Working with and caring for a population that requires specific and catered attention, while often lacking resources, time and outside understanding, special education is a field that needs some special professionals.
In the Waseca School District, special education teachers work with students every day, sometimes multiple times a day — students who have a wide range of disabilities and challenges associated with their learning journey.
The job can often be stressful and challenging. However, anyone doing it is quick to tell you about what they love, before speaking of the difficulties.
“My favorite aspect of the job is the relationships you get to build with the students, and getting to know who they are outside of the classroom, as well as inside,” Sam Jans said. Jans is just one of the special education teachers at Waseca Junior High School.
“A lot of the students that I work with … put up walls, and they say they’re not going to let anyone in,” Kristine Barnes, another special education teacher, said. “It’s really cool that I get to be one of the people who they let in, and you can teach them something, but you can also learn from them.”
For many who enter the profession of special education, the decision comes down to one of two things: building relationships with the students or helping people with disabilities realize their full potential. The teachers in the Waseca School District are no different in that respect.
“I always wanted to be in education, but I took it a step further, because I had a twin brother who did not survive. He was both physically and mentally disabled … and I find myself treating my students as I hoped my brother would’ve been treated,” LuAnne Ross, a special education teacher entering her 30th year of teaching, said.
“I actually went [to college] for an art degree, but I couldn’t find a job in that field,” Lyndee Hupper said. Hupper is in her eighth year as a special education teacher for Waseca, and she said that she got the job, because the school declined her application to be an art teacher, but called her and offered her a special ed job instead.
“I started loving the kids, and now here I am, in my eighth year in the same position,” Hupper said, adding that, after getting the job, she went back to school to receive her master’s in developmental disabilities with an additional licensure in autism.
It’s that care for the students that drives many of these teachers to continue doing what they do, even when it becomes difficult.
“I think seeing students struggle and share the frustrations that they are having, whether they’re academic frustrations or social frustrations, is really difficult,” Kira Fosburgh, a special education teacher in Waseca’s Junior High School, said. “You really feel for them, and it takes a lot out of you.”
Still, those challenges don’t make the job less appealing to the people doing it. In fact, those same challenges can often make the successes you see all the more sweet.
“My mission statement for myself is to help students fall in love with learning again,” Shealyn Salgado, a level three special education teacher, said.
Salgado explained that she didn’t mean “academic learning” necessarily, but rather helping students embrace that “natural curiosity that we’re all born with.” Salgado recently won KEYC’s Golden Apple award, given to teachers in the region who show a dedication to their students and the work they do.
“Many of our students hate school, whether it’s because they seem to have constant failure or haven’t seen the success in school that they may want to,” Salgado said. “The moments where they do see that success — they do write that essay, they do make that connection, they have that success they didn’t know they could have – to see those moments are really rewarding.”
It’s not just the academic or school-focused side of things that special education teachers work on either. Kristine Barnes, a special education teacher in her first year, said that one of the most rewarding parts of the job is teaching students life skills.
“It’s cool to watch kids master skills they will really use in their life. …. Real core skills. That makes [the challenges] worth it to me,” Barnes said.
At the end of the day, these teachers pour their hearts into their jobs, and they all really know who they’re doing it for.
“[The parents and the teachers] are all on the same team. We all want to see each child succeed, and to be a part of the process and the journey to best support the student,” Salgado said.
“Every student is capable of learning and deserves a voice,” Ross said.