‘I received a random card with a note. ‘I pray for you every day.’ My job is very hard to do. Special education is a totally different ball game.’: Special Education teacher urges ‘teach your kids to celebrate differences’

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“I grew up in a very large family with multiple cousins, aunts, uncles, friends, and extended family members. We were all very close and connected. It felt like every weekend there was a birthday party, celebration, or a game to see. We were always all there, in the bleachers, cheering someone on.

Courtesy of Rebekah Ozuna

Two of my cousins had cerebral palsy and were deaf. We were all so close that we felt like siblings, not cousins. Growing up, my mom and aunt took my siblings and cousins everywhere during the year. We visited museums, parks, swimming pools, and neighborhood events. We were always in a church group or vacation bible school together. If somebody needed help with anything, or if my mom or aunt asked us to help push one of their wheelchairs or perform a self-help task, we would just do it. There was no questioning them or saying no.

When I started going through my undergraduate program, teachers kept telling me how great I am with the special education students. I never even thought of it that way. I was just there to support and scaffold their learning and help them out. So, without even knowing it, special education was making an impact on my life both personally and professionally.

Courtesy of Rebekah Ozuna

When I began working at a public school, I started to see that not everyone is cut out for the demands that a special education classroom requires of an educator. I currently work as a special education teacher at Knox Early Childhood Head Start in Texas. We are one of the larger urban districts in the city. I teach an inclusion classroom where 7 students have an IEP (Individualized Education Program) and 7 have GE (General Education) with their peers.

It’s very hard to do my job and some people don’t see that. My students are amazing but all have different needs and abilities. I have to work with support staff and coworkers on my planning team. I also make sure to advocate my students’ needs to administrators and department heads. I work with multiple therapists for my students to address their academic, behavioral, social, emotional, and medical needs. My team includes occupational therapists, speech therapists, physical therapists, orientation and mobility specialists, the assistant technology department, behavioral specialists, nursing staff, outside doctors and therapists, coaches, music therapists, teachers for the visually impaired, and multiple other diagnosticians and school psychologists.

Courtesy of Rebekah Ozuna
Courtesy of Rebekah Ozuna

I also build strong connections with families and make sure they know I’m available when they need help. All of this takes more time and energy and presents unique demands for each student. But the best part of my job is that I don’t have to feel like I need to take on any task alone. I try to offer this same support to others on their educational journeys. There are a lot of assumptions around teaching in general but the realm of special education is a totally different ball game. Sometimes other educators assume that we just do the work for our kids or don’t really do anything with them (because they assume they can’t). What they don’t realize is that we are there to meet kids at their developmental levels and challenge them to the next stage of development.

We have to be effective classroom managers and keep in mind all of the varying levels we have present in our classroom. We alter activities by making it more accessible for our students and provide work that’s in line with their goals, objectives, and ability levels. It makes our job harder but also that much more rewarding in the end. Not all professionals have this viewpoint but a lot of times it’s there. It makes such a difference to be around teachers that treat you like you’re magical and can conquer any hurdle. It takes some of the pressure off of me to know I have so many coworkers at Knox that I can trust and connect with when I’m overwhelmed throughout the day.

Some of the most intense moments of my day include dealing with challenging behaviors and having to discipline children that aren’t used to being corrected in the form of guidance and support. We have to remember that the root of the word discipline is disciple, which means ‘to teach’. I correct and shape my student’s negative behaviors with love and firmness and remain consistent in my classroom routines.

Courtesy of Rebekah Ozuna
Courtesy of Rebekah Ozuna
Courtesy of Rebekah Ozuna

My children are not sheltered from a lot in the home setting and they’re coming into my classroom with the notion that when you have a disagreement with someone you need to yell, hit, kick, or scream to be heard. I do a lot of work to change this for them. Mr. Rogers was once said, ‘I’m convinced that when we help our children find healthy ways of dealing with their feelings, ways that don’t hurt them or anyone else, we’re helping to make our world a safer, better place.’

I have so many activities for teaching kindness and building connections and relationships. My class has daily morning meetings where we talk about what to expect in the day or answer questions about our current emotional state. I do fun greeting times and silly handshakes with kids during the day. We have a kindness rock garden at our school to spread love in our community. My students get to leave the classroom to show off something positive they did in class.

Courtesy of Rebekah Ozuna

We make up silly songs and do ‘I love you rituals’ together. And then I always make sure the parents and families know what’s going on, too. I send home printouts of the current favorite ‘I love you ritual’ or silly song so families can do them in the home and community setting. This works wonders for my students with special needs because they’re now connecting that learning in a new environment.

I also conduct trainings across the country for educators and school staff members through my union, American Federation of Teachers, and I’m often asked how to teach empathy and kindness to students. The hard and easy answer is this: You model it and provide multiple opportunities for students to follow through on being kind and empathetic towards others. I’ve sat on a national board to discuss the need for social, emotional, and academic development in schools today. Everybody says the same thing. We all want what’s best for our kids. We want them to adapt to situations and be successful wherever they end up in life.

Courtesy of Rebekah Ozuna

My most rewarding moments happen when I get the daily heartfelt exchanges and interactions with my kids. I feel rewarded in different big and little ways every day. It’s when a student says they understand something for the first time or want to help others. It’s when we are having a playful conversation and my students make a witty or silly remark. It especially happens when parents trust me with their child and know how much I truly love their kids.

Earlier this school year, I had a conversation with a parent and she said, ‘I pray for you and your assistants every day. I know how hard it is to have my daughter at home and she’s only one child. I can’t imagine having a classroom full of kids that need so much help.’ Later in the year, she randomly sent me a card with a note saying she set up a special intention mass at her church in honor of me and my assistants. Her card said, ‘May God grant you the desires of your heart.’ I’m not even Catholic and I thought this was such a thoughtful gift to give.

I know there are so many people out there who love and believe in me. I can’t let them down. I have to keep doing what I’m doing and perfecting my teaching practice for them. I made up my mind a long time ago. I’m going to spend the rest of my life making others feel less broken and more loved.

This work is so important to me because I’ve been connected to it my whole life. I know this isn’t just about the work I’m doing this school year. I know this work impacts my student’s entire lives. I want to know my students have the skills necessary for post-secondary education. I want them to have opportunities for gainful employment. I want them to be able to access their communities when others are no longer there.

It’s often said if you want to change the world, then go home and love your family. My kids and my school community are my family. I believe I can change the world and inspire others by doing what I love. Doing my day-to-day task of teaching, connecting with others and getting them on board with the needs of my learners, by traveling and training educators on a national level, by serving on national boards and advocating for best practice in early childhood and special education, and by doing simple things like listening and making connections with the families of my students.

Teach your kids to celebrate differences by accepting and loving others. Be kindhearted and open to others perspectives. Always assume competence and know we are all the key to children. We can turn the key to open them or we can turn it to shut them out. I’m thankful to know so many amazing educators across the country who are doing great work and help me to be a better special education teacher. Please stand by my side as I continue to advocate for what’s best for some of our most vulnerable students.”

Courtesy of Rebekah Ozuna

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Rebekah Ozuna of San Antonio, Texas. You can follow her journey on Instagram here and Facebook here. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

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