As the new year begins and we start setting professional and personal improvement goals, I think it is always helpful to look back at why we do what we do. I sit down and write down the WHY behind all of my effort, all of the long hours, and what helps me stick it out through physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing days at a job that most do not understand.
My Personal Connection
Both my mom and my stepdad have PhDs in Special Education. You could say I was born and bred to be a special educator. When my mom was getting her PhD, I remember picking up one of her school books and reading about something called “Autism”, which I was completely intrigued by. I didn’t know at the time that I was already impacted by Autism through family members, fellow classmates, and people in the community. I have always been a helper personality and a champion for those who struggle.
When my mom married my stepdad, I gained two sisters. One of my sisters is an absolutely brilliant, successful professional woman who is also on the Autism Spectrum. One explicit teaching moment we had when our families blended into one home was needing to put a script by the phone because my dear sister would pick up the phone and not say a word. This obviously confused a lot of people before we built in the accommodation of having a script there for her.
That was just one of the little adjustments that we made for her in our home. Ultimately, her intelligence, uniqueness, focus, and drive has brought her to a place where she has multiple degrees, a great career, owns her home, has fulfilling personal relationships. She sees the world differently, but not incorrectly. She approaches life in a different way and lives a life that I can only imagine. I look up to my little sister in so many ways.
As we know as teachers, our first job out of college is a lot of luck of the draw. As new professionals, we need to take what is offered even if it is not what we envisioned. I knew that I wanted to work with low incidence special education populations, but I could not have pictured the classroom that I was ultimately hired for. I had very little understanding of minimally/non-verbal populations even after obtaining a degree in special education. My first years were some of the hardest, but most amazing years of my life. I loved my students with my whole heart, as I still do. In those first years, I had very little idea what I was doing day to day, but I showed up for them over and over.
I have come to know and adore over 100 individuals on the autism spectrum and with intellectual disabilities over the past 13 years. I get choked up when I think about how much they have taught me and grown me over the years. They are so worth all the work and effort and energy that doing this job has required. They are worth the occasional injury along the road to more appropriate behaviors. They are worth the stress and worry as they graduate, gain employment and begin a path to their futures. They are the most beautiful, brilliant, loving individuals I’ve had the pleasure of knowing.
My Fellow Parents
I gave birth to my oldest son, Wes, 12 days before I started my student teaching. While that was incredibly hard and I would never suggest someone go the same route, I have benefited from never been a teacher without also being a parent. The longer I teach, the more one role affects the other. As my own children grow and reach new stages, my understanding of other parents grows as well. As I have encountered challenges in their education, where I have felt the need to advocate for them, my empathy and commaradery with my students’ parents grows. I have definitely become a better parent because of my teaching and a better teacher because of my experiences as a parent.
Ultimately, I want to love and care for my students in a way that I would want my own children to be loved and cared for when they go to school. I want the parents of my students to know that they have a teammate and a partner in the challenging road they walk with their child/young adult. I go through the effort to communicate that I would want my boys’ teachers to do for me. I celebrate them and see them for the amazing individual that they are, just as I see my own children. A big part of my WHY is to be the teacher that I would want my children have.
My Fellow Teachers
Lastly, a huge part of my WHY is the community of educators that I work alongside and those that are spread far and wide. The turnover rate in our community of special educators is close to my heart. I have made it past the one, three, and five year humps to get to a point where I have done this over a decade. I know that I do not know everything, but I am eager to learn. I know that I have not faced every challenge possible, but I know where to turn when I do. I want others to get to that point as well.
I want others to feel like they have a community to turn to. I love The Autism Helper community for that. In my first year teaching, when I felt totally lost, I found TAH and the printable activities, tips, and community that I found, helped me through! If you haven’t already, begin to engage with this community and find your people, even if they live across the country or across the globe. We all want other teachers to not only survive, but thrive, together we can do that.
For all of these reasons, I can make it through the hard days. I can make it through tough interpersonal conflicts. I can find the energy to show up and make a difference. I hope you take time at the beginning of this second semester and identify your why.