Finding Your Own Thing

I am a special education teacher. I love what I do.

I created this blog to share with parents and teachers everywhere the many wonderful lessons I’ve learned about how to best manage students with special needs.

Over the past 17 years, I have worked professionally in children’s ministry and as a teacher. Along the way, I discovered that most all special ed students have one thing which will motivate them. In each entry of this blog, I will share one of my student success discoveries. The names of the children have been changed to remain anonymous. My hope is that these stories will help you understand better ways to motivate students with special needs.

My first special ed classroom was in a small town in Mississippi. I had the 5th-8th grade, self-contained classroom. In the room, I had students with autism, down syndrome, traumatic brain injury, and one with cerebral palsy. KC, was my student with CP.

In a self-contained classroom, students stay in the same room and receive instruction in all core curriculum areas. I had two amazing assistant teachers who helped me with restroom & feeding needs as well as one-on-one assistance with tasks like scribing for students with physical disabilities. KC was the sweetest kid. However, he was completely dependent on the assistant to write for him. One characteristic of cerebral palsy is the inability to control movement. Without warning, KC’s arm could have a massive reflex and pop whoever was in the way right in the nose. Due to the close proximity of KC, the teacher assistant would get punched at least once a week. While the assistant was surprised each time, she assured him she knew he didn’t mean to do it. I could tell though he felt badly about it. I knew he wished he could write independently, so he wouldn’t hurt anyone.

During my first year of teaching, KC was in the 5th grade. Because the school had me teaching the same students for four years, I got to know them very well, and they all trusted me. The students, assistant teachers, and I were like family. Over the four years, I watched in amazement how the students learned how to write, read and calculate math, making progress each year. KC gained in cognitive skills much faster than his hands would allow him to go. He grew impatient depending on others. One day he decided to put a pencil in his mouth to try writing. Although this wasn’t the safest of options, I encouraged him to try. After suggesting a clean pen, he managed to write a few words. Each week, he improved to where he was writing sentences. I was ecstatic! KC had learned how to do it his way, and I was so proud of him. Most importantly, he was proud of himself.

KC started designing race cars by drawing sketches with the pen in his mouth. He told me he wanted to design cars for a living when he grew up. With tears in my eyes, I told him, “I believe you will!”

KC was a kid in a wheelchair, completely dependent on those around him to do everything… or so we thought. He could have responded angrily and frustrated because of the challenges he faced. But instead, he persevered and found his way to do things on his own. He had found his one thing. I knew then, I’d found mine too.

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Finding that one thing

It seems I’ve worked with children all of my life. I did Vacation Bible School during the summer when I was a youth at my church. I earned a BS in Child Development, so I could run day cares. Then, just when I thought that was my future, God called me into Children’s Ministry. It was a good life until my personal life got in the way. My pathway changed. I found I really loved working with kids who need a little more.  I became a teacher for students with special needs. 

My first time to work with kids with special needs was at Memphis Oral School for the Deaf. I was an assistant teacher working with 4 year olds who either had hearing aids or cochlear implants. Our goal was to teach the children to hear AND to speak. We didn’t use sign language. It was a hard job, but I loved it dearly. Each day, I saw children learn how to communicate. Being able to hear and talk was something I’d always taken for granted. The stories of this school opened my eyes to never take anything at face value. 

I was walking with my class outside to the playground one day. One of my students had just received his 2nd cochlear implant the week before, and it was his first day back. The school is in the flight path for Fed Ex. Large planes fly over everyday, but on this day, my student stopped and yelled, “I can hear the airplane!” He had never heard it before that day. Tears welled up in my eyes, and I hugged him. I said, “You are going to hear so many things!” MOSD gave kids the opportunity to celebrate new sounds and words. It gave me the chance to see that all kids have one thing…one thing that motivates…one thing that inspires them to learn more.

The amazing thing about my discovery is that each child has something different which motivates. It’s a teacher’s job to figure out what that “one thing” is. Not to mention, that “one thing” might change and probably will as the child grows in knowledge and understanding. We, as teachers, have to constantly build relationships with our students to be able to identify the motivating force. Of course, there are some star students who want to learn in order to make the teacher happy. Others do it for the thrill of getting a good grade. Students with disabilities usually don’t fit into either of these categories. They have to work harder to understand concepts. Teachers have to work harder to teach them. 

I had been teaching self-contained students for five years when I changed from middle school to 3rd-5th grade. Honestly, I thought my job would be easier. I would not have to deal with hormones and kids who were bigger and stronger than me. While these aspects of my job were true, I found other challenges to be just as significant. One of my students had lots of special needs. Her birth mother had been addicted to meth when she had the sweet child. “MK” had many physical disabilities as well as being autistic. She was adopted by two people whom I will always claim as saints. This couple brought her home and gave MK a life filled with laughter and love. 

MK had a chromosomal defect which gave her brittle bones and the inability to feel pain. This is a terrible combination of problems! Another problem which MK had developed on her own was that of being stubborn. She loved to throw herself on the floor or grass and laugh. I think she knew that no one could pick her up for fear of hurting her. This allowed her to establish control in a life where she had little. She also loved to run. She was incredibly fast for a girl with so many physical problems. The day I met MK, I knew I would have to find her “one thing” quickly!

I believe God gives each person talents. One of my talents is to sing. While I am not the best singer, I do my best and try to share my gift with others. Teaching in a self-contained classroom gave me opportunities to sing during “Circle Time.” It was my favorite time of the day. We sang educational songs about the weather, silly songs like, “Wheels on the Bus” and I would even take requests. MK loved to sing, “Happy Birthday!” 

When I was in college studying child development, I learned some guidance techniques. My favorite is telling students, “As soon as you do this, you can do that.” The idea is having the student complete a not-so-favored task in order to have the chance to do one they favor. This gave me an idea. Each time MK went out to the playground and did not want to come back inside, I would tell her I would sing, “Happy Birthday!” as soon as she went inside with me. I loved it the day our principal joined us outside and got to see this technique in action. Mrs. J saw MK fall on the ground when it was time to go in. She said to me, “Oh no! How will you get her up?” I smiled and said, “MK! What would you like me to sing?” She hopped up, ran to me, took my hand and said, “I want “Happy Birthday!” Mrs. J stood there in shock and awe. Pretty sweet, if I do say so myself.

My life has changed once again, and I am teaching 4th graders in the virtual setting. Most of the time, I communicate with students in the chat box or microphone/speakers. Typically, I do not see my students. It is more challenging to get to know students if you can not experience their non-verbal communication. Not seeing student’s reactions makes it difficult to understand their motivation. The beauty of teaching children is that they find a way to make their voices heard.

I hope you will join me on my adventures of motivating students. I will not always have the right answers to your questions, but I hope my stories can inspire you to keep trying to find that “one thing.”