The new teacher walked into the classroom and looked across the room at her students. They were a small group, mostly Autistic and Down’s Syndrome. They were seated in their desks, a small group of Middle School students in a self-contained classroom that included a kitchen area, a washer and dryer, and a bathroom. The classroom also contained shelves of activities, books, and manuals. Most of the students couldn’t verbally communicate, but she sensed that they were as apprehensive as she was. How, she wondered, can I get across to these students and teach them what they need to know, not only academically, but socially as well. Most were used to staying in the classroom most of the day and not interacting with regular students outside the classroom. They also needed training in how to take care of themselves and begin a journey of independence.
Regular classroom lesson plans and curriculum were not going to work for this group of students. The new teacher would have to be creative and develop her own lesson plans and activities to meet their individual needs. With help from the paraprofessionals, she would make a schedule and use the most of the time she had to teach and interact with the students. This is the job she had hoped for, and she was going to make the most of it. She knew she was meant to be here and she was determined to teach them what they needed to know.
The first order of business was to develop a rapport with the students. She introduced herself and went over the basic classroom rules, then set out to get to know each student on an individual basis. One thing she knew from past experience was that if she could develop a good relationship with her students, she could get them to cooperate better and follow through with their work assignments. The key was to make learning fun and interesting, and to make learning as hands-on as possible. That meant lots of praise and prizes. A picture choice board was put on the wall, giving the students a choice of fun activities they could do when their work was finished.
Teaching her students was going to be a challenge. Some of them had difficult time retaining information. She would go over the same concepts time after time with little signs of progress. Sheer determination kept her motivated. Lots of hands-on activities were done to improve basic life functioning skills. The students helped with simple recipes, cleaned the floors and tables, and sorted laundry. They not only helped in the classroom, but were also responsible for going to the cafeteria after lunch and help clean tables and sweep. Their reward was free ice cream or chips from the cafeteria ladies.
The students also participated in what was called “calendar time”. Every day, they changed the date, sang the days of the week and months of the year, and posted the day’s weather on a wall chart. (Singing instead of reciting was more fun and helped with retention.) This seemed to be their favorite part of the day (besides snack time)!
Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months. Diligently, they worked on academic skills, personal hygiene, communication skills, vocational skills, language skills, and reading or recognizing letters and numbers.
Outside the classroom, her student’s attended Art and P.E. Toward the end of the year, they went on fun trips, exposing some of them to places they had never seen before. The teacher tried to turn these trips into learning experiences.
The year went by quickly. Pretty soon it would be time to have the pre-summer largest ice cream sundae party, a tradition the teacher had with every class she taught. A large bowl of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice cream were topped with all the trimmings: chocolate syrup, nuts, cherries, M&M’s, and whipped cream. The students sat around the table and marveled at the huge dessert concoction they had helped put together. As all the students ate, the teacher remembered everything that had happened throughout the year, both good and bad. Some of the students would stay another year. Some would move on to High School. It would be hard to say, “Goodbye”.
After school dismissed on the last day, the teacher hugged each child as they left the room. She completed all the necessary paperwork, took inventory of supplies/learning materials, and packed up her personal things in boxes labeled with her name. Her life’s work was in those boxes. Each year, she saved pictures of her students so that she would never forget them.
Being a Special Education teacher was hard work, but it was her calling, her destiny, and the only thing she wanted to do with her life. She was not just a teacher, she was a learner. There was a lot to learn from these students with special needs. She would be back next year, starting the learning process over again. As she walked out of the classroom door carrying the last box of belongings, she smiled and locked the door, leaving an adventure behind her that would continue for years to come.