Deirdre Levy didn’t set out to teach students with special needs. In fact, she says, she fell into her current role by accident, when she checked a box on her New York City teaching application saying she’d be comfortable working in District 75 — without realizing it was the city’s stand-alone district for children with disabilities.
But in the five years since, Levy has grown passionate about her students at P.S. 369K in downtown Brooklyn. This year, she’s teaching fourth- and fifth-graders on the autism spectrum.
“With a neurotypical child, it’s easy to get the expected answer,” she said. “With my students, every day it’s surprising to see what strengths they have and how hard they work.”
That’s partly why Levy, a Queens native and former New York City Teaching Fellow, wanted to hold a science fair. She asked her students to pick topics that interested them — and they did. One chose to grow plants; another wanted to see how a motor powered an electric fan; a third was determined to figure out the best way to cook rice. “I thought it was cool that it showcased all the things they really loved,” she said. “No project idea was denied.”
Levy got the materials she needed, including medals for the science fair winners, by posting her requests on Donors Choose. A program called Science Everywhere matched each donation, ultimately spending $500,000 nationwide in small grants to teachers like Levy.
Her class worked on their projects for a month, Levy said, adding math and writing activities to the science. On the day of the science fair, the students’ families were invited into the classroom, and the school’s psychologist and occupational therapist judged the projects based on appearance, content knowledge and enthusiasm (the electricity project was a big winner).
“I think that it’s important for each student to know how to question things that occur in everyday life,” Levy said, reflecting on what they learned. “How to conduct a procedure, develop results and come up with their own conclusions.”
Here’s more on how Levy approaches her job. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
Chalkbeat: What does your classroom look like?
Levy: It is a 6:1:1 classroom — I have six students and two paraprofessionals that assist the students. We have stations, where students rotate to learn multiple skills within the school day. Every 15 minutes they rotate. So today, my station worked on punctuation. One para had a reading station. And the other one was spelling and phonics.
How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them?
I think it takes at least four weeks to get to know someone. I try to find out what their interests are because students really appreciate when they are listened to. I also think that it’s important to have a warm and strong demeanor. I love to have a silly time with my students, but I also hold them accountable for their actions.
How do you keep your students on task?
I never want to embarrass a child for off-task behavior, but I want to make sure that they understand the concepts that I’ve taught.
I try to center my work on positive reinforcement. The students can earn points and that leads to rewards. Like if they get 50 points, they can watch movies, go to the gym or go to a “girls club.” We make sure they earn points rather than penalizing them. We’re all motivated by things we want to do.
Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
In the beginning of the school year, one of the social workers for one of my students came up to me and told me that my student was one of six children at home with no father. I quickly understood why she had a hard time turning in her homework.
I told her that if she had any issues completing her homework, she had to come to me so that we could work on it together. But I let her know that she was still responsible for turning in her homework on time. Regardless of the circumstances at home, it’s important to teach children how to take responsibility for their own actions.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
Work hard and be patient with yourself. I have always had high expectations for myself and sometimes I got frustrated if things didn’t go the way I planned. I realize now that good things always take time. That’s why it is important to work hard, but to recognize that things will eventually fall into place when they’re ready to happen.