion to make sure general education teachers are prepared for the varying needs of students with disabilities in their classrooms.
The activity was meant to represent some of the overwhelming stimuli that children with autism might experience. Educators also participated in a "simple math" activity that challenged their reading abilities against their ability to work quickly, as well as reading and language activities that gave them insight into other disabilities students face.
The workshop, Jennings said, highlights intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, language impairments and autism. It's meant to help teachers reflect on their mindset.
"That's the responsibility we have as the teacher, to see past [the student's] disability and embrace their ability," she said.
Jennings asked the teachers at the beginning of the workshop if they had taught or knew a student with an intellectual disability, but the reality is most teachers will have at least one student with disabilities in their classroom.
About 12.7 percent of Hamilton County students have a disability, and the district is working to move students with disabilities outside of self-contained CDC classrooms into more inclusive environments.
Teachers in 2018-19 saw more students with disabilities included in the general education classroom, and that can pose an additional challenge for new teachers who are just trying to ensure a lesson will work for any of their students.
"A lot of time we spend a lot of time focused on developing a perfect lesson, but we forget to think about if it'll work for a few students with special needs," said Brandon Jackson, a soon-to-be-seventh-grade math teacher at East Lake Academy.
Jennings said teachers needed to build relationships with their students in order to teach them successfully.
"You really have to get to know your students, and get to know their disabilities," she said.
Developing relationships was the overall theme of Monday's New Teacher Academy. Other sessions that new teachers like Jackson were able to attend included sessions about developing relationships with families, tutorials from administrators on how new teachers can develop effective relationships with their bosses and networking opportunities with other new teachers.
"Relationships are the single most important factor in the classroom," said Erin Kirby, induction specialist for the district and mastermind behind the New Teacher Academy. "Developing relationships with students, with their community and families, and with their administrators."
The New Teacher Academy includes five days of training, starting district-wide on Monday and narrowing down to subject or content areas and then individual school levels. It's one of several strategies, including pairing new teachers with mentors and developing a new teacher network as part of the district's new three-year induction program that district officials credit with increased retention rates of first-year teachers.
At the end of the 2018-19 school year, nearly 90% of Hamilton County's first-year teachers had signed on to teach a second year.
One such teacher, Kayla Bowman, of Daisy Elementary, said the New Teacher Academy and the support she received last year was part of the reason why.
She spoke on a panel alongside another second year teacher, Catherine Casselman of East Side Elementary, and teachers Brenda Morris of DuPont Elementary and Tabitha Beck Christy of Red Bank Elementary.
They fielded new elementary schoolteachers' questions about managing their classrooms, work-life balance, the literacy curriculum and how to set up centers.
Katie Howell, a soon-to-be Pre-K teacher at Alpine Crest Elementary, said most of all she's just nervous for the first day of school.
"I'm nervous about having to set expectations, establish routines and follow the schedule," Howell said.
The panelists told her not to worry. Even though Beck is going into her fifth year of teaching, she still worries about oversleeping her alarm. The kids are not the only ones nervous, Beck said.
Bowman laughed and said in Pre-K, like in kindergarten, they would be hyper, nervous and crying. Morris told her not to take the tears personally, and Casselman told Howell to "find her marigold."
"Find the teachers who are hyped and pumped up and excited about the first day, and stick with them," he said.
Contact Meghan Mangrum at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.