Junior Gigi Mendoza, who is majoring in all-level special education (SPED), knew she had found her calling when she walked into the Functional Academics SPED classroom at Midway High School. “It just feels like this is where I belong,” she said. “It’s a God thing.”
During her first two and a half years in the Baylor School of Education, Mendoza had several special education field placements, including clinic settings and inclusion classrooms at different age levels.
“The School of Education (SOE) gives us a variety of field experiences, and I liked everything,” Mendoza said. But this semester, she realized that this kind of classroom, focusing on life skills for older students, is exactly where she wants to be.
Mendoza is one of 10 Baylor students who are at the junior “Teaching Associate” level majoring in all-level SPED. They spend several mornings every week on a local school campus. At Midway, they arrive at 7:30 a.m. and spend two class periods with the students in this self-contained SPED classroom every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
One of their classroom teachers at Midway, Jackie Searles, is a 2016 graduate of the Baylor SOE’s SPED program and was also a Teaching Associate in the Midway High School Functional Academics class. She teaches several of the same Midway students now, since the class encompasses high school freshmen through age 22. The Baylor SOE staff — including Dr. Madelon McCall, Clinical Assistant Professor and university liaison at Midway High School, and site coordinator Lisa Osborne, who coordinates all Baylor students on the school campus — were also there when Searles was a student.
“It’s really full circle,” Searles said. “I love seeing these Midway students again. For the Baylor students, I can offer tips because I well remember the benchmarks and e-folio they have to do. I can say I’ve been there and if I can do it, so can you.”
Searles has been impressed with the dedication of the Baylor students. One day there was a fire drill just at the time the Baylor students were leaving. “One of them said, ‘Do you need me to stay?’” Searles said. When she looked back, several of them — the ones who didn’t have another class — stayed late to help with the fire drill.
Searles is one of two SPED teachers at Midway who host the Baylor juniors. Juniors also work in the classroom of Kristin McKerall, a Texas A&M graduate.
Typically, Searles teaches the whole class during first period, while the Baylor students, along with paraprofessionals, assist individual students. Then during second period — sitting at tables, on the floor or at other work stations scattered around the room — each Baylor student works one-on-one with a Midway student toward specific goals. “The goals can range from learning to brush their teeth to learning to use sign language or assistive technology,” Searles said.
Junior Meredith Steward is teaching her student, who has cerebral palsy and communicates via American Sign Language (ASL), to use a new iPad app for communication. With this additional skill, she will be able communicate with non-ASL speakers. Steward, who had taken ASL for two semesters, said, “When I walked into Midway and saw her using sign language, I requested to work with her. She lit up when I used sign language. I’ve taught her more numbers, because she only knew up to 10. And she is teaching me; if I forget the word for flower, she will show me.”
Mendoza said her student, who has autism and is non-verbal, also caught her eye the first day. “He’s one of the smartest kids I’ve ever met,” she said. “He always knows my next steps, so I have to switch it up and change the incentives to get him to work harder.”
She added, “He is so sweet and kind; he loves my attention, and I love him loving my attention,” she said. “He has improved so much that he has stayed engaged for the whole class period without an iPad break.”
Junior Catherine Gibbs, like Mendoza, has decided that the self-contained SPED classroom for older students is the place for her. A transfer student from Houston Community College, Gibbs started out studying occupational therapy, because “I had people in my ears telling me about the challenges of teaching.” But then she met a special education teacher who showed her “all the good in teaching.”
She came to Baylor before choosing the special education program. “Then I found out about its high ratings, all the field experience, the recognitions, that Baylor SPED is one of the tops in Texas, so that really made me happy,” she said. “It all fell together, and God showed me the right direction.”
Gibbs said that if she is having a bad day, all it takes to cheer her up is the sight of her Midway High student. “I just look at her face; she is all teeth and smile,” she said. “She is the happiest person you have ever met. Her ‘uncooperative’ behavior is smiling and ignoring me. I repeat something, and she just keeps smiling.”
Gibbs works with her student on behavioral goals and counting, but is also teaching her letters. “She doesn’t write and knew only one letter, D,” Gibbs said. “I started working with her on saying ‘N,’ which is in her name. I was really over-emphasizing and showing her what my tongue is doing. So now when she says ‘N,’ she says it really dramatically like I did it. She will do it like that for the rest of her life.”
Gibbs loves watching Jackie Searles teach the whole. “There’s a lot that happens in the classroom,” she said. “People will have seizures or behavioral issues or something just knocks you off your plan. How do you bounce back and finish your teaching for the day? I’m able to see literally how Ms. Searles handles that. As a special education teacher, you also have several paraprofessionals in the classroom, so I’ve seen the way Ms. Searles leads the team. It’s all teamwork in SPED.”
Mendoza said she loves the busy classroom atmosphere and that she learns from her classmates. “They are working with students who have different disabilities than my student does, so I am learning from what they are doing,” she said. “Someday I will teach in a classroom full of students with all of these disabilities.”
Mendoza is a member of Baylor’s national championship Acrobatics and Tumbling team, so sometimes she misses her field experience for a competition. She makes up her time when the other Baylor students are not there and enjoys getting to see different times of the school day, especially helping with lunch.
During those times, Mendoza also sees a more typical teacher-student ratio and said Searles is “incredible and has taught me a lot” about teaching. “She has eyes behind her head,” Mendoza said. “She sees everything! She is so on her game and prepared.”
This semester, the Baylor juniors have spent a few hours three days a week for almost 14 weeks in the Midway classroom. Next year, as seniors in the program, they will spend the entire academic year on a school campus for the full day. And they can’t wait!
— Story and photos by Meg Cullar
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