A Matter of Panache: A Career in Public Education. A Traumatic Brain Injury. A Memoir of Surviving Both
by Debra Sanders

Outskirts Press, 2008. ISBN 978-1-432-72816-8.
Reviewed by Martha Meacham
Posted on 03/23/2010

Nonfiction: Memoir

Imagine that your whole career depends on your intellectual skill and ability to solve learning problems for special-needs students. And, then imagine this scenario about that same career. What would it feel like to have significant memory impairment? How would you deal with the frustration that your brain malfunctions in highly stressful situations?

Fortunately for her readers, Debra Sanders' voice in her first book, A Matter of Panache, is not diminished in any way. Ms. Sanders is still a powerful writer even after traumatic brain injury.

Regardless of her own situation, the author urges us all to strive for excellence and do better serving our students in public schools. Debra's passion for her work helps her confront her situation and spurs her on to continue to help students with her whole heart. The overarching lesson she imparts to teachers, parents and school administrators is that we can improve on how we serve our special populations of students. We need to not only abide by the law, but we must adhere to high ethical standards.

Debra begins her story in Alaska where she works for 15 schools in the Bering Strait School District. Almost like an anthropologist's ethnography, she describes herself traveling among remote Eskimo villages and sleeping on school floors. In her own words she is "a village hopping, tundra-trekking school psychologist." She tells of the 1980's in the friendly voice of an intrepid young woman adventurer. From her writing, I can hear the wind howl, feel the sting of the cold and see dogsleds pulled by huskies.

The author's vivid descriptions of breathtaking scenes in Alaska and expansive vistas of Utah and Colorado are the back drop to the events that lead up to the auto accident that forever changed her life. Her career highlights are overshadowed by the gripping tale of her life after her accident. It is her compelling account describing cognitive overload while trying to effect change for students that touched my heart.

She describes working with her colleagues in Alaska in an ebullient voice:

Where there are no limits placed on what one is able to try, instead of energy being siphoned away by frustration and negativity that often comes with working within bureaucracies, each person was fed, nurtured and enhanced by the collective energy of people working together.

For anyone involved in teacher education or the educational reform movement, you will find yourself cheering on the author as she speaks out in advocacy for her children. I cringed when I recognized attitudes of administrators and teachers that I, too, have known to choose to take an easy way out, rather than exert the effort needed to reach a child at risk.

This personal story reveals both intimate life details and also a great deal about how public schools serve special populations. Even more emotional than her affection for her dogs, is her depiction of her relationship with Denise, her sister of the heart. Debra takes us along on the journey of her love for this close friend and her family. From the top of her game as a beloved and respected practitioner, to the depths of doubt, a frightened and overwhelmed woman, never once did she lose sight of her mission of bringing best teaching practices to students in need.

From serving children with diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, to students with cognitive differences and learning disabilities, to limited English speakers and children with Asperger's, the author adheres firmly to her ethical and professional standards to do better to advocate for children in the schools, and states:

We must do better in training educational administrators to model what they advocate.

This book sheds light on how it is that schools are able to resist systemic changes regardless of abundant research on methods that work. I recommend this book for the casual reader who is looking for armchair adventure. My professional opinion is that this book needs to be part of the curriculum for every teacher preparation program in the U.S.

First time published author Debra Sanders has been an educator for 20 years, as a school psychologist in Alaska, Utah and Colorado. She is a survivor of traumatic brain injury, though the extent of injury at first was dismissed. She is advocate for special population students. Find out more about her on her website.

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