As a child, I can remember the time and effort my mom put towards her students. She was and is one of the most passionate and innovative special education teachers I know. She worked with moderately to severely cognitively impaired students and students with severe physical disabilities. Growing up and visiting her classrooms left an enormous impact on my life. I always knew that helping others wasn’t a choice, it was a life mission. I wanted to be a difference maker.
My personal journey as an educator started a little over a decade ago. In high school, I had the opportunity to co’op at the center based special education school where my mother taught. I worked with six to eight year old students with moderate to severe cognitive impairments. During my time at the center, I learned the joys and challenges of working with children with special needs.
While completing my undergraduate degree, I had the opportunity to student-teach in many diverse settings: general education, a self-contained room for children with emotional impairments, a resource room for students with learning disabilities, autism, cognitive impairments and behavioral disorders, and students overseas in South Africa. I also had an opportunity to partake in a practicum/research study involving children with autism.
Upon graduation, after six years of training, I felt fully capable of beginning my first teaching job as a 5th grade resource room & truancy academy teacher. I always believed in hands-on, project-based teaching methods, however, because of the piles of IEP paperwork and short group times with the students, sometimes my best intentions were not indeed, the best.
I connected with my students and always strived for the best. I incorporated theater and student choices into my curriculum. One of the bonuses of being a special education teacher is that you are able to be creative. You are not always given a“set” curriculum to follow like your peers. The students you receive haven’t learned to read, write, or do basic arithmetic YET and you get to use your fancy tricks to get them where they need to be.
At the end of my first year of teaching, I traveled to Belize to grow & learn as an educator. In Belize, I met my future husband, and after just one and a half years of teaching in the resource room, I moved to Placencia, Belize, to be with the love of my life and start a family.
Moving to Belize has been epic for my growth as an educator. I helped develop a small private school and although I planned to teach upper elementary students, after an emergency situation, I was asked to teach preschool. Preschool?! I quickly tried to soak up as much information as I could, taking online High Scope classes & researching best practices.
I honestly wasn’t really sure where to start. Going from 10–13 year old students to 3 year olds is a HUGE shift. My first year teaching in Belize, I learned through mistakes and continued to grow in my ideas about education. I learned that the little ones soak up everything. I learned that all students need differentiated instruction, and that play-based learning is the most developmentally appropriate for 3–6 year old students.
My second year of teaching in Belize I worked with students ranging from ages 5–8 years old. I was beginning to find myself. I realized I couldn’t reproduce a truly effective curriculum because every year my students were different. How could I ask someone to develop their own classroom environment & lessons based on something I developed to meet my own student’s needs? I also realized I wanted to learn more about incorporating yoga & mindfulness into my lessons. I wanted to learn more about nature & sustainable education.
Last year I developed and led a small home-school cooperative, Free Spirit Learning. I used student-led inquiry & my methods were greatly inspired by the Reggio Emilia Approach. I also learned not to put myself in a box or try to have ONE solution to working with diverse learners. I incorporate many different approaches & theories in my teaching, but why do I need to choose one?? All human beings are complex creatures who learn, live & love in such different ways. Our children are born with natural curiosity. They have their own questions & their own ways of finding solutions.
Along with finding new methods to introduce ideas & concepts, I began reflecting on my current behavior management system. I felt like my young students were becoming obsessed with “bad” and “good” and I started hearing the language being used constantly. “So and so is in yellow today. He/She made a bad choice.” I decided I wanted to encourage intrinsic motivation with more positive language. Peaceful language.
So…. I started researching peaceful teaching methods. With a combination of my new mindfulness knowledge and yogic philosophy, I began using the word “peaceful” and created a chart with Peaceful & Non-Peaceful behaviors. We discussed what these peaceful behaviors looked, sounded, and felt like. We read stories about characters who displayed peaceful behavior and characters who didn’t. I started using a kindness jar. We started meditating in class. We spent time outside. We connected with animals. We created Safe Trees so students could visualize safe places when feeling upset. We talked through our problems during circle time.
These new methods can be uncomfortable at times for a trained special education teacher who spent the past eight years teaching in public/traditional settings…but I have to say, I saw results. Not immediately, but slowly I saw kindness & peace infiltrating through the walls of my classroom. The way I interacted with my students changed. The way my students interacted with each other changed.
As educators, we must ask ourselves if the approaches we use cultivate kindness, understanding, and curiosity within our students so they can develop self-worth & become ethical members of society!
This blog is dedicated to my continuous journey as an educator. Please join me as I start from scratch and ask myself, “What is education?” Please share, comment & connect with me! I LOVE feedback! 🙂