How I got to be a school teacher

– my Golden Apple – “Teacher of the Year” award

Whoever gives blessings will be enriched; those who refresh others will themselves be refreshed.

Proverbs 11:25
– sketch I made in my early years teaching

I have been thinking a lot, recently, about my vocation as a school teacher. It’s not something I have written all that much about over the years. But there are so many stories, so many larger than life personalities, and it is time for some of them to to be shared.

All told, my career covered 21 years. Two years as a paraprofessional in Atlanta, two – including three practicum semesters – as a full time student at UWF, twelve years teaching for Escambia County in Pensacola – mostly in the context of public mental health, and five years working for Hillsborough County.

What’s amazing to me, looking back, is how brand spanking new Exceptional Student Education was when I got started. You would think ESE had been around for ever, but President Ford didn’t sign PL 94-142 into law until November 1975, just a few weeks after I first arrived in the USA!

Public education for all children:

The law, also known as the EHA (the Education for All Handicapped Children Act) essentially guaranteed, for the first time, a free and appropriate public education for all children.

This didn’t just mean that kids with disabilities are allowed to come to school, it meant that school must now address whatever handicapping conditions hamper traditional learning, and work to ensure each child gets a great education anyway.

So, instead of children being excluded (as they were) because – for example – they are deaf, or in a wheelchair, or born with Down Syndrome, additional funding would now be released so the learning environment could be designed to facilitate a great education anyway, with expertise and intervention tailored to the child’s needs.

It was a revolution in intent and practice (often intent more than practice) that goes to the heart of America’s commitment to the ideal that all people are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.

Why Me?

But being a teacher was last thing I wanted to do!

I graduated from Stetson University with a degree in psychology but no career path. Rebekah and I moved to Atlanta and I spent the summer of 1980 (temperatures between 100 and 115) driving around in a Chevette with no air conditioning, hopelessly looking for work.

Eventually someone at Columbia mentioned that a local elementary school always held one teacher’s aid job for “a seminary student’s wife”. Maybe I could apply?

Desperate for work I interviewed, thus beginning my journey as “not the preacher’s wife they expected.”

And there, at the last classroom on the left at the end of the long downstairs hallway, a dozen or so “TMH” (Trainable Mentally Handicapped) students, aged eight to ten years old, grabbed my heart and dragged me unwittingly into the next two decades of my professional life.

Time and distance and made up names now allow me to tell you some of their stories.

But they got me. Hook, line, and sinker! Shantea, and Edward, and LaSonya, and Rudolph, and Tracey, and Michele, and Robert, and Deshun, and Tangela, and Monique, and Jada, and Bruno, and Neil, and Tony….

So I brought my guitar to school, and my compassion, and my drawing supplies, and my story books, and my wide-open imagination, and my love for life; I teamed up with a wonderful teacher named Pat and I learned what could happen when you believe.

It was as if God was saying to me: “You don’t always get to decide. I have gifted you with specific talents, and I have placed a beacon in your heart that draws people in. These children love you so much, and they have pulled down the barriers you insisted on putting up. Listen to them; they are telling you what you need to hear.”

I heard a lot. I mean, those kids were loud! But my next story will share how they told me what was next. And I was, to say the least, surprised – DEREK

sketches made circa 1981:

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