Teacher's determination inspires her students by Meredith Cooper

by Marilyn Roca Enriquez in


What many people would consider impossible problems have been surmountable challenges for Carolyn Diaz. Born with the hereditary condition Larsen’s Syndrome, Carolyn is wheelchair- bound but has maintained a job her entire adult life. “I’ve been in a wheelchair all my life, and I don’t let it stop me from doing anything,” Carolyn said. This determination became essential, however, in 2009 when Carolyn found herself in the middle of the Great Recession and facing unemployment. Looking back today, Carolyn describes herself at that time as a “newly-minted” graduate with a Master’s of Arts in Teaching in the field of Museum Education. Unfortunately, openings as a museum educator were limited due to the poor economy and because she lived in Florida, which she explained “was not the best state for securing gainful employment in that field.” “I was in a situation where I was going to be unemployed,” Carolyn said. “I found myself in a bad economy, with no employment prospects, so I turned to VR for help.” VR or Florida’s Vocational Rehabilitation is a federal-state program committed to helping people with disabilities become part of America’s workforce. Carolyn worked with VR Counselor, Kate Seipp, who helped her pursue a career in education. “I already knew I wanted to be a teacher before I went to see Kate,” Carolyn said. “I’d always liked working with students and had considered going into teaching before. The recession gave me the extra nudge (or swift kick, depending on how you look at it) I needed to change my professional focus and pursue a career in formal education.”    Although VR assisted her, Carolyn said that she was not the typical VR client because of her young age (24 at the time) and because she had two degrees. “Kate would joke that she’d never requested education funding for a client with a Bachelor’s Degree much less a Master’s degree before,” Carolyn said. “I believe it was my clear vision for myself, my well-developed self-advocacy skills and determination to change my circumstances that really paired well with Kate’s willingness to try to help me get off the waitlist and get services quickly that really formed the solid basis for the working relationship we enjoyed while I was a VR client.” “VR paid for a year of education credits, which led to Carolyn’s certification as a special education teacher,” Kate said. VR also assisted with upgrades to Carolyn’s home and car to help her with her Larsen’s Syndrome. Carolyn has stated that she financially would not have been able to pursue her career in education without VR’s involvement. Despite accomplishing her goal of becoming a teacher, she now faced a new challenge: teaching remedial reading and social skills on the high school level—an experience that she said she learned a lot from but would not want to repeat. “My first day as a teacher was a blur; my students were remedial high school readers who obviously could smell my inexperience,” Carolyn recalls, adding she was in a “high needs school” that didn’t offer a great deal of support on either an administrative or departmental level. Immediately, she was facing a number of disruptive students who were talking too loudly, breaking rules and even assaulting her with catcalls. “I definitely went home that day resolved to strategize ways to prove my value to them and reach them on their levels,” she said. “Teaching high school is challenging because from a presenter’s standpoint teenagers can be a tough crowd to read. So much of reaching them with content involves figuring out how to earn their respect and motivate them to learn.” One of the plans Carolyn implemented was to make two positive calls to her students’ parents for every one negative call she had to make. She said this approach caught many parents off-guard since they were used to only being contacted when there was a problem. As a result Carolyn said she received good feedback and at the close of her first year received a nice surprise. “A parent actually sought out the address of the school I had been transferred to in order to send me a hand-written note to thank me for standing up for her son and always believing in him during the year I taught him,” she said. Today, Carolyn teaches foundational reading and math skills to elementary school students with disabilities in Maryland’s Prince George’s County Public School System. While Carolyn said children in the grades she has taught, first and fifth, usually are “pre-programmed” to have respect for their teachers, that does not mean elementary school aged children do not have their own unique learning difficulties. “Teaching elementary school is challenging,” Carolyn said, “because younger students are a lot more impulsive, need a lot more assistance with simple processes (as opposed to older students needing more help with content and product) and are generally less adept at managing their own behavior and emotions.” Carolyn’s strategies for working with her elementary school students include using engaging instruction as well as consistently communicating her expectations of them and clearly implementing both positive and negative consequences for their actions. She also began this year using her classroom-based Facebook page to help keep engaged not only her students but also their parents. “I post announcements, events, links to videos we use in class as well as videos and photos of students engaged in activities,” she said. “It’s really helped me stay in communication with my parents, kept them in the loop as to what their student is learning in school and helped strengthen our teacher-parent partnership.” This combination of teaching methods has yielded results for Carolyn who saw “marked growth” in her students’ reading scores from the beginning to the middle of the year. “Each first grader I teach made gains, and two doubled their initial scores on state-mandated assessments,” Carolyn said, adding these improvements have made her more confident in her instructional methods. Classroom victories, however, also come in smaller but just as significant moments. Carolyn recalled being inspired when one of her 6-year-old students hugged her and said without prompting, “I love you” in the middle of reading instruction. She also said she is inspired when a student accidentally calls her, “mom” because it indicates the children she’s teaching feel a sense of security and structure. “Teaching is very challenging but it’s also rewarding,” Carolyn said, adding her disability allows her to reach her students in a very personal way. She says she enjoys telling her students and their families about how she became a teacher and offers guidance as others begin pursuing a career of their own. “It’s really about helping students find their voices and influencing them to be the best self-advocates they can be,” Carolyn said. “I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am without people pointing me in the right directions, and me picking up where they leave off. I know the same is true for my students. I have the ability to positively effect change in the lives of each individual I serve, and I take that responsibility very seriously.”

Source: http://issuu.com/outlook-12/docs/k12_04-01...