Teacher of the Year: Camile Haughey
I am a teacher of severely developmentally disabled third-, fourth- and fifth-graders at Deer Creek Elementary School.
Most of my students cannot speak, and all have serious cognitive and physical limitations and need varying degrees of assistance with self-care. In many ways they are very different from their typically developing peers.
However, in many ways, they are very much the same.
Like their peers, they have preferences, feelings, desires and needs. It is my goal to teach my students to self-advocate: They must gain skills to be able to effectively communicate, negotiate or assert their own interests, needs and rights as they make their way in the world.
My hope is that each of them can continue to work on self-advocacy and independence throughout their lives. This overarching hope is what guides my decisions in the classroom.
I am committed to providing my students with the best quality education, and with this group, “education” means not only academic skills, but also those related to social, communication, self-help, motor and behavioral growth.
For all my students, this is intensive work. It is my role to teach these necessary academic and life skills, cheerleading and reinforcing along the way to maintain student interest, while at the same time modeling for them the inherent value of learning and challenging one’s self.
For these students to make progress they have to work very hard; and in the long-term, for them to work hard, they must have an internal desire to do so. I believe it is my responsibility as their teacher to help guide each one to find self-satisfaction in their hard work and successes.
External rewards and consequences work to change behavior and habits, but to create a life-long learner in the severely disabled classroom takes a special blend of traits in the teacher: Vision, commitment, compassion, energy, hope and a large skill set covering everything from knowledge of applied behavior analysis and intervention skills, an understanding of developmental stages and sensory needs, management and leadership, and countless others.
Being a student in my class is an engaging and rewarding experience. Students are offered plentiful opportunities to make choices and practice independence.
Many of my students use visual schedules to semi-independently transition through the activities of the school day. Every student has a working communication system in place. Each individual is taught appropriate ways to get adult attention and make their needs and wants known.
Being treated with this kind of dignity and respect makes even the most behaviorally difficult students more willing to do the hard work it takes to make progress. I teach my staff that we do not do for our students what they can potentially do for themselves.
An ideal real day would include both the “real” – students arriving with their usual “baggage” – their moods, physical discomforts, etc., as well as the “ideal” – students would use the skills I have taught them to consistently get their needs and wants met.
A child who didn’t sleep well the night before, for example, would express, using words, sign language, picture exchange communication, or any other modality, their need for rest or a break. A child who is hungry would ask for a snack.
The ability to self-advocate is what will set these students up for success in life – it is what will make the difference between reliance on a few specially trained caregivers who can ‘read’ the individual’s needs and wants versus giving the human being the ability to express themselves in ways that can be understood by a much broader segment of the population.
This is immeasurably empowering.
A simple example from the 2009-2010 school year stands out in my mind to illustrate the power and importance of self-advocacy.
I had a 5th-grade student – I’ll call him “Tom”- who was somewhat stubborn – he would dig his heels in when pushed. This trait was an ongoing problem in the classroom as he would require adult intervention to transition to and begin activities and tasks that were not preferable to him.
Tom would ignore classroom directions, fiddle with his clothes to waste time, and sometimes flat-out refuse to work. He was a sweet, creative child and I did not like finding myself being cross with him for ‘not following directions’ and ‘not listening.’
I realized that what Tom needed was some power and control over his environment. I set up a visual schedule on a clipboard for him showing our daily routine. On the clipboard were also three “5 minute break” Velcro icons he could use each day.
I began to prompt Tom to give a classroom adult one of his break icons when he was not ready to begin the next activity. Tom began using his break icons and classroom adults responded with praise.
We commended Tom for expressing himself appropriately and telling us what he needed. He still had to return to work after his break, but was no longer resistant after being given a reasonable amount of power and choice.
Two pages is certainly not enough to explain what I do and to express all the hopes and dreams that come along with it! I hope that I have provided you with at least an overview of my work.
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