How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

For a dozen years, Danielle Felicissimo was a bookkeeper and accountant. The work was sometimes challenging but “also really boring,” she said, and Felicissimo yearned for something more meaningful. When her son was diagnosed with autism as a toddler, she saw up close the struggles he endured and decided to change careers, going back to school to become a teacher. While pursuing a master’s degree, she taught at a Catholic school in the Bronx.

Then a friend pointed out a job opening in the same borough at a public school, but Felicissimo was hesitant at first to apply. The school was in District 75, which exclusively serves city students with severe disabilities, including non-verbal autism, muscular dystrophy or emotional afflictions, who need highly specialized instructional supports. Her professors had often disparaged the district for its lack of inclusion of general education students. But she applied, eventually took the job, and has come to love it and believes passionately in District 75’s mission.

“I see kids who are happy, thriving, and confident, who might be bullied or struggle to make friends in another setting,” she said about her school, the Stephen D. McSweeney Occupational Training Center, where students can be the “stars of the school plays, music and fashion shows, color guard, cheerleading, student council.” She is about to complete her third year at McSweeney, where classes are ungraded but her 12 students are currently the equivalent, age-wise, of high school freshmen.

The hardest part of her job, she said, is tailoring her lessons to fit her students’ widely varying needs and having to accept that some of their disabilities impose limitations that even the best teaching alone can’t solve. “No matter how hard you may try or how much you care, some times there isn’t an answer,” she said.

But helping students’ overcome challenges to acquire new skills, she said, offers unparalleled rewards. “Seeing a student who didn’t speak or couldn’t read begin to do those things at 15-plus-years-old is amazing,” she said. “Or watching a student who struggled with severe behavior problems obtain and keep a job is thrilling.”

Felicissimo also describes why she doesn’t have a lot of decorations in her classroom, why she lets students occasionally “go off on a tangent” in class, and what her own high school teacher taught her years ago that she now draws on for her lessons.

Answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How did you get interested in teaching students with disabilities?

I have always been empathic and a helper. It’s my nature. When I was a child I used to care for animals in the neighborhood that had injuries or lacked homes. I would even try to bring them home with me. But I didn’t start as a teacher. I am actually a career changer. I was a bookkeeper and tax accountant for 12 years after college. Though it was interesting at times and could be challenging, it was also really boring.  I had already been looking to make a switch because I felt like I was missing out on an opportunity to do something worthwhile and to make a difference. After my son was diagnosed with autism as a toddler, it really pushed me to go into teaching. I specifically wanted to work with students with special needs, as I knew so intimately the challenges they face.

What range of special needs do your students have?

I teach at the Stephen D. McSweeney Occupational Training Center in the Bronx. It is an amazing District 75 self-contained high school. District 75 has more teachers than any school district overseen by the city’s education department and provides highly specialized instructional support for students with the most severe disabilities. All of our classrooms are self-contained, which means that we only have students with disabilities within them — no general education students at all.  Currently I teach all common branch subjects plus health and vocational training to what would be considered 9th-grade students, though we are an ungraded school. So we have a wide range of disabilities. At the moment I have 12 amazing students, ages 14 and 15, who have many strengths but also many different challenges: autism, Down syndrome, intellectual disabilities, hearing loss, spina bifida and muscular dystrophy. I have also taught students with ADHD and emotional disturbances, such as schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, and oppositional defiant disorder.

How do you get to know your students?

I am very much still a kid myself. My students keep me so young and “in the know.” I pride myself on having a very welcoming and safe atmosphere in my classroom — a place where each kid knows they are valued and are free to express themselves. I also call us a family, and we treat each other as such. I make sure to have conversations with each kid every day about whatever they want. If they go off on a tangent during the lesson I will indulge them a little bit. This lets me learn more about their personalities and preferences. For example, I have a student who is obsessed with Michael Jackson. So when the students have completed their work and have free time I will put “Just Dance” on the Smart Board and let him and the other kids dance around the room. I really think it all just comes down to being genuine. Children can tell when you really care and when you are faking it.

What does your classroom look like?

My classroom is actually very plain! I have ADHD myself and too much stuff overwhelms me. I try to keep the colors high-school cool with a black and white chalkboard theme, plus a few green, blue and pink accents. Since I have students at all academic and social levels, including non-readers, I also have visual supports such as picture symbols all around the room for assistance.

How do you teach students who are at such different levels?

That is the million dollar question! Differentiation is at the core of what I do inside the classroom. I have to take every lesson and adapt it to to the unique needs of each student. Imagine doing this 12 times for five subjects every single day. It can be exhausting and impossible sometimes, but I try my best. The more efficient way to do this is to group the students by level. Currently I have three main groups, clustered by abilities, and then I add some extra supports here and there if a student really needs something specific. It’s always a work in progress, and you learn as you go. Lesson planning definitely takes up the majority of my time.

Tell us about a favorite lesson you like to teach. Where did it come from?

My favorite subject to teach is Life Skills because it is so relevant and useful to my students. My favorite lesson is about getting your first apartment. The students really have no clue how much things cost versus how much money you make at a job. It makes me laugh to see their eyes widen when they realize they have to work for a whole week at a minimum wage just to buy a couch. It’s eye-opening for them because many have not been as exposed as their general education counterparts to such topics or experiences at their age, because many of my students’ parents still do a lot for their children at this stage. But we want to make sure they become as independent as possible as they age. This lesson is actually one my own high school economics teacher, Ms. Hafner, used to teach. She made us do this exact same thing — and as a teen, I found it revelatory!

What’s the most rewarding thing about being a teacher?

Seeing a student who didn’t speak or couldn’t read begin to do those things at 15-plus-years-old is amazing. Or watching a student who struggled with severe behavior problems obtain and keep a job is thrilling. I have a former student who used to flip desks when angry or frustrated and often ran away from the school. After a lot of hard work over the years with me and other staff in the building, she now has a full time job in Manhattan doing office work, making around $20 an hour. These stories give me chills everytime I tell them or hear them. Giving students the tools and chance at a great life are the reasons why I go to work everyday.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The most difficult part is realizing that some challenges can’t be fixed. No matter how hard you may try or how much you care, sometimes there isn’t an answer. I’m a perfectionist, so the idea of failure does not appeal to me, and I don’t think I will ever be comfortable with this fact that some times we have to focus on the things we can change and accept those we can’t.

What’s your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?

It depends on the reason for the child’s loss of focus. Are they bored? Distracted? Having a bad day? If you know your students, you will know why and which trick to use. If the student is just distracted, I will usually throw them a joke out of left field and get them to laugh. It is a way to get their attention directed to you without calling them out and embarrassing them. Afterward, you can use some proximity in the classroom to make sure they stay engaged.

New York City has shifted more students with disabilities into general education classrooms. How can District 75, which only services students with more severe disabilities, also work toward inclusion?

The purpose of District 75 is not inclusion, and I don’t think it should or can be for all students. There are some students for whom inclusion is appropriate, and it will help them to be successful. But there is a reason why we have a continuum of services from least to most restrictive. Children with different kinds of disabilities need different kinds of supports. For example, students with severe non-verbal autism will not thrive in an inclusion setting. What’s really needed is a more rigorous placement process. I know many students who do not belong in District 75. Let’s make a better system to ensure all students are placed appropriately. That way, students who might benefit from inclusion get to do so.

Do your students have opportunities to interact with their general education peers during the day?

Since my school is self-contained there are no opportunities to interact with general education peers in school. However, we do make sure the students who are capable of doing so interact with the community in various ways on a daily or weekly basis. We have 11 full time and 20 part-time worksites where our students go to work and learn valuable skills. For example we have a class that goes to Old Navy in the Bay Plaza Mall a few times a week and works in the store. Students do most of the same tasks as the employees — cleaning, organizing and stocking the clothes. We have many field trips and community walks. We also have a vocational arts program in which each class has its own business. Students go shopping for supplies at different stores and then sell their finished products in school and at other fairs and events, interacting with many different people throughout.

What are the biggest misconceptions about District 75?

That having all students with disabilities together in a school is a terrible thing. The professors in my master’s teacher preparation program were all very against District 75 and back then I would have never imagined I would be teaching here. When a friend told me about the job, I was admittedly hesitant to apply. In fact, I know now that having my students together is a wonderful thing. I see kids who are happy, thriving, and confident, who might be bullied or struggle to make friends in another setting. At the McSweeney OTC, they are stars of the school plays, music and fashion shows, color guard, cheerleading, student council, etc. No one can convince me they would have the same opportunities in an inclusion or general education setting.

How does the broader community influence what goes on inside your class?

The poverty of the Bronx directly affects my students, as well as those throughout the school.  I have students who live in homeless shelters, who come to school unwashed and in the same clothes everyday, and who are always starving because they do not have anything to eat outside of school. It is tragic, and my staff and I do whatever we can to help them. We will get them extra lunches, snacks, or even items of clothing they might need. We had one student who did not have a winter coat this year, and a staff member bought him one. The need is just so great.

What was the biggest misconception you brought into teaching?

That some education class, textbook, or blog was going to give me everything I needed to know to be the best teacher possible. Instead, I’ve learned on the job, and I’m still learning every day. I love to visit other teachers at school to see what they are doing in their classrooms, and I’m extremely lucky to be at such a great school, where the staff is always helpful and collaborative.

What’s the best piece of teaching advice you have ever received?

To make sure your students know they are loved and safe. If you meet their basic human needs, the learning will follow.