By McKenna Seegmiller
Hillary Odom and Emily Ryan, special education teachers at Summit Shasta, are a vital part of the staff as part of the Supporting Diverse Learners department. However, many might not fully understand the role they play in our community.
When asked about her role at Shasta, Ms. Odom, originally from Orange County, explained that she “supports all students in order to make them be successful.” She explained, “I support a small group of students who might learn differently than other students at this school.” Ms. Ryan, originally from Massachusetts, added, “my role is just to provide students with some extra support and help students receive accommodations and support in their regular classes as well.”
Ms. Odom and Ms. Ryan work in the Learning Center, which Ms. Odom described as “ a guided self-directed class where I’m teaching different types of skills.” In addition to leading classes in the Learning Center, she also typically went to other teachers’ classrooms to “make sure that all teachers are teaching in a way that reaches all students in the ways that they learn best.”
Of course, their roles had to be adjusted due to the current COVID-19 pandemic. In order to support her students during these uncertain times, Ms. Ryan thinks that checking in with students is important along with “making sure that students feel supported during the pandemic, and kind of prioritizing that relationship building, and then I work with students a lot on setting goals and deadlines.” Ms. Odom added, “We do a lot of small group workshops and so the HCD [Habits and Content Development] courses at the end of the day we kind of use for office hours, so I’m able to support students with the specific assignments that they need.” Online school through Zoom, however, makes it more difficult for them to go into classes and support students as they would normally do. “We’re still trying to figure out that dynamic, but I’d say the beginning of the day and the end of the day when we’re able to give attention to students is when we’re able to support them.”
Support from teachers made a big difference in their own school experiences, and they believe that their own experiences in school help them connect with their students more. “I was them,” Ms. Odom remarked, “I understand what it’s like to just learn a bit differently and need some support from a trusted person who cared about me as a person, and who could help me academically.” Ms. Ryan shared an anecdote about her time in high school, recalling a teacher who, before each test, would tell the class that “all this test measures is whether or not you know a little bit of pre-calc.” That reminder from her teacher helped her shift her mindset, which led to positive changes in her life. “I was a lot happier, but I also started to just do a lot better in school, and just felt more confident about academics.” Continuing on, she stated, “I think I can relate to students who struggle in school because that’s not something that came easy to me. I had to work very hard in school.” She believes that her own experiences help her form connections with her students. “I can relate to students who are struggling with a particular subject, or just don’t feel like school is their thing, and it’s my goal to help shift that narrative for students really help them to see that school can be there for you.”
Ms. Ryan, who was a psychology major in college, thinks that she has always been “very passionate about education and helping people learn.” She continued, “I wanted to go into special education specifically because I wanted to work with students who maybe take a little bit longer to understand material, and who maybe think about things a little bit differently. I also think that there is a stigma around special education that people who have an IEP [Individual Education Plan] maybe can’t be as successful or that that’s like a bad thing that they have an IEP. And I think that that’s not the case at all.”
“I believe that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. And that learning differently or thinking about things differently can actually be a great strength and it can highlight a lot of positives. I just think that everyone learns so differently and that that’s really powerful. And so that’s why I wanted to specifically go into special education.” Ms. Ryan went on to explain that she wanted to become a teacher because she loves building relationships and watching her students develop and grow.
Working at Shasta for five years, Ms. Odom has learned to “always assume best intentions. And so even if something happens in the classroom you always want to assume that they had a good intent, they didn’t have malice or bad intent to harm anyone so I think we can take that out into the community and make sure that we’re always thinking the most positive of people instead of going automatically to assume the negative.” She also mentioned that her role as a teacher has taught her a lot about patience. “I think teachers have a lot of patience in the classroom. It’s like, how can I also show that patience in my personal life, so it’s taught me how to be patient.”
As teachers, they not only help their students learn, but learn from their students as well. When reflecting on what their students have taught them, Ms. Ryan explained, “I think my students have taught me a lot about the importance of giving people second chances. I think it’s easy when you meet someone or, you know, you have a challenging situation with someone, to want to form a judgment about them. And I think about that especially since I’m really lucky to have to have the same students every single year or I see them kind of through their high school experience.”
“I think being able to recognize that firsthand, a first impression or one experience is not defining of a person,” Mr. Ryan proceeded, “but just kind of the importance of keeping an open mind and I’m just always recognizing that people change, and also helping my students realize that sometimes people get stuck in these traps of like this is who I am as a person and helping students to see that they can change that narrative.” Ms. Odom shared that her students taught her to “enjoy life as much as possible and take life, day by day and try to, if something stressful in the moment, try to deal with it but also move on. A lot of times something happens and we want to hang on to that feeling a lot. So this is taught me, just put it in the back of your mind if something happens and move on, let’s turn this day into a beautiful day. So it’s really taught me to have a really positive outlook. And to keep moving forward.”
After working with these students in their four years of high school, they go on to college and whatever else the world has to offer. Before they graduate, Ms. Odom and Ms. Ryan want to instill personal growth and self-acceptance in their students. Ms. Odom elaborated that she wants to instill “positivity and also being able to let things go.” She stated, “I think I reflect a lot back on my teenage years and when something maybe like drama happens with your friend or something happens it’s not good to hold on to that anger. So I want to instill positivity and being able to take things in stride.” Ms. Ryan explained that, for her, “it’s all about confidence.” She went on, saying, “If my students can graduate and have greater confidence in themselves and feel like they can be successful….that is the most important thing, because I think that confidence can take you really far. And I think that helping students to shift their mindset around, seeming themselves as capable in areas that they maybe didn’t before is one of the most important things to me.”
Featured Image: Ms. Ryan [left] and Ms. Odom [right] attended a Special Education Convention in February. (Photo credit: Ms. Ryan)