“The challenges of being a special needs teacher have nothing to do with the students.”
Vanessa Bishop, a special needs educator at Codington Elementary School in Wilmington, NC, shares her insights on how her teaching experiences shaped her views on children and the disabled.
1. What led you to become a special needs educator?
My first experience with special needs came when I was placed in a special needs classroom as part of a teacher’s aide vocational program for high schoolers. I fell in love with children who had the most severe needs. I just connected to them. I could see all the things I could do to help them communicate or have some form of independence. I graduated from Kent State University with a triple major–all under special education.
2. Has being a special needs educator shaped your views on children and the disabled?
My opinion of all children is that everyone can learn, everyone can progress, and everyone has a right to a great education. It is part of my job to teach the entire school community about my students, their needs, and their abilities.
3. How do you engage your students with the rest of Codington Elementary?
Each school year, I invite the kindergarten classes into my room so they can learn about my kids. I make common connections between my students and the kindergartners to emphasize their likeness. For example, I may say, “Timmy loves music class with Ms. Tyndall. Do any of you go to music class?” The kids get so excited. I have seen true friendships develop between my students and other students at Codington. In fact, many teachers bring their students to my classroom as a reward for good behavior or completed work. I am aware that most schools are not like this which is why I feel so blessed to be a part of an environment that is.
4. What is the atmosphere like in your classroom?
The most important factors in my classroom are: everyone is respected, everyone can learn, and everyone is positive while my room! We have many therapists, volunteers, peer buddies, and students who come to experience my students’ school day. Also, there are many therapeutic and medical interventions that always take priority in my class so everyone can be safe and healthy.
5. What kinds of challenges have you encountered as a special needs educator?
The most significant challenges being a special education teacher have nothing to do with the students—they are the silver lining in a job where teachers are not treated for what they are worth.
The responsibilities of my job have increased immensely, yet we have less help. I have to give standardized tests to my students who are significantly delayed, which is not fair to them.
My assistants do a fantastic job, and I am so thankful to have them. Julie Shrewsbury and Jenny Lachapelle see the potential these students have, just as I do. I could not be the teacher I am without the support of these fine ladies. We are an exceptional team.
6. In what ways have you seen your students grow over the years?
The progress I see is often slow and steady! We celebrate any and all accomplishments in my classroom. Sometimes you will hear us cheering because student drank from a straw. Other times, because a student used assistive technology to communicate with us.
All of my students are fighters and I can see how smart they are. Many of them started life off with a fight, but they have defied the odds! All my students are truly miracles on earth, and I am so lucky to have them in my life.
7. How does school and community engagement play a role in your students’ development?
We have a very supportive administration and staff. I have always gotten positive responses whenever I have a new idea. Last year, I worked with 101 Mobility to put on a Halloween Parade for my students, and the Codington staff loved it. Their service techs built and designed costumes around my students’ wheelchairs and came out to cheer them at a school-wide celebration put on by our staff. To see each of my students so happy and showing off their awesome costumes to the school brought happy tears to my eyes! Even better, seeing the general education students’ bright eyes and smiling faces was so moving. I know each year it will get better, and I have 101 Mobility to thank for that!
This year, 101 Mobility and Codington are putting on another Halloween Parade for Ms. Bishop’s special needs class. Students and teachers will line the hallways and cheer on the class as they make their way around the entire school.
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