‘What if this was my son?’ How Newark’s Teacher of the Year pushes autistic students to succeed

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Lourdes Reyes, Newark's 2018 Teacher of the Year.

A normal Monday in Lourdes Reyes’ classroom at the First Avenue School begins with a pleasant routine.

Her six students, a mix of first and second-graders with autism, eat breakfast quietly at their desks then brush their teeth in the restroom. Then they return to class, as they did one Monday morning this month, to recite the days and months and share highlights from the weekend — a trip to the zoo, playtime in the park, an evening bike ride.

“Alright,” Reyes said in a soothing tone as she moved the lesson along. “Everybody had a good weekend.”

But on Monday, May 7, things were far from normal.

That was when the district’s interim superintendent arrived unannounced in her classroom bearing balloons and a bouquet, with television cameras in tow, to inform her that she was Newark’s 2018 Teacher of the Year. Reyes tearfully accepted the award as her daughter, a teacher at Elliott Street School, looked on. Then she walked into the hallway, where dozens of students cheered and chanted her name.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Reyes told Chalkbeat during a recent interview.

In college, Reyes had studied to become a social worker. But after her son, Ishmail, was born with autism, she wanted to learn more about his condition. Before long, she had earned a master’s degree in special education and become a teacher of students with autism — a job she’s held for 21 years.

After two decades, she has yet to slow down. Every day after class she begins her second job as an early-intervention specialist, visiting families’ homes to work with young children suspected of having disabilities. After finishing around 8:30 p.m., she takes a late-night walk with her youngest son — a routine that, along with a healthy new diet, helped her lose 65 pounds over the past year.

Reyes stays just as busy at school. In addition to academic lessons, she teaches her students life skills like tying their shoes and cooking — sometimes on a portable stove, which Reyes used one day this year to cook green eggs and ham. In April, which is National Autism Awareness Month, she helped raise $2,300 for the school’s autism program and organized a performance where her students sang Disney songs. Reyes performed alongside wearing the red hat and spotted pants of Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl from “Toy Story.”

Principal Jose Fuentes, who was part of the 10-person leadership team at First Avenue that nominated Reyes for her award, called her “one of the pillars of the school.” She extends herself far beyond her own classroom, showing colleagues and parents how to challenge and support students with autism, Fuentes said.

“She’s giving new light to the possibilities of what it means to be an educator,” he said. “That’s Reyes.”

The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How did you get into teaching?

When my second son was born, Ishmail, he was born with autism.

I was first of all shocked that I had an autistic son. It was very difficult and devastating for all of us. My husband and I had to go for counseling. It was very hard. But then we overcame it. I decided I’m going to take something negative and make something positive out of it.

So I went to graduate school and I took classes on special ed. I loved it and so I took another class. One class led to another.

Then I started volunteering at my son’s school. I was there all the time. In the evenings my husband would get home, he’d watch the kids, I’d go and take my class.

Next thing you know, in two years I completed a master’s in special ed.

How has being the parent of a child with autism shaped the way you teach?

Everything I still do today is focused on, “What if this was my son?”

I think that’s what makes me a little different. Like if I was doing this for him, how would I teach it?

What have you learned about what it takes to be an effective teacher of students with autism?

You can’t feel sorry for a child. Just because they have a disability does not mean that they can’t do something. You have to put that aside and show them in a way that tough love to get them to master the skills. Which is hard for some of the parents to do.

We have to do a lot of what the parents don’t do. For instance, tooth brushing, that’s a life skill. At home they say, “He doesn’t want to brush his teeth.” But they do it here every morning.

It sounds like a big part of your job is working with parents.

I give them my cell number. They call me at all times.

Sometimes [a student’s mother] will say, “It’s a rough morning. He didn’t want to change. I’m sending you the uniform in the book bag.” Then when he comes in, we transition him. When we do toothbrushing we say, “You need to change now.”

Then when it’s 2:45, “You don’t want to wear it? OK, let’s go change you. Put on your jeans, go on the bus.” Happy trooper.

How are you able to make progress with students who come in without many academic skills?

It’s ongoing, and it’s repetitive. Teaching the skills. Pulling them out, teaching them [through] individualized instruction.

And it happens also with the assistance of the aides. I have four great aides. None of this could happen without them.

Ms. [Rasheedah] Jacobs, guess how many years she’s been with me. Fourteen. When I came here and interviewed, I said, “I’ll take the job under the condition that Ms. Jacobs could come with me.” She really, really is a great teacher. I call her a teacher, not even an aide. She’s my right hand.

Can you think of a student whom you had a lot of success with?

Last year, I had one of my highest functioning students. She has Asperger’s. What a thrill to have that little girl. Oh my gosh.

Every week the principal gives the word of the week. She memorized and knew every single word from September to June. And recited it in an assembly, with a sentence for each word. She’s unbelievable!

We had a student [at Quitman Street Community School] who had a band on his esophagus, and he had a feeding tube in kindergarten. We couldn’t believe it — he was in diapers.

I was like, “If we can get this little boy to be toilet trained, that will be a success.” Do you know we mastered that? We did it.

How do you know if you’ve been successful by the end of the year?

Seeing [a student] who didn’t know the letters of the alphabet, seeing him writing sentences, filling in blanks, reciting words.

Knowing [a different student] can tie his shoes. Knowing he can brush his teeth.

Knowing that parents are happy with the progress of their students. Them sharing with me the change in their child once they started coming into my classroom. Parents telling me, “Oh, that’s not the same kid who was in the school last year. That’s a different child.”

What’s your advice to teachers who are just starting out?

Have a lot of patience. Be real devoted.

And do not look at a student with autism as a person who is weak. Have high expectations that they are capable of doing everything and anything with the right accommodations.

It can be done, but it takes someone with dedication, sensitivity, and also someone who does not feel sorry for a child. Anything is possible. There are no limits.

Don’t just help students graduate. Prepare them for what’s next, says high school teacher

Sharon Collins at a New Heights Academy Charter School graduation with students.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

When Sharon Collins found out that some of her students who were strong academically in high school had dropped out of college, she realized more could be done to prepare students for success after they graduate.

An environmental engineer-turned-teacher, Collins has taught middle school math and nearly every high school math subject. Currently teaching seniors at New Heights Academy Charter School in Harlem, Collins tries to ensure that her students feel supported and prepared after they leave her classroom by continuing to meet with and advise them as part of OneGoal, a program that helps teachers become mentors for students during college.

On top of that, her school models their classes after college courses to get students used to a university structure. And to continue growing as an educator herself, Collins works with Math for America as a co-facilitators on a peer learning team. Here, Collins shares how she engages students and pushes them to enjoy math and continue learning.

What’s one way you build strong personal relationships with students?

I teach seniors, so at the start of the year I meet with each of them individually. It helps me know them as people and as learners. I ask them about the future, about college, about possible careers. Where do your interests lie? It’s important know their feelings about math. We have a four-year math requirement, whereas there is normally is a three-year requirement in high schools. My goal is always for the students who hate math to like math by the end of the year — I show them how math relates to the world around them. I also get to know them through going on senior retreat and spending time during lunch period to open classroom. Once you put in that extra time to show that you care, they will put in more effort.

What does your classroom look like?

When you walk in you’d see student projects everywhere. You can see calculus students building roller coasters, board game designs made by the statistics class, who invite 8th graders to come play them to show them that math is fun. In pre-calculus, we do “Shark Tank,” where students come up with idea for product that will help them get money or help humanity and build prototypes of them. I have students from previous years come and serve as the judges. My classroom always has students coming in. Even during 9th period, which is when they can go home, they love to stay, and they get tutoring or just come and talk to me about what they’re thinking about college.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now and how are you addressing it?

Something in general is the intensity of the anti-immigration bias because the student population is 95 percent Latino at my school and that it had an impact on Washington Heights. One way to help with that is with this program I’m involved in called OneGoal, a program where you become a mentor for students in college to help them graduate. In it, we have the space to talk about these issues and just have individual conversations, in particular with undocumented students —just letting them know that they have a safe place here.

But in regards to policy, the issue in high school of not focusing on college is an issue. The goal of high schools is more on graduating students rather than what the next step is for them. That’s how I got involved with OneGoal. I mean, students graduate, but it was interesting seeing who graduated and who didn’t. Even students who were really strong academically sometimes didn’t graduate. I attended a workshop that helped students through college. It’s not all about academic challenges, it’s the social-emotional part too. So OneGoal starts in high school and follows students through the first year, providing them mentorship and support. So over the past year my focus has been going through that transition with students. It can be overwhelming. Their academics go at a faster pace, and its difficult transitioning from teacher to mentor. But it helps so much and college readiness is something that high schools need to be more focused on.

What does your grading style look like and what hacks do you use?

At New Heights, we changed grading style last year to make it more similar to what college looks like. There’s homework and classwork but they don’t count for grades, so this was a big flip for students since now it’s exam based. If you don’t do well on an exam, though, you can retake it. You can do test corrections, or in humanities you can write a paper to bring up the grade. That was a big switch, and I still feel like homework is important to make sure students do well on an assessment. So if you want to retake the test you have to do all of your homework and classwork, to show that there’s a connection between the homework and the testing. But in my class the summative assessments that are a big part of the class are the projects. We do about three to four per quarter. They’ll submit one and publicly present to class or school administration, and they have a rubric they can look at to see which areas they didn’t score high on to be able to resubmit it for a new grade. It’s all challenging because it’s a whole new way, but we want to show them the process of modification.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Show unconditional love to all students. The influence of a great teacher lasts a lifetime. I was the first one to go to college in my family, and most of my student will be too. The amazing teachers I had and their confidence in me and what I could do was transforming.

What’s your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?

To get students attention, I have this saying “Tres, Dos, Uno, Namaste,” and that’s kind of the keyword where they know to come together. I love doing yoga and at the beginning of every yoga class my teacher says “the light in me sees the light in you.” Students face challenges, with poverty and tragedy. I try to make the classroom a positive space. I greet them at the door, I high five students. Learning should be fun, and that’s something that I want to associate for them. So namaste, that’s the word that they associate with me.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand something?

One thing I do is I have students work in small learning teams — so what happens is I’ll give a formative instruction, see who’s struggling, pull them aside to work with them on the content during a project. Something that I tried last year was having a co-teaching model —so students would teach students, and sometimes they just feel more comfortable doing that. It might just click more, because their peers can relate the materials to things they know about. Another thing is that I always give students my cell, so that they can text me at any time. Sometimes I’ll get a text so late at night. I won’t give them the answer but I’ll help them, I’ll ask them questions to make them think about the problem a different way.

How this Colorado English teacher connected with a mom everyone said was impossible

PHOTO: Steve Debenport | Getty Images

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

It was the start of the semester and Ted Halbert, an English teacher at Brighton High School north of Denver, had been warned. The mother of one of his students was extremely hard to handle, the other teachers said.

But Halbert didn’t wait for problems to flare. Instead, he contacted the boy’s mother early on, outlining his hopes for the teen and establishing a pattern of email back-and-forth that lasted through the year.

Halbert talked to Chalkbeat about his rule of thumb for communicating with the boy’s mother — and all parents, why he feels heartbroken when district tax levies fail, and how he uses a Metallica song to explore an anti-war novel with his students.

Halbert is one of 48 educators nationwide selected for the 2019 National Education Association Foundation Global Learning Fellowship. The goal of the program is to help teachers develop the skills to understand and act on issues of global significance.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

Teaching is my second career. After graduating from Michigan State University with a degree in communications, I spent a year as a student with the international, cross-cultural, and performance-based organization Up with People. It was an incredible experience for me. I loved learning about the world and being in the world with diverse people and living with host families (I have lived with more than 140 host families on four continents). I was hired by Up with People and spent nine years with them — the last three as general manager. But, the organization ceased operations in December 2000 and I was out of a job.

I got a job working for Girls Inc. of Metro Denver as the director of new business and marketing but didn’t love it. But after school the girls would come to our facility for classes and I immediately figured out that I loved being around the learning environment and the learners.

And then, Sept. 11, 2001, happened. That day I made a vow to myself to make the most of my life and not wait for change. The next day I quit Girls Inc. and told the president that I was going to become a teacher. And so I did. I was 33.

How do you get to know your students?

From the first moment they walk in my classroom I do two things: First, I welcome them personally, by name, every day. Second, I try to find out something unique and interesting about each and every student and ask them about it as often as I can. This is an intentional process and must be considered carefully because there are some students who want to hide — they don’t want me to engage and interact — but I refuse to let them and eventually, we create a positive relationship based on growth and trust (and laughter).

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

Before reading the incredible novel “Johnny Got His Gun” by Dalton Trumbo, we listen carefully to Metallica’s song “One,” which was partially inspired by the movie based on Trumbo’s book. We draw what we think is thematically happening in the song, and pull lyrics as evidence to back up our ideas. This gets them engaged and excited to read the book. I mean, if Metallica wrote a song about it, right? So cool.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

Cool socks.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

The refusal of the local community here in Brighton and the 27J area to support education through bonds or mill levies is absolutely maddening. Our textbooks are 25 years old. Our technology is outdated. Our rooms are packed with kiddos and when the bell rings at 7 a.m., some of them are barely awake. It truly takes the entire community to ensure the complete education of our young people and when a community does not step up, it breaks my heart. There is serious inequity in how we value our young people and something needs to be done about it. Regardless, I welcome every kid with enthusiasm and work my hardest so that they get the best education possible.

For the record: We have passed some bond issues, but only after making drastic decisions like split schedules (when 9th and 10th grades come early in the morning and 11th and 12th grade stay later) and pack our classes with kiddos. These actions wake up the community for a while so we can pass bonds so we can build new schools and facilities. Makes me sad … These kiddos are so amazing and they deserve better from their community.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

I had a boy in my room and I was warned that his mom was “crazy” and impossible to manage. People who had the student in their class in other years would roll their eyes and wish me luck.

I reached out to her immediately and set up a relationship with her with very specific guidelines and goals. The goal, obviously, was the academic growth of her son, but I also made it clear that it was my goal that he have fun and be engaged, and want to come to class. Right off the bat, this impressed her and we were off to the races. The other goal (and this is so important when working with individual parents) was that our email communication would not take longer than 20 seconds to create and send. I’m rather serious about this with parents. I will keep in touch with them on an individual basis, but it must be concise and honest. The mother and I built a great relationship based solely on the health and success of the child. We had an incredibly successful year. The other teachers would grumble and complain, and I would just smile.

What part of your job is most difficult?

Understanding why education and young people and teachers aren’t more valued by our society is by far the most difficult part of my job. My students are the economic drivers of our future and deserve the best we can offer them. Where are the adults? Where are the politicians? Where is the support?

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

My biggest misconception was that the students would be difficult to manage. I was wrong. They are wonderful, curious, funny, smart, and engaged and they give me hope. It is society and the community not supporting us that I didn’t expect.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I am always reading multiple books, usually one fiction and one non-fiction. Right now, I am inhaling Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” (wow) and “The Bounty: The True Story of Mutiny on the Bounty” by Caroline Alexander.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

Teaching is about relationships. Build the relationships and they will come.