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As we enter our 100th year of leading special education, the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) is recognizing exceptional educators from around the world who have shown a passion, dedication, and commitment to making a difference in the lives of the students who they teach. Hear from teachers about their personal experiences working in the field, and get inspired to make your own impact this year.

Sara Wallace

Sara Wallace

For as long as I can remember, I have always been inspired and drawn to children that arrived to school everyday despite challenges at home and various learning styles. My heart broke for these students who were repeatedly dismissed by educators that were not trained to meet their needs, were sent to the office or quite literally banished from the classroom. Students that were seen as “bad” were sent to other schools, and we never saw them again. When educators supported these children by simply listening, opening their hearts and showing compassion, I couldn’t help but notice the difference.

When it was time to make a decision about what to study in college, I always knew it would be psychology. Human behavior was fascinating to me, and how many personality traits are innate. I was interested in how people reacted differently to the same situation, and the resilience or grit shown by some. While finishing my BA in psychology at the University of Southern Maine, I worked at a group home for teenage girls transitioning out of Long Creek Developmental Center.  I was only 20 at the time, and the stories that the girls, who were not much younger than me shared, could take your breath away. I was sad for them, and mad, but mostly inspired by their strength to keep moving forward and make different choices for their future. I am still in touch with some of these young women 15 years later, and I am just in awe. Sadly this program closed and I was left searching for a new job.

I never planned to be in education. It had never crossed my mind however during this job search I found the position of an educational technician at a “day treatment” school. Upon being hired, I worked in a life skills classroom before moving to a high school classroom. I was excited to be working with students like the ones I had seen banished while in school myself. I was again impressed by these students that showed up everyday, some while raising themselves in the most desolate situations.

As our program grew, I was asked to consider getting my teaching degree. I quickly jumped on this and began working on my MA in special education through the University of Phoenix. I was then given my own classroom with a small group of middle schoolers. I taught at The Alliance School over the next several years and the things I learned there I carry with me professionally and personally while raising my own children. I was inspired there by both the students and the staff. The Alliance was pure magic, and I reflect on my time there every single day. It was a safe place for students that needed an alternative learning environment with adults that liked them. Adults that believed in them. Adults that wanted to guide them towards more productive choices. The philosophies and strategies I learned there, many which were focused on explicitly teaching and rewarding expected behavior instead of the constant consequences they were used to, have shaped my classroom over the last decade. There I met Nicole Poole who served as a mentor and has become a lifelong friend. Nicole believed in these students at her core, and they knew it. She supported them, gave them tough love exactly when they needed it, and she stood by their side day after day. I will forever be grateful for my time with Nicole and the rest of the staff at The Alliance.

While working at The Alliance I connected with my current director and my own life circumstances brought us together at MSAD 72 in Western Maine. I am thankful that I was given an opportunity and trusted to develop a program. I am currently a special education teacher in a K-4 self contained behavior program, the Bridge Program. I believe that all students deserve a safe place to learn while educators meet them where they’re at. Clear boundaries, consistent expectations, and a whole lot of unconditional positive regard make a really beautiful learning environment. I believe that parents are doing the best they can with the skills that they have. I am honored that parents have trusted me to be a part of their child’s academic career when they need additional support. We must all work together to create a learning environment that works for their child considering their circumstances, abilities, needs and learning styles. Each child is unique and so much of what affects their ability to learn is out of their control. If we as educators truly want to make a difference, we must understand this.  I have been so fortunate to have trusting, supportive education technicians over the years that have made the program successful. Students are arriving at school with the weight of many adult issues and their emotional needs must be met before students are going to be available to learn, retaining information they can then apply. Over the last several years I have learned much about brain development, effects of trauma on children, and the importance of developmental relationships. I have become a Therapeutic Crisis Intervention Trainer which has only fostered my beliefs further. I enjoy, along with my two supportive co-trainers, sharing the knowledge and skills provided by TCI with my district to help us better support all children.

I was absolutely shocked and humbled to be asked to participate in the CEC’s 100 stories event. I know that teaching has never been easy, but these past two years have been exceptionally hard. I have seen educators show up every single day, going above and beyond,  trying to navigate this pandemic while wearing so many hats. I am proud to be a part of this profession and I hope to continue to be a part of such a supportive community for years to come.

Posted:  19 May, 2022
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