“You need to get it right, or you’ll be transferred.” I don’t remember the rest of what she said – the entire walk from my principal’s office to the subway was a blur. But there I was later that night, sitting on the subway crying. Crying until my head hurt. I knew that things weren’t perfect in my classroom. By most measures, it was a disaster. In fact, that’s why I approached my principal for support. You see, I wasn’t just teaching any students. My students either lay somewhere on the Autism spectrum or were severely emotionally disturbed. While practicing sight words with one student, another was throwing himself on the floor. While teaching a group of students how to hold a pencil, another student was throwing chairs across the room. On my worst day, I left school clutching a chunk of my hair that had been violently pulled from my scalp. My arm was bruised and bloody from the bite of a six-year-old because I asked him to raise his hand. I couldn’t help but wonder if I was really teaching or going into battle.
Not only were my students challenging, but I was a first-year teacher, fresh from college. The day after graduation, I moved from a small town in Illinois to New York City in order to begin a teaching fellowship. Over eight short weeks, I was taught the basics of special education law and was trained in the methods for teaching students with Autism. Eight weeks was enough to learn Development Education theory, but perhaps not long enough to know what to do when David is rocking in the corner and screaming at the top of his lungs. To make things worse, I was only provided one of three required paraprofessionals for my classroom due to budget cuts and a long list of school supplies that needed to be purchased out of my own budget.
Teaching a student with Autism goes beyond reading and writing. It must also address their deficits in life skills and communication. I was not prepared to undertake the role of occupational and speech therapist, but somehow I found myself wearing both hats. All of this was weighing on my mind when I came to my principal for help. But none was coming. And the tears came. It was just so frustrating that I couldn’t be the teacher my students deserved. Those lonely moments in that subway car were the first time I realized that I was solely responsible for my students’ education, the only one who could fight for the resources they needed. At that moment, a woman sitting next to me said, “Crying ain’t gonna change nothing but your mood.” And with that, something inside me changed. She was right; crying wasn’t going to give my students more opportunities. I resolved to do something, anything, to fight for my students.
I reached out to the Department of Education’s Autism office for extra in-class training and support. I submitted a report every day documenting evidence of the continued need for support services in my classroom. After creating an extensive paper trail, my principal became aware of my reports and was less than pleased. She felt it was the parent’s responsibility to fight for resources that were already federally mandated. I persevered. If the principal wanted the parents to request the services, then I was going to let the parents know what they had a right to. This was a challenge in itself - I could barely secure Open House attendance. Many of my parents worked three or more jobs and some were recent immigrants who could barely speak English. But I knew I had to find a way to go directly to the parents.
Over the period of a few weeks, I made after-work house visits at my students’ homes to explain to parents how they could request services for their children. I even helped draft some of the letters for those who couldn’t write. While visiting David’s house, I began to understand his screams and cries. He was the middle child of seven in a two-bedroom, dilapidated Bronx apartment. His mother passed away, so his 16-year-old sister raised him when his father was not home. His father works 18 hours per day. I was surprised David’s father sacrificed his lunch period three times in one week to meet with me, but this seemed like his last cry for help. I was almost brought to tears when he asked if I could not only help him write the letter but also write his name. His struggle and unconditional love for his child was not the exception, but rather the norm for all the parents I visited. In our education system, some of the individuals most in need are the ones less likely to receive it because they don’t know how to fight. I didn’t know much about the education system at the time myself, but I was ready to step in the ring on their behalf. When the Annual Review meetings came, I had perfect parent attendance. The look of surprise on my principal’s face as five parents crowded her office ready with questions was priceless and encouraging. Seeing my students ‘parents mobilize in this way motivated me to continue my hard work and advocate on their behalf.
I aspire to represent students and families who feel they have not been given due process within the education system or who feel their civil rights have been violated due to their disabilities. It is my hope that I will one day serve as an attorney for my agency, the Department of Education, due to my desire to see our school system represented fairly, and most importantly, to ensure that our students receive the services and treatment that they deserve. A law degree combined with the educational practice I’ve received in my graduate program, will equip me with the tools needed to address the education needs and challenges that exist within our school system.
My principal was right after all, I was “transferred out.” My school’s administration moved me to the main site for the current school year where I serve as a mentor to first-year teachers and help assist in Autism trainings. My commitment to my students doesn’t end at 2:30 in the afternoon with the school bell. I have become more involved with Autism Speaks and educational policy initiatives in general. I helped organize our school team for the Autism Walk and raised over 1,000 dollars for the cause. Being a public figure as Miss Black Arkansas has allowed me to also serve as a celebrity advocate for the Arkansas-area Autism Speaks organization. I am also working with the Autism Alliance and other Autism-related organizations. I am a change agent for students with Autism and the education field. I now want to be a change agent in the field of education law and continue my advocacy.