Ahead of my senior year at Florida State University, this summer I have been gaining professional experience for my Family and Child Sciences practicum by working at Impact Florida. I was drawn to Impact Florida’s devotion to the type of education all students deserve and the organization’s commitment to enhancing experiences between students and teachers.
Although I am still discovering my career interests, the passion I have for working with kids is second to none. The ability to engage kids at their level, and for them in turn to recognize their full potential, has motivated me to become the type of educator or leader I rarely encountered during my childhood. Through Impact Florida, I have been given the opportunity to help identify ways for adults to better comprehend students’ perspectives and, often, their wide, diverse needs in the classroom.
I grew up in an active family – triathlons are our idea of fun, and many family “vacations” involved waking up at 6:00 a.m. for a group workout. You can imagine my struggle when I was diagnosed at age 10 with an illness that limited my physical abilities. Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis, or JIA, is an autoimmune disease where a person’s immune system is essentially overactive and mistakenly sees joints as an infection or something foreign to the body. JIA leads to uncomfortable pain, swelling, stiffness, and fatigue similar to the other form of arthritis that develop later in life.
Immediately restricted from all physical activity, I began to thrive in my other passion: learning. Knowing that the disease affected only my joints and not my brain, I decided I would pour myself into school. The lack of physical activities allowed more time for me to study and gave me a chance to prove myself academically. However, my disease affected me in school in an unexpected way, one that led to an interesting revelation.
Standing in front of a crowd today, I would seem “normal,” but arthritis fits under the umbrella of invisible diseases – mental illnesses, diabetes, epilepsy, and many more. This invisibility created a disconnect between me and several of my teachers. Even though they were made aware of my disease and accommodations were made through the school, there were multiple instances where I was called lazy or criticized for my many absences. I recall one day I was in class when I experienced a random flare-up, an increase in my disease symptoms. Not only was the pain making it difficult to focus, but I quickly realized my fingers were swelling, making it hard to grab a pencil. I silently began my wrist and finger stretches to help with my symptoms and tried to pay attention to the lecture since I was unable to take notes. My teacher quickly noticed, pointed me out to the whole class, and pulled me outside to talk. With tears in my eyes from both pain and embarrassment, I tried to explain, again, my condition, and promised to review notes with a peer. The teacher responded with an eye-roll, and I returned to class feeling unsupported and discouraged.
Other like-minded teachers became visibly annoyed when I had trouble focusing in class or asked for help to understand concepts when completing make-up work. These teachers failed to recognize how my disease affected me not only physically but also academically on a daily basis. Through camps and counseling, I made friends who had similar diseases; sadly, many shared the same feeling: school had failed them.
It is important to note that not all my student-teacher interactions were negative. In middle school, after I had several absences due to treatment, one of my favorite teachers noticed how I was struggling in her class. She privately pulled me aside one day and offered to stay after school to review any concepts I was having trouble with. She even offered to help me write on days where my fingers were swollen. This teacher empowered me and made me believe I could still be successful in my learning. Several teachers would keep my work to the side and offer review sessions for missed lessons. They would allow me to stay after school to finish completing an exam, and even asked how they could further help me succeed in their class despite my disease.
Until my time with Impact Florida, I would not have been able to recognize the mindset and instructional choices that separated the teachers who believed in me from those who did not. But now, after learning more about Impact Florida’s Five Conditions That Support Great Teaching, I can recognize which of my teachers worked hard to improve students’ engagement in learning. They ensured my access to instructional materials and tasks, shared a vision that I could succeed if given the opportunity and the right supports, and had been developed as professionals to know how to hold high expectations for me while still acknowledging my unique needs. In all these examples, my best teachers recognized me as an individual learner with circumstances and challenges occurring outside of school that my classmates did not face. But they didn’t let it define me or stop me on my educational journey inside their classrooms.
Through my doctors’ care and appropriate medications, I have been able to continue my love of running. Thinking back to my races as part of my high school cross country team, running seems to be remarkably similar to education. The starting line is our first day of school in kindergarten and the finish line is high school graduation. Like an athletic event, every runner is unique and often pre-judged based on visible characteristics; some even have visible disabilities or injuries that can be recognized. However, as I’ve shared, some have invisible disabilities as well. In truth, all students have unique needs. In the end, all students should get an opportunity to run their best race.
Educators across the state are now wrapping up their summers and beginning another year in the classroom. As I prepare to complete this practicum and head back into my classrooms, I hope all of us who seek to positively impact the lives of children can keep one thing at the forefront of our minds: All students deserve a chance to cross the finish line of their education, with the coaching and support of educators who believe in their ability to run the race well. When I reflect on Impact Florida’s Five Conditions, I realize how much work, training, and mentorship goes into what feels like great teaching. I’m very grateful for educators who put in this time, who commit to what it takes to have a positive impact on their students, and who believe in all their students’ success – no matter their battle.