I can still remember my mom staying up late to help my little brother with last minute homework assignments. I remember the anxiety and stress that surrounded my brother’s time in school and how hard my parents worked to help him. I remember my brother’s anger and resentment at my mom for pushing him so hard, even though he knew he needed her help. I remember my parents telling me, “Well, at least we didn’t have to worry about you doing well in school”.
My little brother was 6 when he was diagnosed with Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). I was 13, and had already established myself as “the good kid”. My parents didn’t know what hit them when my brother started biting kids in daycare and throwing tantrums so loud and long and intense that if we went to eat in a restaurant we would have to eat in shifts; first my mom sitting and eating with me, then my dad sitting with me. If he had to get a haircut, my parents would have to show up after hours so the owner could open the barber shop when no other customers would be there.
With my brother’s diagnosis came his long journey through special education. His eligibility, which was classified as Other Health Impaired (OHI), put him in the awkward “no man’s land” between special education and general education. I saw firsthand how some teachers and special education coordinators can either help a student and their family immensely, or make you feel like pulling your kid out of school and forgoing education in all of its forms. For every teacher who understood the need to modify material for different learners, there was a teacher who couldn’t, or didn’t want to, understand the needs associated with a disability. I watched as my mom became an impromptu special educator, learning things from my brother’s teachers and figuring out how to modify his work and using little tricks to make the material easier for my brother to focus on.
When I left for college, my brother was 11 and starting middle school. By junior year I had found my way to special education. I loved it. I loved the idea of modifying the general curriculum to meet the needs of diverse learners. I loved learning about behavior modification and how to use a variety of methods to reach and teach students who otherwise might fall through the cracks. I finished my undergraduate degree and stayed at James Madison University to get my Masters in Arts and Teaching in Special Education.
After I finished graduate school, I started at Grafton. This was my first teaching job and I’m still here, seven years later. Each year, I find that I learn something new about myself and about teaching. My first year was awful. I had no idea what I was doing and I struggled with the things all first year teachers struggle with: getting to know and build rapport with the instructional assistants, understanding the nature of the diverse abilities of each student, organizing and structuring a classroom, finding that unique balance between being an authority in the classroom and a compassionate caregiver. Each year, I got better. I understood my students and staff better and was able to focus more on the joys of teaching. The joy that brought me to special education in the first place came full circle. It became more apparent and I became more confident in my teaching abilities. Just as I watched my brother struggle, I could see when my own students were struggling. Only this time, I had the tools I needed to help them.