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How Teachers Impact the Lives of Children with Special Needs

Published in ChicagoNow, February 4, 2015

My granddaughter, who has so much trouble with her expressive language, has no trouble letting me know who her true heroes are. She can make a list on her iPad of every teacher she has had since age two. When I ask her what she wants to be when she grows up, that’s one question she happily answers – “a teacher.” Teachers are her rock stars.

At age 11, she still likes to visit her old preschool and see the teachers she loved, most of whom are still there. Those 15 women made a huge impression on her. She still remembers the greeting songs from their classrooms. They nurtured her, laughed at her attempts at humor, listened respectfully to what she could tell them, and made her feel loved. So, here’s a shout out to the Cherry Preschool staff. These teachers had a huge impact on her life and will always be in her heart.

But the love affair didn’t end there. Now in fifth grade at a special education school, she has a new crew of people she worships. Last year’s class photo from her public elementary school, with pictures of every teacher in the school on the back, still sits out in her room. You would think she had won the lottery when she received it. She excitedly pointed out every one of them, first name and last. She has memorized their first names from reading the name tags they wear.

While she greatly admires any teacher, there is one she singles out for special mention, her kindergarten teacher. I have heard enough teachers say kindergarten is the one grade they hope to avoid. Too many tears to dry, zippers to zip, noses to wipe, and bathroom accidents to clean up, I guess. It takes a special person to truly love being the first person introducing kids to formal education. So, here’s another shout out to CL, a teacher so adored that my granddaughter actually wanted to be called by her name for several months (until we all tired of it and it was no longer cute).

When my granddaughter is feeling stressed out, she recreates that teacher list on her iPad. These teachers are her heroes. They accepted her and nurtured her and made her feel loved and safe. For children with special needs, their typically developing peers can be unpredictable, even when they are kind and inclusive. Their teachers take on an even larger importance as the safe home base they can count on for patience and understanding.

Seeing that list of all of the teachers who have been so important to my granddaughter reminds me of the impact educators can have on the lives of their students. After working in education for over 30 years, I think the best teachers are what I call the naturals. They have an intangible quality that cannot be learned in books. They confirm my belief that teaching is a calling. Good teaching, aside from knowing the subject matter and developmentally appropriate methods for classroom instruction, involves a heavy dose of empathy for and love of children.

When I left my job as a high school English teacher so many years ago, my homeroom gave me a plate that said, “Flowers leave their fragrance on the hands that caress them.” Thank you to all of the teachers out there who have caressed my granddaughter and all of those other beautiful and special flowers in their classrooms. May your hands and hearts be fragrant from having touched the lives of so many children.


by Laurie Levy
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