By Casey Matthes, Miriam Special Education Teacher
As a child, I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. My grandparents had an old wooden school desk in their basement. I regularly convinced my sister to sit at that desk and be my student. I never saw it as “playing school.” I saw it as real teaching; I was born to teach. In high school, I started discerning what area of education I wanted to pursue. I did a service-learning project during my senior year in a classroom for children with learning disabilities. When my service hours were complete, I didn’t want to leave. I knew then that teaching students with learning disabilities was my calling.
In college, my passion for Special Education exploded as I learned more about how I could best serve my future students. I graduated and taught in my college town for two years and then decided it was time to move back to Saint Louis. I googled “Special Education jobs in St. Louis,” and Miriam School popped up on my screen. I sent in my resume and scheduled an interview. I will always remember the first time I stepped foot in Miriam School. I saw students smiling and bouncing around the hallway on exercise balls. I saw signs in the hallway, encouraging students to advocate for themselves. The signs included visuals for those students still learning to read. These were things I had not seen or experienced at any other school. In my interview, it was clear that Miriam was a student-centered school where the adults worked together as a team. I learned that the speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, teachers, and teaching assistants worked closely together to build successful education programs for each student. I felt at home. I knew I had to work at this magical place.
I have been teaching at The Miriam School for almost five years now. The level of individualization, interventions, and care each student receives still astounds me. I wish every child who has a learning disability could experience school in the same way Miriam students experience school. Many students form real and meaningful friendships for the first time. They can finally sigh a breath of relief because they are at a place where people do not see their learning disabilities as weaknesses. They know that their peers also have learning differences, and this offers a sense of belonging and acceptance that some of them have never felt before.
Classroom teachers at Miriam foster this sense of community for students with disabilities while also providing individualized curriculum. Every child is working on different academic goals, and teachers are skilled at teaching a classroom of multi-level, multi-graded students. This approach allows students to be with children who are academically and socially compatible, rather than using age as the only criteria. Occupational therapy and speech-language therapy are not isolated interventions that happen outside of the classroom. These therapists work directly with the classroom teacher and are an integral part of the school day. Every staff member uses the same language with students to promote the generalization of concepts in all areas. The staff is genuinely a cohesive team that understands each child’s needs.
As I look back on my time at Miriam, I realize that my students have taught me a lot more than I have taught them. They are resilient and persistent in a way I did not realize was possible. I am in awe of the hard work they put in every day at school. They have taught me the importance of laughter in times of difficulties and that it is okay to make mistakes. I tell my students in room four that we are a classroom family, and I feel very grateful to be a part of that family. During Learning Disability Awareness Month, we should remember that students with learning disabilities have unique strengths and talents to bring to the table. Let’s shine a light on those unique strengths this month and always.