‘What if this was my son?’ How Newark’s Teacher of the Year pushes autistic students to succeed

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Lourdes Reyes, Newark's 2018 Teacher of the Year.

A normal Monday in Lourdes Reyes’ classroom at the First Avenue School begins with a pleasant routine.

Her six students, a mix of first and second-graders with autism, eat breakfast quietly at their desks then brush their teeth in the restroom. Then they return to class, as they did one Monday morning this month, to recite the days and months and share highlights from the weekend — a trip to the zoo, playtime in the park, an evening bike ride.

“Alright,” Reyes said in a soothing tone as she moved the lesson along. “Everybody had a good weekend.”

But on Monday, May 7, things were far from normal.

That was when the district’s interim superintendent arrived unannounced in her classroom bearing balloons and a bouquet, with television cameras in tow, to inform her that she was Newark’s 2018 Teacher of the Year. Reyes tearfully accepted the award as her daughter, a teacher at Elliott Street School, looked on. Then she walked into the hallway, where dozens of students cheered and chanted her name.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Reyes told Chalkbeat during a recent interview.

In college, Reyes had studied to become a social worker. But after her son, Ishmail, was born with autism, she wanted to learn more about his condition. Before long, she had earned a master’s degree in special education and become a teacher of students with autism — a job she’s held for 21 years.

After two decades, she has yet to slow down. Every day after class she begins her second job as an early-intervention specialist, visiting families’ homes to work with young children suspected of having disabilities. After finishing around 8:30 p.m., she takes a late-night walk with her youngest son — a routine that, along with a healthy new diet, helped her lose 65 pounds over the past year.

Reyes stays just as busy at school. In addition to academic lessons, she teaches her students life skills like tying their shoes and cooking — sometimes on a portable stove, which Reyes used one day this year to cook green eggs and ham. In April, which is National Autism Awareness Month, she helped raise $2,300 for the school’s autism program and organized a performance where her students sang Disney songs. Reyes performed alongside wearing the red hat and spotted pants of Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl from “Toy Story.”

Principal Jose Fuentes, who was part of the 10-person leadership team at First Avenue that nominated Reyes for her award, called her “one of the pillars of the school.” She extends herself far beyond her own classroom, showing colleagues and parents how to challenge and support students with autism, Fuentes said.

“She’s giving new light to the possibilities of what it means to be an educator,” he said. “That’s Reyes.”

The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How did you get into teaching?

When my second son was born, Ishmail, he was born with autism.

I was first of all shocked that I had an autistic son. It was very difficult and devastating for all of us. My husband and I had to go for counseling. It was very hard. But then we overcame it. I decided I’m going to take something negative and make something positive out of it.

So I went to graduate school and I took classes on special ed. I loved it and so I took another class. One class led to another.

Then I started volunteering at my son’s school. I was there all the time. In the evenings my husband would get home, he’d watch the kids, I’d go and take my class.

Next thing you know, in two years I completed a master’s in special ed.

How has being the parent of a child with autism shaped the way you teach?

Everything I still do today is focused on, “What if this was my son?”

I think that’s what makes me a little different. Like if I was doing this for him, how would I teach it?

What have you learned about what it takes to be an effective teacher of students with autism?

You can’t feel sorry for a child. Just because they have a disability does not mean that they can’t do something. You have to put that aside and show them in a way that tough love to get them to master the skills. Which is hard for some of the parents to do.

We have to do a lot of what the parents don’t do. For instance, tooth brushing, that’s a life skill. At home they say, “He doesn’t want to brush his teeth.” But they do it here every morning.

It sounds like a big part of your job is working with parents.

I give them my cell number. They call me at all times.

Sometimes [a student’s mother] will say, “It’s a rough morning. He didn’t want to change. I’m sending you the uniform in the book bag.” Then when he comes in, we transition him. When we do toothbrushing we say, “You need to change now.”

Then when it’s 2:45, “You don’t want to wear it? OK, let’s go change you. Put on your jeans, go on the bus.” Happy trooper.

How are you able to make progress with students who come in without many academic skills?

It’s ongoing, and it’s repetitive. Teaching the skills. Pulling them out, teaching them [through] individualized instruction.

And it happens also with the assistance of the aides. I have four great aides. None of this could happen without them.

Ms. [Rasheedah] Jacobs, guess how many years she’s been with me. Fourteen. When I came here and interviewed, I said, “I’ll take the job under the condition that Ms. Jacobs could come with me.” She really, really is a great teacher. I call her a teacher, not even an aide. She’s my right hand.

Can you think of a student whom you had a lot of success with?

Last year, I had one of my highest functioning students. She has Asperger’s. What a thrill to have that little girl. Oh my gosh.

Every week the principal gives the word of the week. She memorized and knew every single word from September to June. And recited it in an assembly, with a sentence for each word. She’s unbelievable!

We had a student [at Quitman Street Community School] who had a band on his esophagus, and he had a feeding tube in kindergarten. We couldn’t believe it — he was in diapers.

I was like, “If we can get this little boy to be toilet trained, that will be a success.” Do you know we mastered that? We did it.

How do you know if you’ve been successful by the end of the year?

Seeing [a student] who didn’t know the letters of the alphabet, seeing him writing sentences, filling in blanks, reciting words.

Knowing [a different student] can tie his shoes. Knowing he can brush his teeth.

Knowing that parents are happy with the progress of their students. Them sharing with me the change in their child once they started coming into my classroom. Parents telling me, “Oh, that’s not the same kid who was in the school last year. That’s a different child.”

What’s your advice to teachers who are just starting out?

Have a lot of patience. Be real devoted.

And do not look at a student with autism as a person who is weak. Have high expectations that they are capable of doing everything and anything with the right accommodations.

It can be done, but it takes someone with dedication, sensitivity, and also someone who does not feel sorry for a child. Anything is possible. There are no limits.

For this Detroit teacher, math is about teaching ‘what makes something true’

PHOTO: Michael Chrzan
Michael Chrzan teaching math during Math Corps, a summer program at Wayne State University.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Asked what he teaches, Michael Chrzan says “mathematics.” Because in his classroom at Henry Ford Academy, a charter high school in Detroit, math is more than the calculations you need to tip a server or balance a budget. Chrzan, a third-year teacher, sees the abstract reasoning skills of mathematics — the proofs and deductions — as tools to help his students develop a firmer grasp on every aspect of their world.

This is just one of the ways he is unusual. A Teach for America alumnus, Chrzan also went through a traditional teacher training program in college. He is a African-American male math teacher in a country that produces far too few of them. And remember the Pokemon Go craze? He still plays.

Less than a week before Chrzan is to be honored as Teach for America’s teacher of the year in Detroit, Chalkbeat spoke with him about his dealings with parents, the toughest parts of his job, his social media habits, and how he finds  “greatness” in every student.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I’ve been teaching in some capacity — teaching or tutoring — since high school. I was a teaching assistant at a summer camp at Wayne State called Math Corps. I caught the bug for teaching there. I did that for three summers. I knew at some point in my life that I would get back into teaching. In college, I took a couple of computer science and math and education classes. And the computer science classes were fun, but I was like, this is just a hobby.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I taught geometry the last two years. It’s really a beautiful class because it’s the only class in high school where kids do the work of professional mathematicians. It’s the only class where they do proofs. So we get to have a really rigorous conversation about what makes something true, which is really important in our society right now.

Every year I pull in examples of deductive reasoning from outside of mathematics too.

One of the things I’m going to try this year is bringing in a Supreme Court decision and talking about the deductive reasoning that shows up there.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

I had a conversation with a very young student’s mother who had the frame of mind that he was responsible for himself.

I was calling to talk about some issues that I’d seen on his homework, and just about getting it completed. That’s a really important part of the learning, that independent practice. And she was very much of the mindset that I needed to have that conversation with him, not her. It was not her job for him to get that done.

It changed how I discussed things with him because it got a much deeper understanding of what he has to deal with outside of these four walls.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The hardest part is motivating students. There are some students who have a really long history of messaging that they’ve gotten from schools, of the kind of person and students they are. I try to reverse that. You plant a seed when you’re the one teacher who’s telling them something different, but sometimes you don’t get to see that seed bloom in one year.

What was the biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

That I was ready for it. I did a lot of pre-professional teaching things. In college, I went to New York for two summers and taught in a program called Breakthrough. I did student teaching. I did Teach for America. I was like, I’ve got to be ready for this, I’ve got so much more experience than most people do when they enter the profession.

I was not ready. There’s is nothing that will prepare you for day in and day out being responsible for your kids’ learning.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

“Children of Blood and Bone,” by Tomi Adeyemi. It’s possibly one of my favorite books of all time. As a millennial, I’m very into social media. I will typically lull myself to sleep on Instagram. And I’ve gotten back into Pokemon Go.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

There are two. I can’t decide which I like better. The first would be, ‘don’t take anything personally.’ That really helped me understand that if I’m having a management issue with a kid, it may not have anything to do with me, that’s probably a kid who needs help. And that pairs up with assuming the best of my students. They came to class because they want to learn, and maybe something got in the way. I try to find their greatness, whether it’s math or otherwise. That’s a more human way to see students, and it opens them up to new things, like trying difficult mathematics.

‘It takes a lot of intentionality’ for this Indiana online school teacher to get to know students

PHOTO: Tuan Tran / Getty Images
Young girl sitting in front of laptop

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Even though Lacy Spears teaches at an online school, much of her work takes place off-line.

She keeps a meticulous planner to track not just online classes and meetings with students, but also in-person events and meetings, phone calls to families, and professional development opportunities.

“There are a lot of moving pieces in the daily life of an online educator,” she said.

Spears is a seventh- and eighth-grade reading interventionist at the Insight School of Indiana, a statewide virtual charter school that is part of the Hoosier Academies network.

Spears, who was recently named one of 68 finalists for 2019 Indiana Teacher of the Year, talked to Chalkbeat about how she works with her students, and how teaching at an online school has changed her perspective on school choice.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

Like so many other educators, I fell in love with school and education thanks to a wonderful teacher I had when I was a student. My fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Kim Ferguson, really treated me like an individual and helped me learn how to play to my strengths. She gave me more leadership roles in the classroom, encouraged my love of writing, and made a huge effort to connect with me. Mrs. Ferguson even let me stay with her after school every day to help organize her classroom. Her guidance and the relationship she cultivated with me really led me to the path of becoming a teacher.

How do you get to know your students?

It takes a lot of intentionality to get to know students, especially in an online school. With this in mind, I call each of my students and their families at the beginning of the year. I like to introduce myself, make sure they feel ready for the school year, and see how I can help them have a successful start, particularly if they’re new to online learning. Within the first few weeks, I ask students to create a vision board, and I work with them to craft a short-term and long-term goal list for the school year. I keep this dialogue up throughout the year and talk to all my families at least once per month. I also hold student-led conferences at least every quarter to take a closer look at student progress and talk about each student’s goals and how I can best support them.

Additionally, I ask my students to submit interest and reading surveys, which I use to select materials and activities for the class. For example, a lot of my students last year really liked music. So, to help them practice their reading skills I found articles about their favorite artists to help pique their interest. I also played music and used song lyrics to analyze literary elements such as themes and main ideas. Knowing what they’re interested in helps me keep them focused on learning.

Although my classes take place online, I try my best to see my students in person as much as possible. Insight School of Indiana hosts events across the state to help students connect with their peers in their communities. I love to attend these events and help lead several school activities. For example, I serve as the advisor for our school’s chapter of the National Junior Honor Society and manage our school-based food pantry. These are all wonderful opportunities to get to know my students and their families outside of the online classroom.

Lastly, I always try to devote some class time to helping students get to know each other. A few minutes before class begins, I like to invite them to share something about themselves via their webcams. I learn so much more about my students when I see them connect with and support each other in the safe learning environment of our online platform.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

Lesson planning is one of my favorite parts of teaching. I love the creativity that it allows. I also welcome the opportunity to design lessons that support me in providing a personalized education for each student. I especially love to help them design their own lesson plans, which allows them to take on the role of teacher. The objective is to design a lesson that explains a concept to their peers. Doing this activity helps students master content, keeps them motivated, and helps them retain more information.

To guide them through the process, I first encourage students to use four steps: topic selection, brainstorming lesson elements, designing assessment criteria, and planning and delivery. Students use class time to design their lessons and collaborate with one of their peers to receive feedback. Afterward, they teach their lesson to the class.

The first time I did this activity, I had never seen my students so engaged! Providing opportunities for peer feedback enhances their understanding, and students benefit from the advice and observations of their peers prior to presenting their final projects. Students also become experts on their researched concepts and are proud to teach other students about the new information they learn. They take ownership over their education, reflect on the learning process, collaborate to improve, and practice public speaking skills.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

More and more, I think we are seeing kids coming to school with worries and troubles from their home lives. So many students are struggling to have their basic needs met. They don’t have enough food, clean clothes, reliable transportation, or a steady roof over their heads. It is challenging to focus on school when you have an empty stomach and haven’t slept. Our school has tried to meet some of those needs through a variety of support programs, including the school’s food pantry in Indianapolis. We work with our families to provide access to clothing, toiletries, and other necessities throughout the year.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

When I first started teaching, I assumed that when parents didn’t answer the phone when I called home, or didn’t sign their children’s permission slips, or didn’t seem very present, that they must not value education. As I got to know my families, though, I realized that wasn’t the case.

One of my first students sticks out in my mind. His mother had passed away, his dad worked multiple jobs to keep food on their table, and my student was home alone most of the time after school. Feeling frustrated one day with this student’s lack of progress, I asked him what I might do to help him stay motivated and to get him back on track. He mentioned that since his dad was usually working, his grandma was often the only adult he had in his home life. He gave me her phone number, and we called her together. I realized through this conversation, and subsequent calls, that this family absolutely valued education. They just needed food on their table more immediately than they needed to get back to me.

Since then, I am very careful never to judge a family or make assumptions before getting to know them. Sometimes the perspective and the circumstance of a family is just different from your own, or from the majority of your students. Everyone has other things going on in their lives, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t care or that they aren’t doing everything they can for their children.

What part of your job is most difficult?

I think the most difficult part of my job is striking a balance between positive academic outcomes and taking the time to connect with my students on a personal level. It can be easy to get so focused on testing and data that you leave out time to know your students — to listen to them and help them not only master skills and content, but also learn how to build positive relationships, solve problems, and communicate. Teachers aren’t just responsible for academic success. We play an integral role in helping students become well-rounded adults. It can be a challenge to make sure each student has what they need outside of school to succeed in class, but I’m proud to be a part of a learning community at Insight School of Indiana that provides a host of support resources to our students and their families, including our food pantry, college and career planning support, remediation programs, and help with accessing social services.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

The biggest misconception that I had is that the best school for a student is the school they are assigned by their district. I bought into a lot of the criticisms of school choice when I first became a teacher. I’ll admit that most of the uncertainty I held came more from misinformation than actual experience or facts. Since becoming a teacher at an online charter school, I’ve really seen the benefits that school choice can have for children and families. We have so many students at Insight School of Indiana who are much more successful and feel more secure than they did in their locally-assigned program.

Learning is a personal journey, and while many students thrive in a traditional setting, that’s not the case for everyone. So many students benefit from school choice, and students enroll in online school for a variety of reasons. Whether they are advanced learners or need additional support, are looking for a safe and bullying-free environment, or need to balance academic goals with extracurricular pursuits or medical needs, Insight School of Indiana offers an education they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. The online platform gives our students a public education option that meets their unique needs, and it allows them to set and work towards their goals regardless of their circumstances or previous experiences. Our personalized learning approach definitely helps put students on a path to success.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

As a reading teacher, I gravitate towards things I can talk about with my students. Right now, I’m re-reading The Dark Artifices series by Cassandra Clare. The final book in the series is supposed to come out later this year, and I can’t wait!

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

Never hold grudges. Students must come to school each day with a clean slate from the day before. They need to be free to make mistakes, to learn from them, and to still feel loved and valued along the way.