The last time I was at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel (which, as Kathy described, is an incredible experience in and of itself!) I got lost while chaperoning teenagers with autism at their senior prom. I was a graduate student at Vanderbilt and my colleagues at Project Opportunity, a job-training program for secondary students with intellectual disabilities, went all-out to ensure two of our students could have a SPECTACULAR (if overwhelming for all three of us) prom experience.
Fast forward more than four years, and I found myself again among the vast beauty of the Gaylord Opryland, only this time as an actual special educator and hotel guest—woah, what a relaxing break from a stressful time of year at school!.
This concept is not revolutionary—many counties and individual teachers of students with low-incidence disabilities use this to structure their teaching. It is, however, the most organized, research-based, and comprehensive framework I have ever seen. It was a huge “YES!!!” for me. “YES!!” the developers at PCI wrote it down in an incredibly user-friendly format that includes assessment and data collection tools. I skulked around the PCI expo booth, attended all of their other expo sessions, and eventually scored a half-priced K-2 Framework set. My excitement about sharing that with other teachers is immense—I can’t wait!
The other very exciting thing for me on that first day was talking to all of the crisis-management professionals I encountered. As I’ve mentioned, I have a lot of experience with students with severe behavioral challenges and I am really looking to collaborate with other teachers and administrators to develop a crisis-management plan to keep our students and staff safe and prevent serious incidents. I left with so many great ideas and training opportunities that I took to my principal the moment I got back home. They were well received and I look forward to working with our staff to provide a more comprehensive support to teachers and students working through behavioral difficulties.
Which brings me to the real breakthrough, the life- and career-altering outlook change that I experienced at CEC 2010. Every new thing I found, I wanted to share with my school. Even with the struggles I’ve had over the past three years, and all of the things that I wanted to leave my current school to find, I discovered a deep desire to, as Ghandi says, “be the change I want to see in the world.”
It made me feel that, after three short years, I am a professional special educator, one with a slowly cultivated desire to lead my school in the implementation of best-practice instructional and behavioral techniques. The conference both exposed me to new techniques and reinforced what I have already learned.
I walked around with confidence and had so many questions that some session leaders had to say “Ellen, let’s talk afterward (so other people can have a turn…).” I felt so truly and surprisingly like a real special educator, not just the teacher of a small self-contained classroom for kids with intellectual disabilities, stuck in the back of my school next to the boiler room, a trapeze artist on an island with no safety net.
But the biggest result of the conference for me was gaining that feeling of belonging, of not being alone, and the motivation to return to the school that has at times felt so broken and made me and my students feel isolated and unsupported. I want to come back, armed with clear plans to be a leader in the cooperative plan to invigorate our special education practices on a school-wide level.
So I somewhat take back my very strong stance on leaving my current school. I have the support of our principal, who really desires to learn and grow and support serious change, especially in behavior management and serious instruction and inclusion of our students with special needs.
The CEC Convention & Expo was a unique gathering of people who are already being the change they want to see in the world, and I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to hear what they have to say, experience what they have to offer, and as a result take steps to try to make changes in my own instruction and the structure of special education at my school.
My deepest gratitude to all of the CEC staff who have supported our blogging efforts and took a chance in asking us to share our experiences as enthusiastic new teachers. This has certainly motivated me to move from a “teacher” to a “special educator” and even a “special education leader.” This career can be hard in so many ways, but rewarding in ways other than how I was seeking my personal rewards (the experiences with a small group of kids).
I am proud to call myself a special educator. I am grateful for the opportunity to discover so many things about developments in the field and about myself as an educator. The waterfalls were nice and the TouchMath freebies were awesome, but the best part of my CEC convention experience was that it allowed me to discover that there is so much more to my job than IEPs and lessons about plant life and life skills. I want to grow, lead, learn, collaborate. And I have been exposed to so many new skills and tools with which to do so.
I no longer feel like a new teacher. I feel like a special educator. I can’t wait to see where this new outlook takes me.
I have so much more to share about my experiences at the conference, especially the wonderful and exhilarating chance to present some of my blog entries to fellow attendees and get feedback and answer questions from graduate students, new teachers, and veteran teachers. I’ll save that for another entry.
Don’t skip the CEC 2011 Convention & Expo, taking place in the Washington, D.C., area next year. It will reinforce, support, and change you.