Some see disabilities. Special education teachers see possibilities.
These educators work with students who have special needs. They want to help the students who struggle to learn. They’re not only educators but also advocates.
It is a career which brings much joy but often frustration and exhaustion. Special education teachers are expected to organize and plan activities which are geared toward each student’s ability; assess students’ skills to determine their needs; and teach and mentor students one-on-one, in small groups and as a whole class. They must also write individualized education plans, grade papers, set up and attend meetings, and complete endless paperwork.
The job of a special education teacher is both demanding and rewarding. It requires these teachers to juggle multiple responsibilities while working with their students.
As Monday marked Special Education Day, we’re sharing three local special education teachers’ stories of why they chose to devote their careers to a very special profession.
Lila Barnett has been a special education teacher in the West County School District for 29 years. She currently teaches grades 9-12.
She became a special education teacher because she wanted to make a difference in students’ lives.
“My students are like my children,” she said. “They know I am there for them but they also know I will correct them in a second if they are not making a wise decision.”
Barnett said she is unlike most people: she enjoys change. “If you have been in a special education classroom, you get plenty of change. Every day is a new day, and you face a new challenge daily.”
She said her students want the same thing every other student desires: to be accepted by everyone.
“I tell my students that everyone has strengths and weaknesses.”
Barnett’s favorite quote is by Robert John Meehan: “Every child has a different learning style and pace. Each child is unique, not only capable of learning but also capable of succeeding.”
She strongly feels teaching special education is not a job but instead a passion.
“It’s always rewarding when a student comes up and says, ‘I would not have made it through high school without you,’” said Barnett. “You are the reason I have my diploma.”
It’s also heartwarming when a former student tells Barnett that he or she became a special education teacher because of her.
Barnett said these comments are the highest compliment her students can give to her.
She recalled a student in the late 1990s who she went to retrieve from class. After the student was in her class and it was time for her to return to her homeroom class, the student often refused. So Barnett decided to give her a piggyback ride to class. One day before she started to take her back to class, the student asked for Barnett’s first name. Barnett told the student that she had to find out her first name. The student told Barnett, “It doesn’t really matter because one day when I have a girl that’s going to be her name.”
Almost eight years ago, that student called Barnett and told her she was going to have a girl.
“And yes, I’m naming her after you,” the student said.
Barnett said this was such an honor to know she had made such an impact on this student and that she would want to name her child after her.
“I was honored, and yes, she does call me ‘MawMaw,’” said Barnett.
She recalled another story – this time with her own sons with her – at the grocery store. Barnett made the comment when she added something to the cart, she was getting that “for my kids.”
The response from her sons was, “Is that for your real kids or your real school kids?”
Barnett said special education does have many challenges: the mounds of paperwork and other factors which make it difficult for the educators to focus on their jobs, their students.
“I would change the mounds of paperwork that is expected for me to do my job but what teacher wouldn’t,” she said. “We spend a large amount of time on paperwork and we could utilize this time more efficiently with our students.”
The most difficult part of her job is usually not being able to correct the everyday factors that keep any child from concentrating on learning and “just making their world better by taking away their distractions so that they could concentrate on learning and becoming productive citizens.”
During her time at West County, the district has added its Special Olympics sports program with bowling and unified basketball. The district now has sports which the students can participate in throughout the school year. They have bowling practice in October to prepare for their tournament in December.
Unified basketball is from December until they play at Mineral Area College during the conference tournament.
In addition, the students participate in the MAAA conference, track and field, and travel to the Cape Girardeau and Springfield games each year.
“I love watching the students compete in everything,” said Barnett. “I am their biggest cheerleader!”
She has attended Special Olympics for the past 24 years.
“When they have the ceremony at the beginning, it still brings tears to my eyes,” she said. “If you have never watched Special Olympics and watched the obstacles these athletes overcome to compete, I highly recommend you go sometime to watch.”
Barnett said last year a senior who received an athletic scholarship to continue his baseball career was asked during his interview what one of his most memorable high school moments. His reply was, “being part of the Special Olympics. It was amazing!”
According to Barnett, when parents recognize that teachers have dedicated their time and energy into their passion of teaching and coaching Special Olympics, it feels amazing. Whether it’s a text or kind words, these small gestures mean the world to her.
Barnett has also been instrumental in helping to add a prom and Job Olympics to her school district. The prom was added about 15 years ago and includes an invitation to students in the MAAA to participate.
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“We learn to meet people and socialize with other students from other schools,” said Barnett. “It gets us out of our comfort zone but is a good tool to use so that we are working on job skills.”
For the Job Olympics, students from the area compete against each other in job skills such as bussing tables, stocking shelves, custodial simulation and more. They also complete a job interview and resume.
Barnett said the district’s first Unified basketball game is Tuesday against Ste. Genevieve at West County Middle School in between the seventh and eighth grade games. She said all MAAA schools have a Unified team except Fredericktown and Potosi.
Tina Rice is a 9-12 special education teacher in the Arcadia Valley School District. She has been in this position for the past six years.
She did not plan to become a special education teacher. But her plans changed when she was hired as a paraprofessional in the classroom in which she is currently teaching. By the end of her second week, Rice knew exactly what she wanted to do.
“I feel like being a special education teacher is my way of giving back,” she said. “I am so blessed each day when I am able to see my students grow and learn new skills that will last them a lifetime, not just until they graduate.”
Rice’s favorite part of her job is her students and being able to teach skills to her students that will last them a lifetime.
“When they graduate from AV, they walk away knowing how to care for themselves to the best of their ability, and I want them to be as independent as possible,” Rice said. “These skills will help ensure that.”
She said they learn more about life in her classroom than most students will ever be taught in high school.
At Arcadia Valley, they have a program called Tigers in Transition. Twice a week, students go into the community to local businesses where they are trained to do different jobs. Some of the students are accompanied by a job coach, while others are trained by the local businesses. Students are able to be paid through grants written by the high school’s special education department.
“The best part of this program is each year we have multiple students hired by these businesses,” she said. “This enables our students to continue working even after graduation.”
Rice said the most challenging part of her job is making sure all the educational needs of her students are met.
“Every student has the ability to learn, but each learns in their own unique way,” she said. “It is my job to determine the best way to help that student learn.”
Rice said her room is not a typical math or English classroom where teachers start fresh each year with a new group of students. Instead, Rice picks up after summer break where they left off at the end of the previous year. They add to skills they have already learned so students become independent, hard-working and mature young adults.
One skill students have worked on with Rice is preparing a meal. Each year she and her students prepare a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. They cook everything including a turkey, real mashed potatoes with gravy, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes, stuffing and corn. Students use recipes and read instructions on the packaging in order to cook the meal.
“This is our favorite time of year,” she said. “After the meal is prepared, all the students eat together in the classroom just like one big family.”
Rice shared a special story from her first year of teaching. She and her students were discussing clothing and what type should be worn depending on the situation. At the time they were discussing bedtime and how pajamas were the appropriate attire when one student raised their hand and asked what pajamas were.
After an explanation was given on what pajamas were, the student asked, “Wait, you wear certain clothes to bed? I wear my blue jeans to bed. This is all I have.”
Rice’s heart broke for this student. So for Christmas that year, a group of teachers came together and bought pajamas for this student and gave them to one of the local agencies to deliver so the student and family had no idea where the gifts came from.
“After Christmas break, the student returned to school with exciting news to share with the class about how they had received pajamas for Christmas,” said Rice. “It was one of their favorite gifts.”
Kristi Cleghorn is a 6-12 special education teacher and head coach for Special Olympics at Ste. Genevieve. She has taught at the district for seven years.
Cleghorn said she became a special education teacher because of the profession’s lucrative income.
“Just kidding!” she said.
She was initially hired as a paraprofessional for the same school district from which she graduated.
“I was lucky to work with teachers and administrators who challenged me and I decided to finish my bachelor’s degree,” Cleghorn said. “I was eventually hired to teach in the same classroom that my sister had been in when I was a student.”
Cleghorn loves her students and watching them grow. She also enjoys teaching others about diversity and inclusion.
“Every single person is important and serves a great purpose in our universe,” she said. “It’s unfortunate when people are excluded; we have so much to learn from each other.”
Cleghorn said her students are always capable of learning. Although they might have a disability, they want what everyone else wants: jobs, homes, friends, a boyfriend or girlfriend, to go out on the weekend, and experiences.
“They have emotions,” she said, “and they want to be included.”
Cleghorn and staff started an inclusion group at school to help create a more positive climate for all students. Then students of all abilities worked together to create a talent show to showcase the skills they developed together.
Over the summer, Cleghorn ran into several groups of students who were having fun and noticed that her students were included in those social activities.
“It was overwhelming to see the friendships that everyone had made,” she said.
As for anything she’d like to change in special education, Cleghorn said she always tells her cadet teachers that the most challenging part of the job are the adults.
“Adults with little to no educational experience set and make laws about educating students,” she said. “They make laws about how I should do my job even though they’ve never worked in a school.”
Cleghorn said the other difficult part is the stigma that education has.
“People constantly blast educators on the news and social media, and it hurts to see so many haters when I know there are teachers who truly love kids and make a difference,” she said. “The number of good, hard-working teachers definitely outweighs the bad seeds.”
Cleghorn said, “When you love what you do, the good outweighs the bad.”
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