When I heard that Julianna's amazing teacher, Nancy H., was retiring this year, I knew I needed to sit down with her and ask what she has learned from her impressive teaching career. I have seen amazing progress in Julianna since she's been with Mrs. H., and so appreciate her hard work for those students. During our interview, she also told me that Julianna is now giving her compliments about her clothing, which is a new thing. Almost every day, Julianna will tell Mrs. H. that she likes her clothes--there was one sparkly silver sweater in particular that Julianna liked so much that Mrs. H. said she might give it to Julianna at the end of the year. Thanks so much, Mrs. H., for your diligence and passion as a teacher! You will be missed!
How long have you been teaching? What drew you to the profession?
Total, 38 years. I have wanted to be a teacher since I was little. When I would go to friends' houses, I would play "teacher" with their younger siblings. I thought it was weird when people didn't know what they wanted to do in college, because I always knew what I wanted to do.
What types of classes and students have you taught?
I've done a little of everything--infant care at college campuses--I opened an infant center at UC Riverside. I've taught early childhood education at a community college, and all grades except high school. I've taught headstart programs, regular elementary school classes, and adult classes. But I've always been drawn to the inclusion classes.
Tell me about your own children.
Of my three children, my oldest is very "normal," but did have some minor issues with dyslexia. My son had much worse dyslexia and auditory discrimination issues and was placed in special education classes. This is where I learned to take a stand and defend him and make sure his class settings were right. This is what opened my world to special education. He has disabilities, but he's like any other kid.
What have you learned from doing the inclusion class?
I feel like teachers should accept any child that walks through the door. I make sure to modify the class for every student. To me, there shouldn't be the divisions. Every child deserves to learn, and it's my job as a teacher to adapt my curriculum to reach their learning. When they began doing inclusion classes, I volunteered, because I wanted to prove that it could be done.
I was sent to a inclusion training with another teacher, and I saw that students were helping other students in wheelchairs, and I remember thinking, "YES! Why can't it be that way?" It should be that way! I also learned more about autism, and my eyes were opened. It really is different for every child on the spectrum. I've taught the inclusion class for 5 years, but before that, I was the mainstreaming teacher, because they knew I liked having children from special education sent to my class. I've done that throughout my entire career, actually. This has allowed me to teach many different children.
What do you love about being a teacher?
What I love is sharing that experience when a child or adult gets that "a-ha!" and you see the light go on. I love that I get to be a part of that. Even smaller things, like a child that never takes his jacket off. I tell myself, by the end of the year, that jacket's coming off. When it does, it's like, "Yay! I did it!" The curriculum isn't as big a deal for me, because they can learn math or reading from anyone. It's all about those life-changing moments, when the child might say, "I can't," and then later can say, "I can." It's about the connections.
What do you not like about teaching?
When generalizations are made. I hate that they're separated just by age. I wish they would separate by subject, and have rooms with just writing teachers, and another room for the math, and then another room for being creative. I think more individualized help could be given. I don't like when students are made to fit in a box, or when teachers don't want to teach a certain student. I can feel my patience slipping, and I knew I needed to retire. I make sure to apologize to my students when I snap at them, or warn them if I'm having a groggy day! I like to be real with them.
What is the biggest challenge that teachers face now?
Being asked to do things that we know we can't do. A lot of the curriculum isn't developmentally appropriate, but some is. I love common core, and I've noticed that education cycles around. It's coming back to what we used to do when I first started teaching, where you try different methods to learn the same thing. Before common core, teaching used to be scripted, where all teachers had to teach the same page every day, and you had to move on even if they didn't learn it. It wasn't about mastery--it was more surface teaching. Now that we are doing common core and teaching 10 ways for math concepts, it can feel overwhelming for some students, but it's a change from what we are used to, and it will get better. Common core is helping kids learn more deeply, rather than the surface teaching. The testing has been so challenging, and some problems take 30 minutes to complete, but I think it will get easier. It's more than memorizing--it's finding what makes the connection.
How has being a teacher changed you?
I don’t think being a teacher has changed me. Instead, I think it has made me more aware of the differences in children’s life experiences and family make-up. Some students come to school prepared and ready to go, whereas others need lots of support. My goal as a teacher is more on the social/emotional development, rather than the academic curriculum. I feel if students are sound emotionally, then they can learn. I feel it is my job, my duty, to make sure they feel safe, loved, respected, and nurtured, then true “learning” can take place.
Have you ever wanted to quit? What would you tell new teachers that are struggling?
I have never wanted to “quit.” I just have, over the years, developed new goals or tried new things. If I became bored, I would switch grade levels or incorporate new ideas. I would never “quit” the profession. Facing retirement is kind of scary to me now. I would tell new teachers to just hang on-- things will get easier as time passes. Also, to focus on one area each year and strive for as close to perfection as you can get, but also realize that with each class, you need to change and adapt to their individual needs.
What are your feelings about special education in general?
This has been my “baby” for about the last ten years. I have a special needs child myself (minor disabilities) but a struggle none the less. This gave me a personal connection as to how these students are perceived and treated. I think, as a whole, we have come very far. My child was one of those that did not “fit” into a program. General education moved too fast for him, but special education was too low. It was a struggle. I feel that all students, with the exception of violent behavior issues, should all be placed in general education classrooms, with pull-out services, as needed, on an individual basis. I have had students, however, who are just “overwhelmed” by the size and pace of a general education classroom and benefited from smaller, more tailored programs. This is the main point--individual needs should be met for each and every child. It should not be determined based on financial reasons.
What is the biggest thing your students have taught you? What do you hope to have taught them?
The biggest thing they have taught me is the diversity of their families. It has made me think before giving assignments so I don’t set them up to fail, meaning, if they do not have a supportive family, or extra funds to spend on projects, I don’t assign them. We do those in class, and I provide the supplies. I never want a child to resent their family because their classmates “have more.” Family is first and should be that way. I hope I have taught them, first of all, that I truly care about them. Next, that anything is possible, that the things that have happened in the past can be changed, that things that are hard can become easier, and that they need to make their dreams come true by working hard and
finding support, whether that support comes from home, school, or their community. NEVER GIVE UP! That seems simple, but for some, it is their hardest obstacle.
Do you have any regrets?
Not really. I tend to think things happen for a reason and the changes I have made throughout my career have happened because they were supposed to. I feel some students have been placed in my class because I have been meant to help them. I have had some real challenges, but they all have had some positive results. There have been students, in the past, where I have feared for their futures or their safety. Those are the hardest to lose contact with. I have wanted to take some home. This is where being a teacher is very difficult--there is only so much we can do.
What legacy do you want to leave as a teacher? What do you want others to remember about you?
When I chose the inclusion class, I always looked at that as my legacy. I knew I was going to be retiring fairly soon, and I wanted to leave that mark, that it can be done, and very easily and successfully done. Don't let disabilities or medical challenges define the child--every child deserves the best they can get, whatever that best is. For some kids, it is a special education class, because it just won't work, but inclusion is worth trying. You make the school fit for the child, you don't make the child fit for the school. And you never leave any child at the door--you welcome them all in, with whatever they bring. That's what a true teacher is to me.
One of my college professors told me that you can be a teacher for 30 years, or you can teach the same thing 30 times. I have been in this profession for 38 years. Hopefully, I have changed and adapted to always meet the needs of my students for 38 years, especially on an emotional level and with positive, memorable, and motivating experiences.