Being a special education teacher showed Jennifer McCormick the value of relationships

Chalkbeat journalists ask the people we come across in our work to tell us about their education stories and how learning shaped who they are today. Learn more about this series, and read other installments, here.

Jennifer McCormick became state superintendent in 2017. Previously, she was the superintendent of schools in Yorktown, near Muncie, where she was also a teacher and principal.

I remember as a high school student having the opportunity to share lunch time with students (with special needs). I really think that as a peer, that really helped me realize the power of relationships with peers and in better trying to understand students in special populations.

We all shared lunch together and tried to really develop some friendships with students that we might not have had experiences with. I really think that piqued my interest in the area of special education and the area of elementary education and how powerful that was — not just giving of yourself, but how much you receive by having those types of experiences.

When I went on to study education (after high school), obviously I saw things that were different as far as diversity, as far as socioeconomic struggles, so that was good for me. That really opened my eyes — I was from New Castle.

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I remember especially there was a young gentleman who was … between 8 and 10 at the time that I saw him. He was in the child protective services, and he was receiving a lot of wraparound services. At the time, as a young educator, I didn’t have a great handle on that — I’ll be honest with you. That was my first time dealing with someone whose home situation was really volatile, and his academics weren’t necessarily a huge priority for him.

That was a change for me because I came from a stable home, I came from a stable district.

For me, that situation was an eye-opener. There were many more issues as far as what his focus was on, more of the survival instinct and getting his basic needs met vs. academics. Education cannot simply be just about the academics. That was an important lesson and really has shaped a lot of how I approach things as far as the whole child and not just the academic side of things.

I often wonder (about him). I saw him for a couple of years, and (at the time) he was very mobile. I don’t know what happened. He’d be older now, and I hope he’s productive and doing OK.

In order for students to be successful, we all just had to really make sure that we were all working together and trying to provide the students services that they need. Those years of special education … today I look back at a lot of those experiences I had with those families and those students, and it really did mold who I am today.

I understand the value of partnerships — that’s who I am, and that’s how I’ve led, that’s how I taught, that’s how I parent. I understand it truly does take a village. Everyone plays a role in what we accomplish, and I think that’s true at a local or state level.