By Sophie Hastings and Lindsey Olsen
The idea of working in a special needs classroom intimidated the heck out of Lindsey. Before the big day, she played and replayed scenarios in of everything that could go wrong. What if a child bites me and wont let go? What if one starts screaming? What if they don’t say a word, don’t participate in any of the lesson we had worked so hard preparing? Across the table, her teammate, Sophie, nursed similar fears. What if they don’t like us?
Reality was much different.
“My name is Sincere, and I’m seven,” one girl told Sophie as the team walked in the door. All of the children were delighted to see us. Each child was clamoring for attention from the high school students who were to be their special guests that day. As Lindsey later reflected, “all of the stereotypes I had about kids with special needs dropped away.”
We both found our way into Mr. Orphal’s Introduction to Education class looking forward to the opportunity to work with children. Sophie, in particular, felt lost at Skyline, a large, urban high school in Oakland. We had each heard from older students in the Education Academy that the elective classes were hard but really fun.
Along with field trips to education-related business and non-profits, our class takes two trips each year to a local elementary school, where we become the teachers for the day. It’s the most anticipated project of the year.
We each had different sections of the curriculum we had to lead during the day. Even though we received our curriculum “in the can,” as Mr. Orphal calls it, we had to invest a tremendous amount of time and energy to digesting the material, organizing it for our lessons, and practicing how we planned to facilitate our students’ learning. We even learned games that would help us break the ice.
Even though we focused on preparing the lessons we would lead, we also had to learn each other’s lessons so that we could help each other. Planning a day’s worth of lessons was a lot more stressful that we thought it would be.
Notwithstanding all of the class time, lunch time, and extra time at home we took to prepare, when the day arrived, we still weren’t sure if we were ready.
When the bus pulled up to the front of the elementary school, a rush of excitement and worry made it’s way down the aisle with us. Reminders of, “don’t swear,” and “don’t hit the kids” floated from sophomore to sophomore.
It wasn’t until we were actually in the classroom that our anxious nerves and fears started to fade away. The room was filled with laughter and positive energy. We realized that these were all normal kids and Mr. Orphal reassuring words came back to us, now proved: “Kids with special needs are, first and foremost, kids.”
Throughout the lesson, we saw exactly how amazing and unique each of these kids is. We spent the morning learning about money and jobs. Afterwards, we all went out to recess together and played games.
As we rode back to Skyline on the bus, we talked about how much fun we had, and how exhausted we were. As prepared as we had been, we had to do a lot of improvising. It felt like we had been actors on stage the entire day. What’s more, we were the ones in charge. We didn’t have a teacher we could turn to and ask, “What does the word mean?” Instead, we were the teachers who had to have these answers ready with our students asked.
We rode home with new respect for all of the work our teachers put into the lessons they lead us through each day. And even though Mr. Orphal had told us, it was this day that really taught us not trust our stereotypes. Kids with special needs are, first and foremost, kids!