Oregon’s 2019 Teacher of The Year, special education teacher Mercedes Muñoz, stated in a recent interview with OPB that 2020 is “The Year of Special Education.” After talking to 6th grade special education teacher Alejandro, we can see why Muñoz is hopeful about the state of special education this year.
Ninety percent of students with special needs are capable of graduating high school on time, prepared for college or a career if given enough support in the classroom. Amazing special education teachers like Mercedes and Alejandro ensure their students receive the proper support so they will be successful in school and beyond.
Read our full conversation with Alejandro to see just how far he goes for his students:
AdoptAClassroom.org (AAC): Do you spend money out of your own pocket on classroom supplies?
Alejandro: Yes, I do spend out of pocket for my students and even students that aren’t mine, but not just for supplies. I’ll spend money on uniforms, snacks, and Christmas gifts for students which cost me on average $600 each year. Some years more, some less.
AAC: What do you purchase for your classroom?
Alejandro: Since I am a special education teacher, I usually have smaller classes so our regular classroom supplies last longer. However, my classes sometimes have specialized items that aren’t easily replaceable through the school inventory like special pencil grips, sensory items, diapers, wheelchair/walker accessories, and more. Plus, we do lots of crafts and cooking for life skills. Those are the things that I end up buying.
AAC: How would it affect your students if you were unable to supply them with the classroom materials they need?
Alejandro: I’ve only taught at schools that are in low-income areas, so I know that it affects their families’ ability to fill other needs like groceries, clothes, and bills. The students usually don’t feel the effect as much as their parents do. Parents will apologize to me for not being able to buy all the things they need and even cry out of frustration. I know the feeling because I grew up in poverty, crime, drugs, and gang-infested public housing.
AAC: What did you purchase for your classroom using the $1,000 grant you received from AdoptAClassroom.org?
Alejandro: This is my first year in the type of special education classroom that I’m in right now and barely my second year with an actual budget to cover the basics. So, I decided to give my students an opportunity to journey into the world of STEM. I bought materials to learn how to build circuits and use alternative energy, plus robots to learn how to code like the students in our school’s advanced STEM classes. We are a pre-engineering middle school with national and state awards. I am planning with our award-winning STEM teacher to have my students participate in those activities soon.
AAC: How did a donation from AdoptAClassroom.org impact your students?
Alejandro: It gives my students a chance at learning about a whole new world of possibilities that STEM offers. They get to experience the “oohs” and “aahs” that STEM students get when they see the challenging cool technology that they will get to learn about through hands-on experience. When I tell them about the things we will be doing and the materials they will use, they find it incredible and the looks on their faces are amazement and joy.
AAC: To date, you’ve raised $1,600 on AdoptAClassroom.org, what was your classroom like before you started crowdfunding for supplies?
Alejandro: Before the $1,600 in donations from AdoptAClassroom.org, my class had a few STEM materials that we were going to have to share as a whole class, but now we have enough items that we can break up into groups and allow for competition between them to help them feel more motivated. This was the first time I’ve used AdoptAClassroom.org and I did not expect to have success with it because I’ve never tried it. Now I recommend other teachers use this nonprofit fundraising platform and I will continue to use AdoptAClassroom.org every year.
AAC: How do you want students to feel while they’re in your classroom?
Alejandro: I want them to feel the same joy, passion, and challenge I feel as a teacher. I want them to set goals they feel will require their best effort and then feel the flutters in their hearts when they achieve it. I want them to feel that I am simply a guide to finding their drive. I want them to feel that a spark was ignited to their rocket up to the stars.
AAC: As an educator, how do you address difficult issues impacting your students and community as a whole?
Alejandro: We just had one of the most difficult issues we’ve ever had here in El Paso, Texas with the August 3, 2019 Walmart shooting. There is not one person, student, teacher, or parent that it didn’t affect. My seven-year-old daughter doesn’t like to go to any Walmart because she still remembers. The only way educators can address any difficult issue is by carefully listening to students and the community and responding with sincere efforts to meet those needs.
At our school, some of our most common issues are poverty, homelessness, and discipline. As an educator, I communicate with our team of administrators, counselors, and staff to make sure we all know about a particular student’s struggles. Middle school is a hard transition for kids, they are beginning to find out who they are, dealing with peer pressure, hormones, and so much more. We have to help students with social-emotional support as well as academic support. Difficult issues are best addressed head-on and openly, letting students and parents know that it’s okay to have issues. We’re here to help.
AAC: What’s a moment that has made teaching especially worth it?
Alejandro: I’ve had several moments, thank God. Although I can’t recall any related directly to a lesson I taught, they’ve been for extra things going on outside of my classroom. Private moments with parents crying tears of joy because I was able to help them find a home, get clothes, or get their children a Christmas gift. One that stands out is when two of my students with severe disabilities won district-wide awards in a film festival for their short films I helped them with. Everyone was surprised to see them accept their awards.
I love those moments when I can help students accomplish feats like that, but the moments that really make teaching worth it are the smaller moments that get no awards. Like a few years ago when I figured out how to help a student talk. He has Cerebral Palsy which greatly limits his movement and speech but he communicates with his eyes, sounds, and a huge smile. I attached an iPad to his wheelchair to let him interact with it through his head movements and use an app to communicate. He could now actually talk to us. He loved asking to go to the playground for recess and would even try to tell jokes. That still makes me tear up.
AAC: What is the #1 thing you wish the general public understood about the difficulties of teaching and funding a Special Education classroom?
Alejandro: I would like for them to understand how hard we work and how much time we dedicate to our profession. I average about three extra hours a day at school working on grading, lesson planning, and all the extra paperwork that special education requires. We have a lot of professional developments all year long that we are required to do, but many of us do extra hours. I do about 100 hours of training instead of the minimum of 40. All of that is to prepare for the actual classroom.
Inside the classroom, we still have difficulties with failed lessons and insufficient materials and supplies. We keep getting less and less funding from the government but our class sizes keep growing and growing. We have to use old books that are falling apart, old computers that constantly crash, and broken furniture with missing screws. Without grants and crowdfunding sites like AdoptAClassroom.org, many schools would be worse off.
AAC: What are the best ways for people to support educators, in addition to donating?
Alejandro: Time, we need people’s time. Volunteering their time at our school’s activities and events. Our school has great success in many areas that include academics, sports, and extracurriculars but all those things require a lot of behind the scenes planning and setting up. We have amazing parent volunteers that spend tireless hours helping teachers do things like laminating, cutting, decorations, and more. We need people’s time to dedicate to their children with homework and being there for them. We need their time to show up to their kids’ events. Time is super valuable and can be spent in all sorts of ways.
Are you a K-12 public, private, or charter school teacher looking to introduce your students to the world of STEM? Now through February 15, 2020, you can apply for a $1,000 classroom STEM grant on AdoptAClassroom.org. Click here to learn more about how you can apply today.
A student’s learning potential shouldn’t be limited by budgets. Your support can open up endless possibilities for students’ long-term success. Make a donation to the AdoptAClassroom.org STEM Fund here.