Herald Head of the Class 2021: Michelle Palmer, Baldwin Middle School Life Skills

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Special education teacher, Michele Palmer, reflects on her experience and path on becoming a special education teacher

Why did you become a teacher? 
I am the youngest of eight kids and 54 grandchildren of my mom's parents. Their oldest son was born with Down syndrome in 1936. At that time, women were put out to give birth. When the doctors saw my uncle, they told my grandfather to tell my grandmother that the baby was stillborn and they would take care of it, and he wouldn't be seen again. My grandfather refused and told the doctors that this was his son and they took him home to raise. Long story short, they eventually moved to Conn. because their special education programs were much better. He remained in that program until he died. 

I remember being in first grade and doing my homework when my uncle pulled out a book and tried to write his letters. I was amazed an older man was on the same level as I was. I started to teach him the lessons I was learning and he loved it! He would have been able to do so much if only given the opportunity. I vowed then to become a teacher and teach kids like my uncle and give them all opportunities my uncle wasn't allowed. Fast forward to 2004 when my sister gave birth to my handsome nephew, who was also born with Down. I have worked with my sister and her husband to make sure my nephew has every opportunity that all kids can and should. After my sister's death in 2017, I have taken over his education (as per her request) and will make sure he is well taken care of with many opportunities. 

Tell us about a teacher that inspired you as a student. 
I was very lucky to have many inspirational teachers as I went through school. If I had to choose one, it would have to be Lynn Ruh. She was my gym teacher and ran a program for students in the life skills program to go to the Special Olympics and games for the physically challenged. She said she saw me and how nice I was to the life-skills kids and asked if I would help her train the students. I was 11. ... We worked together well into my twenties where we even took athletes to Albany to the state games and my position as head of the Nassau county special Olympics. Mrs. Ruh taught me that with patience and opportunities the life skills students could do anything they put their minds to. 

What did you experience or learn about teaching—yourself, your students, the process, etc.—during the pandemic that you think you will carry forward? 
The pandemic has taught us all so much at different levels.  For me, I am a more hands-on, in-person teacher who doesn't love computers and technology. With the pandemic, I had to switch and learn things outside my comfort level. Very quickly, the teacher became the student. with teaching special education, I was given the rare opportunity to put myself in my student's shoes and figure out the best way to learn something different. ... it reminded me of what is needed most for my students — patience, love, compassion, and even thinking outside the box to get a lesson across.

What's the most memorable thing a student has said to you?
Being a teacher of mostly Autistic children, my students have different levels of communication and needs. Many who have worked in my classroom have told me I really need to write a book of things I hear and see on a day-to-day basis. It is hard to choose one memory of something someone has said to me, but if I had to choose, it would have to be a letter I received from an employer one of my students had after he graduated. I was told that they know my job as a life skills teacher often doesn't get as many rewards or accolades as other teachers because of the students I teach, but they wanted me to know that when asked how this young adult knew how to do a job, they said, "Mrs. Palmer taught me, she always told me not to give up and say, I can't because I can!"  Though it wasn't directly said to me, it meant very much. 

What has been your toughest challenge as a teacher so far? 
My toughest challenge so far has to be teaching struggling students both online and in-person at the same time. I teach life skills and vocational tasks that are best hands-on, using all the senses, and that can't happen as well when they aren't here with me. 

What has been your proudest moment as a teacher so far? 
Though it might be small, when my students learn a new skill and their faces light up with pride, it warms my heart. ... The one that really stands out is when my nonverbal student, who everyone said would never say a word, was able to go up to his mom and say, "Mom." The look on her face will be forever in my heart, and one of [my] top ten moments. 

What surprised you the most when you first started teaching? 
What surprised me most when I first started teaching was how these kids have become a part of my life forever. How there isn't much I wouldn't do for them. They have become my kids/family. I love how they keep in touch and for many, I have become their Mrs. Ruh. We laugh every year when August comes along and my husband asks how many kids we have this year. He doesn't question anymore when I am up late baking for a birthday or searching for ideas for the next craft. I knew I would have kids that would touch my heart but never did I think they would become a part of my family. My own children even feel that way and their eyes light up when they get birthday cards from students who graduated years ago. That is what keeps me going. They may be fewer students but they are really special. 

What is an aspect of being a teacher that you think most people outside the profession don't know or fully understand? 
I think most people think that teaching is easy, and it is wonderful to only have to work 185 days with summers off and paid vacations. They don't realize that I am a teacher every day and always. I think about not only the current students, but those I had, and those I will have. That my own children don't always get the patient mother they deserve because all the patience was given to other children (especially with my population). I don't think people realize I still spend hundreds of dollars to keep my classroom new with updated materials even after over 22 years of teaching. That I would do anything needed for my students even give up two days looking for them when they run away. Most teachers don't end the day at 3 p.m., or in June – they're always thinking of new things and their students aren't far from their minds. 

What advice do you have for aspiring teachers? 
My advice to aspiring teachers is to go into this profession because you hope to make a difference in at least one person's life. Don't go into it because of the vacations or money, but because that is where your heart is. It isn't an easy job and it takes work but if done right, it is so worth it. 

What is the most important thing you hope a student takes away from your class? 
If my students get nothing else out of my class, I want them to know they will always have a cheerleader on their side. I will expect a lot and ask them to do their best but will always be there for them. They are loved and someone believes in them. 

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