This is the latest in a series of blogs by a partnering cohort teacher.
By Stephanie McKenzie
At the beginning of this school year I decided to take a leap from my very comfortable position as a 2nd grade teacher to Special Education. I had spent the first 5 years of my teaching career in Special Education, but regardless this was a leap that required a good deal of thought and faith. I was nervous, anxious, and very overwhelmed at first, and believe me there are still days of these same feelings, however, most of all I was excited and ready to rise to the challenge. I thrive on challenges and I love working with students in a small group setting, as I do in my resource classroom. It enables me to really get to know the students, to develop a great understanding of their needs and their passions, to help them develop a love for learning, and most importantly to build relationships with them so they feel they have a support system when needed.
What I didn’t expect was the resistance that came as I began to meet my students. Many of my students had been taught by the same resource teacher for the past several years. The educator that was previously in this position is amazing, truly an inspiration to me and so many others. She had formed relationships with these students that allowed them to feel comfortable even through their struggles and challenges. At first, I couldn’t understand why I was unable to make them feel comfortable and form the relationship that is necessary to allow students to succeed. I was striving to get to know everything I could about them, I had read all the IEPs, talked to their current and former teachers and felt like I had an overall picture of each of my students. Creating a welcoming classroom atmosphere had never been an area of teaching that was a struggle for me. What was I doing wrong?
What I didn’t realize is that my students were about to teach me just how important it was to let students know they are valued members of the learning community. During several lessons students would ask to play games they had used in the past. I would often answer, by saying we would do that another day so that we could continue with the activity I had planned. However, I never returned to their request. I did not ignore their thoughts on purpose, I was learning, I was trying to figure out what worked best for my new groups of students. Then one day as I sat trying to plan a new lesson, I started reflecting on what I had done and decided to try one of the students’ ideas. The next week, I did just that. Their excitement when we played a game they had suggested was a surprise to me. In the same week, this group of students began to share things about their family and friends. They began to talk to me about what they thought was easy and what was challenging. They were finally opening up to me. What had changed? I had showed them that they can trust me. I showed them that when they talked, I was listening attentively and considering their ideas. I showed them that I trust them as learners who have an understanding of their own needs.
Teaching includes so many components. Constantly we are planning lessons, make decisions, managing behavior, grading, etc, however, what my students taught me is above all that we need to be listeners and we need to gain their trust so that we can work as a team. I also knew relationships were important, but this year has been an eye opening experience to their true value.
Stephanie McKenzie graduated from Wheeling Jesuit University in 2007 with a bachelors degree in Elementary Education with a specialization in Multi-Categorical Special Education and a minor in psychology. During her senior year she was awarded Student Teacher of the Year. She then began her teaching career as a Special Education teacher in Hampshire County, WV, where she taught for 4 years. Here she was awarded Teacher of the Year for Augusta Elementary School. She then returned to her hometown of Wheeling, West Virginia and has been teaching at Woodsdale Elementary for the past 8 years. During this time, she has been involved in many leadership opportunities, including Trainers of Trainers, Local School Improvement Council, and Diversity Team. Stephanie is a member of Cohort 3 of the Data and Technology Fluency Project. Her special interests including crafting, teaching dance, and spending time with husband and twins.