I came to special education teaching only two years ago but with decades of professional practice in art, music and performance.
Art and music making strengthened an out-of-the-box thinking. Performance introduced me to mindfulness in order to overcome crippling performance anxiety. I learned to self-regulate my nervous system and re-frame my experience of fear to one of excitement; same sensation, new interpretation.
These are the experiences that helped to prepared me for special education.
One of my responsibilities as a Life Skills teacher is to teach the Common Core Standards and Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills through prerequisite skills. Sounds boring? It’s not. There are no boring topics, only uninspiring teaching methods. As the saying goes “You can lead a student to class but you can’t make him learn.” Not unless you create interesting lessons that are relevant and engaging to all students. That is what I strive to do.
I hook the students through storytelling, both read and impromptu, thus engaging the whole brain. I use mystery artifacts taken ceremoniously out of a paper bag allowing students to be the detective and make their own connections. During writing time some students might write a story on paper, two might use a computer while another gathers photos from magazines to piece hers together. On Friday they take turns sharing from the student decorated “Author’s Chair”. A hands on model making structured play group activity that is teaching social skills might be referred to later in relation to a math lesson on symmetry, geometry, probability, measurement or counting by 2s.
However, little learning can take place unless students feel safe, accepted, loved and seen. Students can bring with them a host of behavioral challenges, in some cases due to possible undiagnosed developmental or complex childhood trauma. However whether a child’s nervous system is activated due to trauma or as a symptom of his or her disability (ASD, Prader Willi Syndrome, Emotional Disturbance, OCD…) the result is the same. Activated nervous systems have little access to the pre-frontal lobe where executive functions are housed. Students need to be able to calm themselves. Mindfulness can be a useful tool in teaching kids about the Zones of Regualation. They learn to look at their emotions non-judgmentally. The simple act of naming an emotion “I feel angry” puts a distance between the emotion and oneself, allowing the opportunity to choose the next action. Daily repetition of simple procedures when calm can teach a new behavioral vocabulary from which to choose.
Learning new behaviors, skills and information is an adventure that never needs to end. As a self professed life-long learner, sparking this same interest in my students is the gift that I can offer them. I learn from my students daily and I tell them so. I watch them blossom in the belief that they have gifts to offer to. And when I make mistakes, I apologize. I love the warmth on their beautiful faces the moment they realize that I am just like them and they are just like me; good at some things, but not perfect.