My first school assignment for Hillsborough Public Schools was as a permanent substitute at an Elementary Magnet School with a program focused on animal science. At this school site I not only taught pre-kindergartners through 5th graders in their typically teacher’s absence, I also assisted with the care of their animal lab collection (these animals included domestic pet species and were used strictly for educational purposes, no testing occurred on the animals). Most of our animal education focus was linked directly to our state standards however, we also explored all aspects of responsible pet ownership including how pets can impact our environment and local ecosystems if not properly cared for.
In my second year at this elementary school I was awarded a grant, Project PATH, through our professional development department. This grant covered the cost for me to complete an intensified Alternative Certification Program (ACP) in exchange for teaching exceptional students at a high needs school in the district for three years. This led to me changing school sites and actually becoming the full time varying exceptionalities teachers for grades kindergarten through 3rd at the very elementary school I attended as a child.
The first year in Project path was incredibly intense. Not only was I working full-time as a teacher serving and managing 36 students I was also attending classes nearly every Saturday while still participating in other professional development opportunities. At the completion of this first year I shared with my principal my desire to focus on our youngest students, our pre-kindergarteners. The very next school year I was assigned a specialized unit for three to five year olds with varying exceptionalities. The students who are in these classes have needs that vary greatly. While many of my students just had developmental delay several had other exceptionalities as well, such as autism, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, or chromosomal anomalies.
I spent two years in this specialized classroom and loved it. Having students with such varied needs challenged me to discover numerous different strategies to differentiate and scaffold my instruction so that all students were able to access the content and learn. It was amazing watching students come in with no functional language and after a year in my class be the most talkative child in the group.
Unfortunately at the end of the 2017-2018 school year the Exceptional Student programs were dissolved at that site. I spent the summer seeking out a position that was the right fit for me. As the summer came to its end I accepted a position at one of the county’s 50 Achievement Schools. These schools were identified as having the highest need for effective and innovative teachers. At my new school site I was assigned to a 4th and 5th grade classroom for students with severe and profound intellectual disabilities. This offered a whole new set of challenges and learning opportunities. Many of my students were “unteachable” in the eyes of my colleagues. I quickly discovered that the students nor their disabilities were not the root of this problem but rather our expectations that they had to learn specific material in a standard way. I learned that even in a specially designed classroom there was an expectation that we utilize prescribed curriculum. The problems I quickly discovered were that these students had been pushed through and lacked foundational skills to build upon and that curriculum can not be developed in a vacuum outside of the specific classroom as each student’s needs vary greatly. I worried about my students and their opportunities to gain independence and become autonomous over time. Reflecting on this position is what pushed me to continue my education and begin earning my masters.
Once accepted into a competitive graduate program I informed the district that I would be taking a leave to pursue my degree. I was asked instead to consider a job share position that would allow me to work 4-hour days and maintain insurance. The school I would be assigned to happens to be the very same one where I began my journey in teaching in a formal setting. So there I was, once again, teaching one last year.