Where did you grow up?
I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri.
What type of person were you in high school?
I was, and this is actually true to this day, I still have friends who say, ‘you didn’t belong in any one group’ and so I had friends in lots of different groups. I was a dancer, I used to dance in the high school musicals. I was the editorial page editor for my school newspaper. I was a swimmer, I was the captain of the swim team when I was a senior.
Was there anything that influenced you to work with students with special needs while growing up?
That’s an interesting question. My interest in teaching was really cultivated by my high school history teacher. She helped me really turn around because I wasn’t really doing well in my tenth grade year. I had her for my junior and senior years and I just became a much better student because of her, and so that’s where that began. As to working with special needs, my brother has done that for a very long time… at first, it was very difficult and I wasn’t sure I made the right choice, but now I’ve adjusted and I really really love it. Like I don’t know, if somebody said to me ‘would you like to work in general education English,’ I think I’d miss my kids that need extra help. I’ve gotten too attached.
Did you have friends or family members with special needs?
You know, that’s an interesting question too, because I remember being in elementary school and a couple kids really struggled, but in that era, we didn’t have the awareness or the kinds of services we do now, so I feel like I was empathetic to kids who had special needs but went undiagnosed. I remember kids being labelled with when I was a kid was ‘hyper.’ We didn’t have ADD or ADHD or all those kinds of science that we have now. We didn’t understand what autism was, as well as the different ways kids learned. I think I’ve just always been aware when people around me are struggling.
Ultimately, what made you become a special education teacher as opposed to your average subject teacher?
So that decision really starts as simply, I had my masters in English and I was doing the credits I needed to become a teacher. I applied to the teaching fellows, and what that does is that it enables you full time while you’re working on your masters… I could’ve just continued down that road, but I went for the fellows because I thought I was ready to jump in with two feet and see how it goes. I have my masters and if I didn’t like special ed, I could move into general education. But I did wind up really liking it. I liked my special ed students and I felt really strongly that they need advocates and I think as a special ed teacher, there’s this special role for you to kind of translate for the special ed students to the general ed students on why they’re struggling and what you could possibly do to take the struggle away. Who knows? Maybe in a couple years I won’t feel that way and I’ll be ready to go teach gen-ed. For now, I’m very happy.
What would you say is the most important requirement to work with students that have special needs?
Patience for sure. Also, learning the importance of building a relationship with a student, which takes a lot of patience because it takes them a long time to trust their teachers. Learning to not respond emotionally when a kid gets angry with you, like learning that it’s just a symptom of the disability and not personal. I think sometimes, kids with special needs are nervous about their work. Like sometimes, they surrender to their teacher. To the teacher it might seem like you’re just not doing your work and you’re lazy, but it could be really a matter of a deep insecurity, so also learning to bring that awareness to your teaching, so that you’re not punishing a kid and shutting them down, when what they probably need is some time and encouragement.
What is one life experience that shaped who you are?
When I was 22, I lived and worked on an organic vegetable farm in central Pennsylvania for a year and while I was there I happened to witness the man I was working for ,who owned the farm, getting killed by his neighbor with a shot. So I was a witness to a murder, so I would say that was pretty life-altering. That happened on my fifth day at the farm and I stayed there for a full year because I was pretty convinced that if I left I would never understand the factors that led to the conflict resulting in this homicide. And so I learned a lot from writing about it.
What do you most like about BSGE?
Oh, I love BSGE. First of all, the kindness of the general education towards the special education students is wonderful. I’ve seen general education students be incredibly thoughtful and kind to my new ninth graders. The students are thoughtful and kind in a way I haven’t seen in other schools in NYC. Also, I think the level of intellectual engagement that goes on in this school, not just with the kids, but among staff members. I feel like I work among an extraordinarily smart and intellectually active bunch of teachers. I really like Ms. Johnson. I feel very supported. I feel like if I have a concern, it will be addressed. There are many other things that I haven’t experienced in other NYC public schools that are happening here, like feeling validated, feeling supported, feeling like everyone wants what’s best for the students, and feeling like the focus is always on what’s best for the kids.
What’s your favorite thing about your students?
Ah, their uniquely individual personalities. And I feel like this is another thing about BSGE, you guys are together all day, and yet each kid is like their own person. The kids here don’t run around in packs and cliques and become like each other. I feel like BSGE is a space where everyone is being whatever person they want to be, which is wonderful.
If not this job, what would you be doing?
I would love to be a full-time write, but I also love what I do, so if I can do both, I would continue to do both. I really like teaching.