As I opened a box that was delivered recently, I was very excited! It contained my cap and gown for my December graduation with a master’s degree in special education with an emphasis in autism. I may sound just like any other graduate …except that I have taught for 20+ years and will turn 60 in January. Why would anyone my age go back to school when they should be planning for retirement?
Realizing just how fast my graduation from KU is approaching made me reflect on my time there. It began 5 years ago when my principal asked to speak with me about working with students with autism who were coming to our school.
I hoped this new position would provide an opportunity to learn more about helping students develop pre-academic communication and social skills.
I also hoped I could build strong relationships with parents.
I couldn’t wait to begin!
I immediately fell in love with my students and their families. Most of my students were intellectually able to learn the curriculum, they were eager to learn, and our relationships were strong. I quickly realized, however, that I would need to incorporate specialized instruction (including adaptations and modifications) as a part of class routines. I needed to explore the use of evidence-based practices within inclusive settings where all children are fully included.
Initially, I felt out of my depth.
I watched videos on YouTube and read everything I could find on how to teach my students. I did a lot of soul-searching, praying, and reflecting on the past year. I truly wanted to meet the challenge of advancing the goal of full inclusion for Pre-K children with autism. This was what I wanted to do with my life, and I needed to return to school to learn to be more effective. Fortunately, my husband was very supportive.
I researched various schools and decided on the University of Kansas because of their multifaceted curriculum and reputation as the number #1 public education program in the US. I applied for their Graduate Certificate in Autism, was accepted, and began classes. I loved the individualized feedback and communication with my instructors, learning about the most current trends, issues, and practices in the field, as well as experiencing the immediate and practical implementation of what I was learning.
What a difference it made it my class! My students with autism began to blossom. They learned to follow schedules, communicate, and express the knowledge that they were in a safe and loving environment. They began to communicate and interact with staff, students, and families through smiles, hugs, and active engagement. As they grew, parents began asking for suggestions about how to better communicate and socialize with their students at home and in community settings.
When I completed the Graduate Certificate, I realized I wanted to continue toward my master’s degree, so I applied and was accepted into the program. Words cannot express what I have gained from being a student at the University of Kansas. Dr. Glennda McKeithan, an instructor for several of my classes, became a mentor and friend. She helped me to develop confidence in my knowledge and ability to teach my students and to advocate for them and their families. I know how to assess my students’ needs, determine which of the Evidence-Based Practices would meet their individual needs, and how to collect data to measure their progress. I can interpret and elaborate on student needs/instructional practices when I speak with administrators, county staff, service providers, parents, and other educators. Dr. Jason Travers, my advisor, has gone above and beyond in helping me to meet my graduation requirements.
I have become more actively involved in local and national organizations such as the Council for Exceptional Children, Division on Autism and Developmental Disorders, Autism Speaks, and Professional Educators of North Carolina. I was nominated for and won the 2018 Teaching Excellence Award, and one of my students won the 2018 Yes I CAN! Award. I was also elected to be part of the executive boards on both state CEC organizations. I am now actively working with educators all over my state from multiple institutions of higher learning and school districts to make decisions about resources, staff development, and evaluating policies.
As I prepare to graduate from KU, I am immensely grateful for all the KU staff has helped me to accomplish. Never did I dream where I would be now. I came to KU with little to zero belief in my abilities. I am now confident, knowledgeable, and know I can make a difference in the lives of my students and their families. I am thrilled my husband and two children will be with me as I walk down the hill and receive my graduate degree. The pride they communicate about what I have achieved gives me a feeling I cannot describe.
I am working with two colleagues on a manuscript intended for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. I will present my research at the 2019 NC CEC Annual Conference, and I am hoping to continue my education to earn a Ph.D. which will help me to learn more about my field and working with adult learners. I am inspired to help others find the passion, knowledge, and confidence I have. All students deserve to have the best teachers!
Thank you to the Special Education Department at the University of Kansas who have developed such an effective, personalized and meaningful online program!