Why am I here?….Why are YOU here?

So this is my first post. Much ado about something, I hope. I have thought about many different ways of going at this first post – picking a hot topic within education, perhaps an editorial post about something that someone has written recently, or maybe writing about something that has happened lately in a student’s life that touched my heart…but there will be time for all of that to come. This post, I want to be an introduction of sorts – something that describes and explains my passion for my work…a framework for posts to follow that lets you in on my thinking.

Let me start at the beginning. I was a pre-med student at the University of Wisconsin. I wanted to be a pediatrician for so long at that point; I couldn’t remember when it was that I wanted to be anything else. The summer of my sophomore year I took a job, doing something I had absolutely no background in. I worked for United Cerebral Palsy, as a paraprofessional (a classroom aide) to four-year old twin brothers with Autism, who were fully included in a pre-school classroom.

Let me back up even a little further. Not only did I not have any experience as an aide, nor did I in pre-school teaching, but I didn’t have any people in my family or within my friends’ families that had disabilities. I didn’t have any experience with people with disabilities whatsoever…at least not people with recognizable ones.

So, when I started this position, it was with a bit of hesitation. These two little guys were depending on me to make their day as seamless as possible. I was the one that supported them within the classroom and helped them be successful, despite the fact that they were non-verbal, and quite honestly – they had some challenging behaviors that were downright difficult in a classroom setting! When frustrated, I was bitten and kicked by them too many times to count. It didn’t take me long, however, to figure out when they needed me to do something so that we could avoid those interruptions to their day. They had different ways of being, right before they would bite or kick – there was a rhythm to it, a reason for it, and ways to predict when it would happen…if I could only pay attention to those signs, and offer supports to them that made sense, I could help them through it.

It wasn’t long before their mother, a single woman with two jobs at the time, approached me to ask if I would do respite care for them, as she felt that I had a relationship with them at that point that was different from most people in their lives. I didn’t fully appreciate what she meant by that at the time.  I started doing respite care, which is basically a fancy word used for babysitting kids with disabilities. I went to their home the first time and was amazed at how different home life was from school life for these two little boys. Their mother understood and loved these two unconditionally, as all mothers hopefully do for their kids. But in this case, it showed in ways that you might not expect. One example of this is how she understood that the two of them had a lot of extra energy to expend at any given moment. She had given them the master bedroom in their home, put up a full-fledged jungle gym in the room, and it was fabulous. What a way to think about what those boys needed from day to day! Little did I know that those two little boys, and my experiences and learning from them and their mother would change my life.

The next semester of school, I kept my job at the pre-school, kept doing respite for them, and continued on with my pre-med track. I also chose one class as an elective – Introduction to Disabilities, taught by Dr. Lou Brown, hoping I could get better at working with the two boys I had grown to adore. Dr. Lou Brown, if you haven’t heard of him, is a force in inclusive education for people with disabilities. Many consider him to be the “father of inclusion”, as he has played such a vital role in the lives of people with disabilities world-wide.

Instead of the typical homework or tests that would usually go along with a large, introductory class such as this, he had a practicum set up for each of the nearly 200 students. Each person taking this class spent time in schools, with real teachers and real students – and that comprised our homework and tests for the semester.

About half way through the semester, Lou asked me to stay after class. He asked me to come to his office later that week so that we could discuss my practicum. When I went to his office, nervous about what the content of our meeting would be, he sat with my transcript, and explained to me how I needed to change my major. Just like that….he told me I should quit pre-med. I was completely astounded by this notion, and explained to him that no, I was only taking this class to get a bit more information for my work at the pre-school. He insisted, based on conversations with teachers about my practicum experiences – my calling was within special education. Can you imagine?? That is not the typical professor role in an undergraduate university!!

He explained that he had heard things about the way I was with the kids, the way I worked within the setting and the teachers, and the ability to see through things that were present that didn’t really matter – and find those things to highlight that did matter for the kids and the teachers. He explained that sort of understanding, especially with no previous background in it whatsoever, was not found every day. After thinking about it, long and hard, I changed my major that following semester. I cannot tell you how happy I am, looking back on it, that he called me into his office.

Throughout the remainder of my time at Madison, I was fortunate enough to have Lou Brown as my advisor. I graduated from his program with an arsenal of skills that not many can boast. The key to his thinking and teaching was that inclusion of kids in their neighborhood schools and communities is a social justice issue. It is based on individual rights of people with disabilities. When focusing on these things FIRST, then all of the thinking around what to do in any given situation or school becomes clearer.

The expectation of us as undergraduates, learning our trade, was that we would change things for kids. Not just in day to day, smaller ways – but in big, life changing ways that made sense. In his estimation, we were the ones that needed to make a difference in the world for people with disabilities, in the way that we could – through teaching. We could change the systems that were broken in schools. We were expected to push boundaries that existed within classrooms and communities. We needed to do it for the bigger issue of social justice, and there was no room for error – his expectations were extremely high in this regard.

I find it hard explain what this was like, and how totally different it was from any other special education program that I have heard people describe since. Even as a student teacher, we were pushed to discover different ways for kids to be successful in schools. After graduation, the expectations only increased. Still, to this day, those expectations are there. I haven’t talked to Lou in a number of years now, but each time I do talk to him, the questions are always the same. They are judgment-laden, with the assumption that we are still continuing to be that change agent and influence for people with disabilities, and that we still work towards the bigger goal of social justice and inclusion.

I am continually in contact with a network of people that went through his program, either as an undergraduate or graduate student. We all still have the common piece of kids at the center of all of our thinking, each of us going at the issue of inclusion in our own, unique ways. I consider myself privileged to have gone through that training, and be a member of his learning community. Not just for the tools that it has given to me as a professional, but more than that – for the empowerment it has given me to do this work well.

It always has been a social justice issue to me. I see no difference between this topic and why people are fighting towards equal rights for any other potentially marginalized group in society. It is crystal clear for me, and it is with that clarity around it that I venture into new settings, with new teachers and families, with the confidence that I have, to make a difference –  even if small in scope at times.

I trust that we can find ways together to make a difference for all kids. I assume that the teachers and families are all there for the same reasons – all have a stake in the students’ success – and that sometimes issues arise that cloud the conversations and actions of people, but that we can work it out together.

Hopefully, through this blog and my work in schools that will come from it, I can be in position to create spaces for the conversations that empower teachers to “play” in their profession again, learn from and share with other adults around them, and think of creative solutions to meet the increasing needs of their students.

It is also my hope that families and individuals with disabilities will find empowerment through this blog. It may be through finding their voices, sharing their expertise and experiences, or understanding schools in a new or different way – allowing them to become advocates in their schools, communities and lives….I hope it happens here.

That is why I am here….why are YOU here?

12 thoughts on “Why am I here?….Why are YOU here?

  1. Eric Hohn

    Jennifer, Your story and experience is fascinating to me. In giving private music lessons to a diverse group of students I have found that not everybody learns the same way at all. I am constantly changing and adapting my teaching methods to play to the strength of the student. I always want it to be a positive music experience. One that empowers yet challenges too. I think everyone benefits in an environment like that. Thanks for including me in your message.

    1. Jennifer Sommerness Post author

      Hi Eric,
      I couldn’t agree with you more about teaching to strengths! I have found that there is an assumption that exists generally, that music is easily adapted to kids with disabilties, but that in fact, it can be one of the harder things to adapt well. I would love to hear how you empower kids with diverse needs! I imagine there are many teachers out there that struggle with that every day that would love to hear about it as well! Please share! Jen

  2. George Olson

    Great blog Jen and good for you! Our lives have some remakable similarities. I finished my undergraduate studies at St. Cloud State in 1994 expecting to go out and begin a long-lasting career teaching in this area. Unfortunately I learned quickly that there are about 100 applicants for each social studies position. To get by I began subbing in the Rosemount/Apple Valley/Eagan school district just south of the Twin Cities. This experience led me to the unknown world of Special Education. I was unaware of how difficult it was to find substitutes in these areas and I discovered how much I enjoyed working with these kids. Eventually I found myself being requested by teachers in the field and was working every day. One day at lunch three of these teachers told me that I should go back and get a license in Special Education because I seemed to understand the challenges these kids faced and I had a great rapport with the kids and recognized what the kids could do rather than what they could not. After some soul searching I decided to begin work on a special education licensure in Specific Learning Disabilities and Mild/Moderate Mentally Impaired.

    While working on this licensure I was confronted by the district special education coordinator about a need in the district for a male paraprofessional to work with a boy with autism and significant mental impairments. He was also non-verbal and I knew NO sign language, well except for maybe “the finger”. I was scared to death but I agreed to take the position on a temporary two week trial basis. It was in an elementary school setting which just added to my apprehension and nervousness about this position. This school was a regular education school that also housed a center-based program for the MMMI/MSMI/DCD students throughout the district. What I saw here amazed me. Regular education and special education students making a purpose to ensure that these kids were a part of all the school acivities. The staff did not allow these students to fail, but instead each student achieved success at their levels and these were celebrated by all…special needs students, general ed. students, and special education and general education staff. This experience showed me the importance of inclusion in schools and society. I think back to our high school experiences at East High School and I honestly remember no Special Education students of classrooms. What a shame because these students did exist, just not our exclusive education arrangement.

    To conclude, I did go on to complete my Special Education licensure and taught Special Education for four years and found myself eventually back teaching my first love of Social Studies. I have been teaching social studies for 13 years now but I strongly believe my experience in Special Education has made me a better teacher and a more compassionate person. When colleagues argue that “these kids” should not be in their classes because it too hard or not relevant to their lives I tell them that it is not their problem. As an educator they then need to find ways to make it relevant to them. I make it a point that all special needs kids are enrolled and included in my classes until they prove to me that it is not appropriate, they show me what they can do and I do not prejudge to them what they can’t. Best wishes Jen and I hope your blog is a long-term success.

    1. Jennifer Sommerness Post author

      Hello George,
      Long time, no see! Thank you so much for sharing your story. It sounds very much like through Social Studies, your love, you can offer a great deal to the students and the teachers that you work with.

      You pin point a couple of things that very often goes on in schools around inclusive practices. I will be posting on these issues as well, but let me just mention them here, if for no other reason than to play devil’s advocate and start the thinking for future posts.

      One is the notion of “these kids”…it sounds like you are creating the conversations that change that to “our kids”. That is great! How can you, as a teacher, continue to influence the language used throughout the school (by teachers, by students, by families)?

      Secondly, you describe that your experience has given you the ability to accommodate many kids in your classroom. You are making things relevant, and if I had to guess – I imagine you work with other teachers to keep all students engaged there. That is teacher leadership at it’s best, I think – and it sounds like you are doing that well!

      You mention in your description that all students are included until they prove to you that it isn’t appropriate. Here is that devil’s advocate part…I am hoping that we can have a conversation in future posts about what that looks like in your class. I would suggest that there are many times that students are pulled out of classrooms, before it is appropriate. I would love to hear from you what that looks like in your situations, and with your experiences.

      Thanks for sharing George, and come back to think through this with me more! Now I have a couple more things to write about!


  3. Bonnie Carlson

    I am blessed to have special children of my own – not special needs children, but children that more than any of their classmates understand the special needs kids in their classrooms. This enlightenment came three years ago from a paraprofessional for my eldest and just last year for my youngest (1st grade and kindergarten respectively for these qualities to shine through). I was told this ‘compassion’ could not be “taught”. Although I beg to differ – quite the compliment none the less. I cannot wait to read more in your blog about inclusion, not just in the classroom – but how as a society we can be open-minded to treating everyone with respect and compassion. I want to continue this growth of open acceptance in my children and help them be positive leaders and roll models for others. Thanks for finding your calling and sharing with us all.

  4. Clare

    Jen, this is wonderful! I have picked your brain in the past and gotten such great and timely advice. This is such a great forum for you, a way to share your knowledge and insight into things most of us parents can’t articulate or explain when trying to deal with schools, IEPs and classroom support. I look foward to more posts and say, Great Job!

    1. Jennifer Sommerness Post author

      Hi Clare!
      I am so glad you are here! Thanks for posting already, and I hope that you will continue to share your perspective and insight in the future! You are definitely a woman that knows how to articulate what you want for your kids in a way that we all can learn from. Thanks so much for being here!


  5. julie mellum

    I was SO impressed reading about your wonderful dedication to kids and your resplendent work towards that goal. It was also exciting to hear how it all came about.
    Knowing you, it is easy to see the effect on kids and indeed on people in general that you have–you project positive vibes to the max!
    I too have been working on social justice issues with my organization, “Take Back the Air”. As a person with a disability myself–asthma with reactive airways–I am often dismayed to realize that although the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) guarantees people with disabilities like asthma and autism “access” to public spaces (schools, streets, parks and sidewalks), this civil rights law isn’t being enforced. Wood smoke, ever proliferating outdoors, presents a serious physical barrier to those with breathing and other disabilities, at a time when disabilities in kids are skyrocketing, along with asthma. Fragrances in classrooms are a stripe of the same tiger that are hindering learning too. So let us soldier on and do what we can to help kids, armed with our phalanyx of skills and knowledge. You are the queen of ’em all!
    And by the way, it brought tears to my eyes to see your wonderful shot of the kids walking down the street–I miss you all!

  6. Rebecca

    Jen – What a beautiful story and a great way to get a conversation going about this important issue. I have to admit, that I couldn’t help thinking that you also would have been a great doctor, for the same reasons and qualities that make you great with special needs kids and with all people!

  7. Sara Chechik

    Hi Jen,

    I am astounded by your story, while I was aware that you’ve been working towards your PhD for the past several years, all I really knew was that it was somehow related to education. How wonderful to have found such meaningful work for your life, you and the the children you work with are so lucky for that fatefull day many years ago. We never know what lies behind other doors unless we open them and are brave enough to walk through.


  8. Karen

    Jennifer thank you for inviting my into your blog and giving me an even deeper picture of who you are, your background and your vision. Meeting the needs of ALL learners is central to my role as an educator and a passionate layer personally. I look forward to reading more and gaining deeper perspective on an ever demanding and critical facet of education and humanity.


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