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Confident and Able

In June of 2017, I left my analyst position at a well-known nonprofit consulting firm and decided to become an Integrated Special Education (ISE) teacher at Rocketship Southside Community Prep in Milwaukee.  After nearly 10 years working in the nonprofit sector, I decided that I wanted to make an impact in the everyday lives of children with special needs. As a young child, I too received special education support, so the decision was personal. I thought of my move to teaching as a way I could give back to my community and as an overdue “thank you” to all the teachers who impacted my life.

I was confident in my abilities as a professional. “How hard can this transition be?” I thought.

Two months in, I started to lose my confidence. The world of special education proved to be more nuanced and challenging than I had anticipated. I was certain of the importance of my job, but uncertain in my own abilities. Until one day, along the banks of the Menomonee River, I found my confidence as my student found his power.

Mr. Ault, meet Aiden

I remember the first time I worked with Aiden. It was my first day and he was reluctant to come into my office. Tears welled up in his eyes as his mother assured him that I was going to be a great teacher.

Reluctantly, Aiden sat at my desk. He wouldn’t talk. I prompted him by asking numerous questions. Nothing worked. At the end of our first 30-minute small group, I had yet to hear his voice, let alone know what his favorite color was, or what memory he cherished most from summer.

But slowly, we developed a functional working relationship. It was pretty straightforward: I would come into his class two times a day. I’d bring in my teaching tools: a numbers chart, a white board, a few dry erase markers, and some flashcards. We’d drill the names of numbers, the sounds of letters. I’d ask him to rote count to 100 and back, guiding and modeling for him whenever he was unsure of himself. I’d call on him to answer my questions and encourage him to speak loudly, confidently. A lot of our time spent together was sedentary, as Aiden was born with a neurological condition that has weakened his limbs, negatively affecting his balance and motor skills. Quickly, I noticed that he would become distraught if he felt too challenged or pushed, and that I had to take the time to learn about Aiden—to figure out the areas where I could target teach and support him to ignite his academic and social potential. After a few weeks, I began to notice that Aiden often brought his whiteboard and marker to class. I didn’t ask him to do so. He just began bringing it. I took it as a sign that he was taking agency over his own learning, showing me how prepared he was to be challenged by the academic content of the day. It would be the first of many moments when Aiden would surprise me.

I began realizing that teaching Integrated Special Education is a delicate balancing act. One where I must be attuned to the voice and non-verbal cues of my students, to their successes, and to my own biases. I was starting to get it, but I still didn’t fully believe in myself, or my ability to impact Aiden’s life. I knew that there was much more to learn.

A Field Trip, a False Choice, and a Major Step

One morning our first grade cohorts were getting ready for a field trip to the Urban Ecology Center—a local nonprofit dedicated to giving urban youth first-hand experiences with conservation and the natural world. “Great!” I thought. “While my first graders are gone, I’ll have time to catch up on my IEP paperwork and lesson plans.”

Aiden, however, wasn’t looking forward to the trip. The change in his routine shocked his ability to cope. He began to point at me and worked furiously to grasp onto my hand. He was making it clear that if he was going to go on this field trip, I would have to go with him.

I was conflicted. On the one hand I wanted to stay at school to work on my lessons plans; but on the other was Aiden, asking me to go with him. Realizing that Aiden, through his grasping of my hand, had taken a major step in advocating for his own needs, I knew I had to go.

At that moment my perspective changed. I began to understand more clearly the role of a Special Education Teacher.

Throughout the morning, I had been engaging in a false choice. This was not about Aiden versus my lesson plan or other students. It was about Aiden internalizing our lessons on empowerment. At Rocketship we often talk to our students about the importance of agency in the classroom, and I honestly couldn’t think of a better example of this lesson being lived out than in Aiden informing me that he needed me to go on the trip.

So I went.

The Path to Confidence Along the Menomonee River

The field trip was a wild success. We acted out the life-cycle of a monarch butterfly, wiggling on our bellies as caterpillars and curling into cocoons. We analyzed the life-cycle of mammals, observing the physical changes that manifest when mammals mature into adulthood. And we got to touch the hard, scaly shell of the resident North American Box Turtle. Naturally, a planned hike along the banks of Menomonee River was the perfect way to end the trip.

Aiden held onto my hand tightly as we descended a grassy knoll. Aware that Aiden needed both vision and balance supports, I walked next to him. When we cut through a patch of stiff, yellow coneflowers, I held his hand as he navigated through the thick roots and stems. When the rest of the class hopped from rock-to-rock as we followed the forest path that runs along the river, Aiden grabbed the back of my shirt to maintain his balance as he picked his way through the stones. When the class ran ahead, so did he. When five students from his class scuttled up a steep, muddy embankment to inspect the burrow of a groundhog, Aiden didn’t hesitate to follow.

I saw him gaining confidence by the minute. His innate curiosity began to burn bright. Aiden was no longer being “held back” by either his shy demeanor or some physical “disability.”

The hike leader then took the group into a cove of spindly willow branches that tangled together to create a natural clearing just big enough for fifteen 6-year-olds to climb into and mimic the call of a few migrating birds. Aiden and I came in about three minutes behind everyone else—I had to carry him down the steep trail and helped him navigate through the curtains of spiraled willow leaves.

And as his classmates ahead of him began to file out through the narrow exit-way onto the path, I saw Aiden glance up and look around at the canopy of green in which he was embraced. He was smiling widely.

And in the end, it was I who thanked Aiden for the trip.


Jeremy Ault is the K4-1st grade ISE Specialist at Rocketship Southside Community Prep in Milwaukee, WI. Mr. Ault joined Rocketship in the summer of 2017 as a Teach for America Corps Member. Prior to his work at Rocketship, Mr. Ault was the Development Director at the international relief organization Diaconia, becoming the Executive Director of their American affiliate, Diaconia Connections, in 2015. He earned a Master’s Degree in Global History from Marquette University and is currently working towards a Master’s Degree in Education. He resides in Milwaukee with his wife Jamie and their two daughters Ada and Madeline. Outside of school, he enjoys playing music, hiking, and spending time with his family.

Published on March 28, 2018

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