Last month, nearly 50 University of Texas-University Charter School teachers and administrators came together to learn best practices, share new teaching strategies and build upon their networks at a daylong professional development seminar.
UT-University Charter School Superintendent Melissa Chavez kicked off the annual Teach and Share Day with a keynote address, in which she shared the school’s strategic plan and asked the group to ponder one simple question.
“Why do we exist? We need to ask ourselves this question,” says Chavez, who is also an associate vice president within the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement and executive director of the UT Elementary School. “Once we truly understand why we exist, we can no longer underestimate the difference we make in the lives of the students that we serve.”
Throughout the day, participants from all UT-University Charter Schools across Texas kept this question in mind as they participated in a series of workshops from stress-management techniques, to integrating technology into the classroom, to new research-based models for interactive learning.
Unlike traditional professional development workshops, this professional development day is designed for teachers who serve students with various special needs. Housed within the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, the school district serves about 600 students ranging from highly gifted and talented to severe intellectual impairment.
“Traditional professional development workshops are great for best practices and instruction, but our teachers need advice on how to instruct the unique population of students that we serve,” Chavez says. “It takes much more finesse supporting these children emotionally and physically, so it’s very important for us all to come together as a group to learn from one another.”
In between workshops, we caught up with a few teachers and principals from various schools across Texas to learn more about the unique challenges they’re facing in special education and to get insight on the many ways they’re making a positive impact in their students’ lives.
Sally Arnold, Principal
Laurel Ridge, a San Antonio-based residential treatment and hospital facility serving students with psychiatric, neuro-psychiatric, sexual behavior and developmentally delayed issues.
Pathways 3H, an Ingram-based residential treatment program that serves adolescent boys with behavioral difficulties who may otherwise be headed to incarceration or therapeutic lockup.
High Point, a San Antonio-based day treatment program serving students with psychiatric, neuropsychiatric, sexual behavior and developmentally delayed issues.
Years in education: 23
Why is it important for teachers to continuously evolve their teaching methods?
We’re serving the kids that aren’t successful in traditional schools, so it’s extremely important that we develop our skills. We owe it to our students to hone our teaching skills and stay current with trends in technology.
Our teachers are the hardest working, most professional people I’ve ever known and our students are the bravest people I know because they keep coming back every day. It’s all about second chances for us to make a difference in their lives.
What is the most rewarding aspect of teaching?
It’s rewarding to see the light bulb go off when students make connections. We’re here to plant seeds and help them understand that someone values their performance and contributions. For many of our students, this is the first place where they can demonstrate their success to themselves and others.
Thomas Delgado, Science Teacher
School: Laurel Ridge
Years teaching: 7
Rookie Science Teacher of the Year Award from the Science Teachers Association of Texas
What made you decide to become a teacher?
To put it simply, I wanted to make a difference. In my first career I worked for an ophthalmologist and I really didn’t feel any reward in that. But here I feel like I have a purpose. I wake up every morning and want to be a part of people’s lives. So that’s really what drives me.
How gratifying is it to watch a student succeed and thrive?
It’s hard to answer that question because the students we serve at Laurel Ridge are only there for a short time about 4 to 5 weeks so we don’t really get to see the end result of all our efforts. But if we can just help change their mindset about what school is all about and how much fun it can be, that would be incredibly rewarding.
Dottie Goodman, Principal
Texas NeuroRehab Center (TNC), an Austin-based medical facility that serves students who require specialized services due to brain injury, neuro-behavioral issues and/or who are considered medically fragile
Years teaching: 40
How do you motivate students to learn?
Students with the most disabilities come to TNC because they can no longer live at home for a variety of reasons. When we see those students begin to learn, we celebrate their accomplishments no matter how big or small. I’ve always believed that we need to treat children as though they were someone else’s pride and joy because they are and they deserve to be treated that way.
What is one of the biggest challenges teachers are facing right now?
Finding time is a huge challenge. Teachers need time to plan with each other and discover new strategies. So many of our students come from different backgrounds and different grade levels, so it takes time to address their individual learning needs. One thing I will say about our teachers is that they have all gone above and beyond to accomplish whatever I’ve asked of them, and I know our students are in very good hands.
Jeremy Kunzinger, Teacher, Autism Specialist
Years teaching: 9
Why did you go into teaching?
The kids really need us, and it’s important to be there for them during a critical time in their lives when they really need support. It’s gratifying to be there for them and to create a good experience. With my students, I try to make learning a fun, enjoyable experience and get them to unlearn that they’re going to be disappointed or disappoint somebody.
How are you benefitting from this Teach and Share Day?
You get to see what’s being used successfully in the classroom and also reflect what you’re already doing and how to improve. So this daylong seminar is definitely time well spent. I really enjoyed Joan Givens’ presentation on self-regulation and remaining calm. I will definitely use those techniques for myself and will pass them along to my staff and students.
More about UT-UCS:
The mission of UT-UCS is to provide a personalized learning experience for K-12 students who are in need of alternative educational programs. Campuses are located in a variety of settings, including residential treatment centers, a shelter housing families escaping domestic violence, a home for girls in crisis pregnancies and elite gymnastics programs. The school prepares students to “own their learning” and to be good citizens who are successful in returning to traditional schools or graduating and attending college or entering the workforce. Visit the UT-UCS website for more details.