How I Stay Inspired as a Teacher

“Twenty-five, fifty...Here’s your change,” Chad says as he finishes his sales transaction with a teacher. “Thanks for the snacks,” the teacher replies. “See you tomorrow.”

I’m not a career teacher. I was 45 years old and had been in business for 23 years when I went back to school to become a special education teacher. Little did I know when I made that transition how much I would be inspired by the children I set out to help. Chad is one who has impacted me significantly.

Chad, who spends most of his day in a self-contained classroom, continues down the hall selling snacks and drinks to 25 teachers along the way. I started our Rolling Café as a real-life learning opportunity after I realized that my elementary students with autism were not growing in social skills. They weren’t able to have a conversation with others or even initiate or respond to greetings. Within a short time of running the Rolling Cafe,  I saw growth in numerous social skills and language in the students, not to mention the increase in money skills. Unexpected benefits were added as students were propelled out of the classroom and into the mainstream of regular education, crossing barriers that limit their education. Regular education students wave and call out greetings in the hallway and include my students at lunch and recess.

And Chad? He wanted to always be at school because of his important sales job. He is now in high school with plans to start and run his own business one day because of his experiences with the Rolling Café. Chad inspires me to stretch myself as a teacher and be innovative in my teaching. It makes a difference.

Much growth for our students is taken in baby steps over years, yet leads to giant leaps of change. Carter came to kindergarten with a diaper bag and no early childhood education. He cried and screamed and wasn’t interested in learning basic school skills. Over the next year and a half, we discovered he was able to read. He learned to write and, as a 1st grader, he was very interested in the higher-level science concepts I was teaching 3rd-5th graders in my multi-grade classroom. He quickly learned math concepts and by 2nd grade, he was receiving all his math in the regular education classroom. Carter is now in high school and does not receive any special services. He is getting As and Bs and loves school. I am inspired by Carter’s persistence in working hard to close the gaps in his learning and excel beyond what many thought he could do.

Teaching is not only about working with children. I have a paraprofessional in my classroom who completed an elementary teaching degree a few years ago and didn’t land a teaching job. She subbed in my classroom for a time as a paraprofessional and then was hired permanently. Over the last few years, her skills in working with students with significant autism have developed and grown, as has her love for the students. She decided to change directions, studied, and recently passed her certification to teach special education. And she is now getting interviews to become a full-time teacher.  What a growth opportunity these years have been for her and for me. She inspires me to find ways to work better with our team to better meet the needs of our students. I am thrilled to have a new teacher colleague who is prepared to move out and serve more students with special needs.

Teaching is a profession where you can change the trajectory of a person’s future. It’s a way to better our community, our society, and our world, while at the same time experiencing personal growth and inspiration to always be better. It’s why I love teaching.

Jean K. Lawson is in her 13th year of teaching elementary students with autism in Springfield, Missouri. She was a 2019 Missouri Teacher of the Year Finalist. Jean has a masters degree in special education and an autism certificate. Her passion is providing skills-based education through authentic learning opportunities to prepare a future workforce of people with disabilities.

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