When did you first realize you wanted to be a teacher?
My mom is a special education teacher and I grew up immersed in the incredible and awe-inspiring world of special education. As a small child, I went with my mom on home visits to families of children with special needs and as I grew older I began babysitting for kids with special needs and volunteering with programs that served the special needs population. Early on in my life, I knew that I wanted to work with children with disabilities in some capacity.
When I was in college, I met Ivey, a beautiful little girl with multiple disabilities including deaf-blindness. She wasn’t expected to live for very long. The severity of her disabilities caused many to see her as hopeless, worthless, and ultimately unteachable. We celebrated Ivey’s 10th birthday last year and I have had the privilege of being involved in her life and watching her break through the limits so many have placed on her time and time again. Ivey is largely responsible for me becoming the teacher that I am because I have been able to witness her becoming the little girl that no one ever thought she could be because of the dedicated, passionate, and relentless teachers in her life. My goal is to be that teacher for each of my students every single day that I walk into our classroom. I want to be the one that believes in them and pushes them, even when everyone else may think it’s pointless and impossible. Ivey’s story drives me to continue learning and pushing myself to do the hard work that no one ever sees or appreciates so that I can be the very best teacher for each and every one of my students.
Frederick Buechner said it best when he wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” To put it simply, I became a teacher of children with severe and profound disabilities because I was called to do it. A special education teacher is who I am and it’s who I was created to be. Working with my students and their families brings me profound joy and there is a deep need for people who are passionate about loving, believing in, and teaching students with multiple, severe and profound disabilities. My students also have a deep hunger to be noticed, to feel valued, and to learn. The work I do in my classroom day in and day out is the intersection of the world’s deep hunger and my deep gladness.
What keeps you in the classroom?
What keeps me in the classroom are the seemingly little moments that are game-changers for my students and their families. When a student uses their communication device for the very first time to independently request a turn, when a general education student says “hello” to one of my students by name and gives him a high five, when a student takes their first step in my classroom, when a student goes an entire community skills outing and stays on their feet the whole time, I feel compelled to stay in the classroom and teach and believe in students that many people don’t give a second thought. I stay in the classroom because despite all of the challenges and burdens of special education, each of my students deserves to have a teacher that looks past their disabilities and the things that they “can’t” do and figures out ways that they CAN learn and be successful.
What character qualities make great teachers?
I believe that the character qualities that make great teachers include patience, passion, perseverance, creativity, empathy, selflessness, dedication, and humility. I also believe that great special education teachers are often called to pull from these characteristics in a unique way. In order to teach students with disabilities that often result in challenging behaviors, great special education teachers have to be able to work with these students with patience and perseverance, working for small, steady gains over time.
Students with special needs also require teachers who can think well outside the box in order to meet their individual and unique needs. Instead of getting caught up in all of the things that students are not yet able to do, a great special education teacher must be able to look beyond disabilities and break through these barriers with creative ideas and teaching. I think my greatest quality as a teacher for children with severe and profound intellectual disabilities is a servant’s heart. I serve my students and I serve their families and to be a great teacher, I have to be willing to place my students’ needs as well as their families’ needs before my own in humility, selflessness, and love.
What is your favorite part of the school year? Why?
My absolute favorite part of the school year is when we put on our end of the year class production. Each year, in partnership with one of my colleagues, my class performs an adapted version of a favorite story, movie, or play. Over the past six years, our productions have included adapted versions of Beauty and the Beast, Charlotte’s Web, Into the Woods, The Little Reds, Jack and the Beanstalk and Mrs. Wishy Washy’s Farm.
We work on the scenery and costumes in our classroom for weeks prior to the production and my students are involved in every aspect of the play. We get students from general education classes to assist my students on stage. We record all of my student’s lines on their communication devices and practice using them in the weeks prior to the show.
The main reason I love this time of the year so much is that it is usually the only time in the life of my students that their parents get to come and watch them be the star of the show. My parents don’t get the opportunity to cheer their children on at T-ball games, ballet recitals, soccer games, or spelling bees. My parents have to be constantly engaged with their children in order to care for their complex and unique needs. Our play is usually the first time that my parents get to sit back and enjoy watching and cheering their students on. The pride that I sense from my students as well as their parents on the day of our play is such a sweet thing for me to experience and it’s what makes the spring play my absolute favorite time of the school year.
What is the funniest thing a child has ever said to you?
The first thing that’s important for you to know is that no one and I mean NO ONE loves shopping more than Muriz. It is also important to understand that Muriz is nonverbal and communicates with the use of a communication device. He looks forward to community skills all week long and asks on his device when we are going. Last year we went on a community skills trip to Wal-Mart. Muriz was thrilled to be going shopping with a loaded wallet and tons of ideas of what he wanted to buy.
He wheeled himself through the door right past the greeter standing there who said “hello” to Muriz. Muriz was on a shopping mission and he wasn’t stopping to say “hello” so I stopped him and told him that the man said hello to him and that he needed to say hello back. I was standing behind Muriz so I could see his device and I could see that he was not going to his regular greetings, but I was interested to see what he would say so I let him keep going. Muriz says, “Well hello Mr. fancy pants,” laughs, and then keeps rolling on in to Wal-Mart. I think he may have been a little annoyed that I made him stop and say hello when he wanted to go shopping so like any 8-year-old kid, he added a little attitude to what I asked him to do.
This is the same child that a few years before had no functional communication and now he’s not only able to communicate with others, but he is also able to show his personality and humor through the use of his communication device.
What is your favorite technology to use for engaging students in learning?
Without a doubt, my favorite and most important technology to use for engaging students in learning are communication devices. There is a quote that I have heard since I began teaching students who are mostly nonverbal. “Not being able to speak is not the same as having nothing to say.” My students may not be able to speak, but you better believe they all have something to say. Communication devices give my students the capability of communicating their wants and needs with me, their families, their friends, and their communities. Listen to them. Get to know them and you’ll start to see what I see in them every day: potential, importance, and a hunger to learn and to be accepted and included. These children are incredible and they deserve to be seen and celebrated.
When you give these students access to a means of communication and teach them to use it effectively, the world around them begins to open up and the possibilities become endless. People begin to see them for the amazing children they are and all that they are capable of. They are valuable and important and they have so much to contribute to our society. Just take the time to listen to my students. They may not be speaking like you and I, but goodness gracious, they have so much to say.
Everyone likes to know the morning routine of successful people. What is yours?
My morning routine is very simple. I always take showers at night because it makes it easier and quicker to get ready in the morning. I wake up, take about 15 minutes to get dressed and get ready, and take my dog outside. Then I spend about 10-15 minutes having a quiet time with Jesus, reading my Bible, praying, and doing a simple devotional. Then I usually take my breakfast with me in the car and listen to worship music on the way to school. By the time I get to school, I’m ready to hit the ground running!
What do you tell students when they need encouragement?
You are important. You are valuable. You are smart and capable of anything. I am on your team and I love you and believe in you more than you can imagine. Let’s figure out how we can do this together.
What do you tell other teachers when they need encouragement?
I want to remind you how important our job is. We have been given influence over the lives of impressionable children for an entire year. Let’s not waste our influence. Let’s not underestimate our influence. Every single child that comes through our door is here for a specific reason. Embrace them, love them—even when it’s not easy.