Valencia Edwards has spent her 16-year career at the Lorge School, a non-public special education school in Chelsea with students who range in age from 5 to 21. Teachers at the school are members of the UFT.
How did you come to teach at the Lorge School?
Except for working at another school that fit the requirement for my master’s degree in early childhood education, I’ve only taught at the Lorge School. I love this place. It’s a unique environment where teachers, staff and administrators really care about supporting each other so we can do what’s best for our kids.
Tell me about your students. What kinds of disabilities do they have and how does that interfere with their learning? How do you as a teacher overcome those barriers?
My students are ages 15 to 17. The students have learning disabilities or emotional disabilities — or both. This year I have eight students in my class. I teach all subjects other than physical education, art and dance. My philosophy is that I meet my students where they are and try to take them where they need to go. I have students who want to blend into the walls when it’s time to read out loud. So you get the student to read two sentences instead of a paragraph or a page. I try to tailor lessons to each student’s strength and sneak in other information. I had 11 students last year, and one girl refused to do math. I began teaching her one-on-one. She still didn’t like it, but she no longer hated it. So one day while we’re working together, another student is up at the board really struggling with fractions. Suddenly, she gets up and goes to him, asks him the right questions and supports him in finding the answer. I cried, thinking, ‘Oh, my God, this is so beautiful.’
What is your students’ favorite subject or activity?
I’ve found that they grumble least over science. It’s simple and straightforward. They know they’re going to learn something that’s interesting to them. In earth science, for example, we talked about the distance from the Earth to the moon and the distance to Mars. The question of whether or not there is life on Mars sparked this lively debate on aliens.
What is the most challenging thing about teaching a small class of students with significant disabilities?
When I’m trying to explain something and they just don’t get it. I’ll explain it a different way, and then another way, and sometimes I think, what am I doing wrong that I can’t make it accessible to them? Thankfully, that doesn’t happen often.
What do you do on those days when no one seems capable of calming down or focusing long enough to learn a thing?
I speak with a British or Southern accent. I find I can get their attention again when I speak with other accents. I also laugh a lot. I joke around with them. I make them laugh. I sing and make up songs on the spot. Believe me I don’t have a singing voice, which makes them very happy. Sometimes the best thing you can do to get them to learn is provide the entertainment.
Are you a pushover?
No, just the opposite. I am consistent and tough, and they get that. I don’t take junk. I have very high expectations for my students, higher than they have for themselves. My responsibility is to help them succeed to the best of their abilities, and I take that responsibility seriously. They tell me, “We don’t like you!” But they do. Last school year, there was one girl who just butted heads with me every single day. This year, she’s in a different class, but she comes to give me a hug every morning and tells me I am her favorite teacher.
What is it about special education students that engages and inspires you?
There are so many things I absolutely love about teaching special ed kids. They’re interesting and funny. My fiancé and nonteaching friends marvel over the funny or poignant stories I tell them about the kids. This past winter we made posters and baked from scratch for our bake sale to raise money for two charities the kids chose. On the day of the sale, I was sick with a head cold, but I dragged myself in. They took one look at my face and they knew I was bad off. They stepped in and handled everything themselves and were so capable and so kind to me. I was amazed. They were amazing.
— As told to reporter Christina Cheakalos