Inspired by Kim: A Special Education Teacher’s Story

By Lisa Whaley, 8th grade English teacher in Chester County Schools

I have never doubted that God dropped me on this earth to work with children. My childhood was blessed with a close friend, Kim, who has ataxia severe imbalance. This condition has kept her either in a wheelchair or on crutches for her entire life; it also affects her speech. Anyone who has met Kim knows that she may have a physical disability, but her intelligence is much greater than most. If you can’t remember something, anything, Kim will help you out. She’s a treasure chest of information.

Growing up, Kim and I spent a great deal of time together, as our parents were best of friends. Her parents allowed her to experience life like everyone else, and we went everywhere together. I can remember my family going with Kim’s family on a tent camping trip in the Great Smoky Mountains. As we visited all of the tourist destinations along the way, I noticed that people would stare at her, giving looks of pity.

I just wanted to walk over to each of them and shout, “Stop staring at my friend! There is nothing wrong with her! I’m pretty sure she’s smarter than you!” Because I was only a kid myself, and because my parents had raised me to be courteous, my thoughts remained inside, smoldering in my brain and in my heart.

Upon graduating from high school, I enrolled at Lambuth College with special education as my major. Those smoldering thoughts had given me a mission: I would work with children with disabilities to hopefully make their lives easier and to help the world see that these children are not to be pitied, but to be seen as special gems with a unique value and beauty unlike any other.

I spent 14 years teaching special education. My first few years were in a self-contained class of children with severe disabilities. Some of them were with me from the age of four to their twelfth birthdays. During those years, I had some of my greatest accomplishments. I remember one child who was not expected to walk or talk going home with a paper on which she had written her 9-letter-long first name. To most, these types of accomplishments probably seem trivial, but to those kids and their parents, it was monumental.

When teaching special education, the emotional attachment is amazingly strong, because you get multiple years with the same children. Toward the end of my special education tenure, I had a few students with family issues that I could not change, and this burdened me, even outside of school. The worry over these students began to consume me, so I chose to step back, and I took a year off to renew my spirit.

When my supervisor contacted me about coming back to work, she asked if I would be interested in a position in seventh and eighth grade general education. I had thought about this kind of change, but knew that “once in spEd, always in spEd” so it was just a fleeting thought. Then I realized that this was another door opening; who was I, to not jump right in? Seventeen years later,I hope that I can continue for several more years to make the lives of my students a little easier and that they and the world will see that each of them is a special gem with unique value and beauty unlike any other.