Centre County Teacher-Writers | Teachers can learn for special needs students

January 9, 2014 

Sarah Williamson

Editor’s note: Centre County Teacher-Writers is a group of teachers who gather to write about life in the classroom and the issues that concern them as educators. The group includes pre-K-12 teachers and teacher educators from the Centre Region who support each other as writers. Columns by members of this group run on the Views page on a Wednesday each month.

To most teachers and students, the first day of school is filled with apprehension and excitement.

It’s a mix of nerves about the challenges and failures we’ll face and hope for all of the success we’ll celebrate throughout the year.

But Sam’s first day in my room was different. Sam showed no excitement or hope. Instead, Sam screamed. Sam yelled. Sam cried. Sam did his best to fight his way out.

Days 2, 3, 4 and 5 weren’t much better.

You see, Sam has autism, and though nothing about my room seems scary to most of us, to Sam it was a new place, full of challenges and fears he couldn’t express. Unlike Sam’s classroom the year before, my classroom has another one directly above it.

Sam’s hyper-hearing made it possible not only for him to hear his classmates and me talking, but also the teacher and students above us. Over the course of our year together, this would not be our only challenge.

Sam was trying to tell us about his feelings when he cried, but his crying awakened fear and questions not just in the 20 other first-graders in my room but in me as well.

How was I supposed to teach with someone making so much noise? How was I to assess his writing if I couldn’t read it? How could Sam best be a part of our classroom community?

The list of questions was endless, and there was no manual, lesson plan or standards that gave me answers.

So we did what we always do in first grade; we started with a read-aloud.

We read about what autism was. We invited Sam’s mom in to our classroom so she could tell us the things we wanted to know about Sam that he couldn’t. We worked to learn about Sam, about autism and the superpowers it gave him (like his hearing and amazing visual memory).

My first-graders embraced the things Sam liked and acknowledged how they weren’t that different from what the rest of us enjoy (Angry Birds, Mario Kart and doughnuts).

I don’t know if it was day 6 or 17, but, at some point Room 111 got Sam’s stamp of approval. We fell into a routine.

“Good morning, Mrs. Dwyer. Good morning, Ms. Sullivan,” he would announce with cheer. “Good morning, Sam,” we always chorused back.

With the help and guidance of my colleagues, Sam’s family and my students, we found work-arounds to our challenges, such as teaching Sam to type so we could read his stories.

Sam wasn’t like the rest of us, but he was a part of us. Sam faced challenges every day, but we were now able to face them with him and not just watch in fear.

I was Sam’s teacher, and I was supposed to teach him.

I do hope I taught him something, but Sam taught me so much more. Though I learned about autism and how to accommodate Sam, the picture was much bigger.

Sam spent his year teaching us about the power of acceptance.

We learned about not staring in fear but asking questions so we understand. Sam taught us every day through his own bravery that every challenge can be overcome when you have a community to support you.

Sam taught me that I wasn’t afraid of what would I do with all that noise, but what would I do without it?

Sarah Williamson teaches first grade at Mount Nittany Elementary School in State College.

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