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It would be an unfair service on my part not to share her insight of special education while noting the importance of quality humans caring for our autistic children.
Q: Tell the autism community about yourself.
A: My name is Jensin Jose, I graduated in 2012 from West Chester University with a dual degree in Early Childhood and Special Education. I am currently making progress towards getting my master’s in Special Education through West Chester University. I am a Special Education Teacher and have been teaching students with Autism just over 5 years.
Q: When and why did you choose to be a special education teacher?
A: It sounds cliché, but I have ALWAYS known I’ve wanted to be a teacher. Since I can remember, I knew that nurturing small minds and watching my students grow is what I was meant to do. From playing school to obsessing over school supplies, to the fun I had with my own experiences with teachers and school it was always in me to teach.
Choosing Special Education actually came later, while in college. I had a field placement at The Timothy School, the school I am at now, and it was my first experience working with students with Autism!!! And let me tell you, it was life changing.
The students, though challenging, were inspiring. I was in a classroom of 4-5 boys and the teacher and aids (some who are still there!) were so welcoming. You could just tell that the staff actually cared for the students and were there because they loved it. Not for the riches, not for the fame, but for the rewarding feeling you get at the end of the day. I know I wasn’t there long, but it’s all I needed to change my course to Special Education and see how I could change the world even if it was with just one student. I felt a very special feeling that I could help be the voice to students who may not have one or know how to use theirs yet.
Q: How do you cope with the emotional aspects from your job in your personal life?
A: This one is still hard for me. See, I don’t have a 9-5 job. I have a, the moment I wake up until I fall asleep, job. I even have dreams about the job! My students become such a part of me. With the small classes, it is important for me to have close relationships with my students and their families. I want my families to know that I am a part of their team and put my heart and soul into teaching their child. I want them to know that I will take this year to do my absolute very best for each and every child in my classroom. It is important to me to learn about each student in every way to be able to effectively implement a teaching style. I want families to feel that I am there for them, because this whole Special Education teacher/caregiver gig takes a village.
There are days where I come home exhausted, have cried all day, felt defeated, felt very poor, and just plain old overwhelmed. But, with this comes a time to reflect. I reflect on all the good and sometimes even have to write it out. I take this time to think of a breakthrough with a student, a nice compliment I got, a successful lesson plan, a bond with a coworker, a laugh with my paraprofessionals, or a moment of positivity with my students. It is important, with this job, to kind of boast to yourself about the victories because the hardships can take over very quickly.
Self-care is important to me! Sometimes I have to turn the work off, watch trashy Bravo TV, eat extra dessert whatever it takes-because God damn it-I deserve it! I do have to emphasize that to me, no matter what, that gratifying feeling at the end of the day makes it all worthwhile and sometimes, that is all I need.
Q: You’ve taught children with autism that have been on both ends of the spectrum; what has teaching children on the spectrum taught you in your personal life.
A: In just five years, I think I have learned more than I have taught any student…ha! I have learned so much not only about children/students and how EVERY SINGLE CHILD is different and unique, but also have learned so much about myself. I have learned how each student learns differently and that I need to reflect on myself as a teacher. I have taken more time to try and adapt to each student and learn that I am the one that needs to adapt to the student and not the other way around. I have learned that I am stronger that I ever thought I could be. I can handle making minute by minute decisions, running an entire classroom of students and staff, rushing through lunches with the students, no prep times, and quick runs to the bathroom. I became more and more confident in myself, and let me tell you, I’ve been working on this for 30 years.
I have also learned that my students are challenging, for sure, but there is always a reason. It was my job to find the reason and I have learned that I am capable of building a successful teaching plan. I have learned that my heart has an unlimited space for love. I have learned that this is where I am supposed to be, this feels right. I have learned that life is full of comparing to others, but making a decent effort to praise yourself and count your blessings will help. One of my favorite quotes that I’ve learned a lot from is that “The kids that need the most love, will ask for it in the most unloving ways”.
Q: Tell me about a situation in which a kid just blew your mind away – in terms of his progress, etc.?
A: It’s hard to pick one mind blowing event. My students have all made such an impact on me. But not long ago, I had a student who came to me who, from what I heard and observed in his previous class, was challenging. This guy, we will name him student A, was different from a lot of my other students. He needed to trust the people he let into his life. He was selective. So there was my first challenge: Get this kid to like me!
Easier said than done folks. I needed to connect with him on a personal level and that began with exploring his favorite characters, tv shows, songs, snacks-I became to love everything student A was and got to really understand his lifestyle, and then, yes I got that trust. He came to me for help, he looked at me for answers, he even laughed at my ridiculous teaching styles. First challenge completed.
Student A exhibited a lot of self-injurious behaviors. It was easy for him to get frustrated or over stimulated and his first reaction was to hit himself. This broke my heart. I have had some experience with SIBs (self-injurious behaviors), but this was the first time I have experienced a large amount of intensity. I knew he didn’t want to hurt himself, but he just couldn’t control all the emotions in his tiny little body. Day by day my amazing classroom staff (BIG SHOUT OUT TO THEM!!! GOOD PARAPROFESSIONALS ARE ANGELS WALKING AMONG US!!) and I worked vigorously to break down those barriers and really teach student A that we are here for you and you have the power to respond in a more appropriate way, and we will help you find that. We began with exploring more interests, tailoring his day for success, and intensely teaching student A what else he can do instead of injuring himself. It took repetition and it took a lot of guess and check, but we made strides together.
One day in particular, he was really frustrated and instead of going for injurious behaviors, he looked at me, came over, and gave himself a big squeeze and took a deep breath and it seemed like he almost asked me to join him. We sat there together and took deep breaths together and had a moment of total success. Student A is non-verbal and so we relied a lot on body language and AAC device for communication. In September he would come to school and immediately become upset when having to give up his favorite bus toys, but with some time Student A came into school, unpacked his book bag, put away his belongings and requested an alternative choice for giving up his toys. It was truly amazing to see the progress made every day! Yes, the days can be long, but if I could have one student make leaps like that. It was all worth it.
Student A went from staying 5 minutes in a group, to lasting the whole 30 minutes with his peers. He went from head hitting multiple times an hour to maybe few hits a day. He went from not being able to make transitions, to trusting his visual systems in place. He went from being unable to sit for direct instruction to making progress on his IEP objectives. And most remarkable of all, during the very last day of school, I had the honor to stand up in front of the entire school and his parents, to express why student A was getting the Overall Progress Award out of all the students! He had it in him the whole time, he just needed his team to stay behind him and cheer him on.
Q: What insight or perspective would you give to another teacher, parent or therapist?
A: I could go on and on with this one!
To therapists, I would say thank you for bringing your expertise to our students and working so hard to bring out their strengths. I would say thank you for helping teachers learn what we can do to also ensure progress in your areas of concentration. We are not all experts in every subject, but what we do know is that student we have in our classroom. I would also like to remind all of us, that none of us are here for the money and the reinforcement, we are all here with one and only one end goal, and that is do what is best for each and every student we come across. So communicate communicate communicate. As annoying as it gets and as tired as we are and even with the very little free time we have during the school day, we need to talk to each other in order to ensure success.
To the parents, you are superheroes and deserve to be treated that way. My insight to you would be to create a relationship with your teacher. Working together and creating an approachable team will do way more for your child. Ask your teacher questions, share your stories with them, tell teachers what would help you most at home or where you see your child and know that we do this because we love it, not for any other reason. We should always be a team with one goal, and that is to do whatever is most beneficial to your child. I will lastly add to focus on independence as much as you possibly can! Your teacher will love you forever and we are here to help as much we can with that as well! Teachers love to help!
And to the teachers, I wish I could individually get to talk to each and every teacher in this world, because every one of them has something to teach me. What I would say to you is to continue to believe in yourself. Know that you are making a difference and that you are doing your best. It may not look like the teacher next door, but it is you and it is magical. Don’t compare yourself to others, but rather, focus on your victories and your best assets. Be careful of social media, know that teachers are celebrating themselves (and that is ok!) but we are not posting the battles, the tears, the paperwork, the mean parent, the bad email, the failed lesson.
I would also say that we need to join together to fight for respect.
We help facilitate the future doctors, lawyers, tradesmen, teachers, engineers etc. and we deserve to be treated that way.
CONDUCTED BY: KERI AKKAWI @keriakkawi August 2020