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What I Do: Valerie O'Grady, hospital teacher

New York Teacher
Valerie O'Grady

For three years, she has worked at the hospital school at New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, where she teaches grades pre-K–12 at the bedside of burn-unit patients and grades 6–12 in a hospital classroom.

Tell me about a child you have worked with.

I had a 1st-grader in the burn unit last year who couldn’t write and didn’t speak in the beginning. He would nod his head to signal to me that he was on the same page when we read together. We read “Curious George” and he’s nodding his head, and I hoped he wasn’t humoring me. When he healed and he could speak, he said his favorite character was Curious George. That was a good feeling. He’s back at school.

How did you wind up in this job? Not many know it exists.

My parents wanted me to be a nurse. My dad is a lab technician, so I guess I was used to hospitals. But I didn’t think I’d make a good nurse. I graduated from NYU, where I majored in special education, and started teaching in 2007. I was clicking around on the Ronald McDonald House website, thinking I would volunteer, when I found a link to hospital schools. That’s how I found out they existed. I found someplace where I could be in a hospital setting without being a nurse.

How does your day begin?

I and the other teacher assigned to this hospital go over a list of the newly admitted patients. Then we go to each child to introduce ourselves. We have to meet the student and figure out how best to teach each one. By 9:45 a.m., we open the classroom. In the afternoon, I’ll go to the bedsides of the burn-unit students who can’t come to class. We try to contact the home school by email to see if we can continue the same lessons. Every day you have to be ready for anything. You have to have different lessons available. We want it to be meaningful work, not busywork. We want them to make gains in their learning and not fall behind.

Can you tell me about one child who had significant challenges to overcome?

One child who was in the hospital a long time was starting kindergarten. She came to the classroom crying — that’s what happens to kindergartners everywhere! We gave her Play Doh, blocks, whatever we could to entice her. She was really resistant at first, but eventually she would come to class happy — she’d sing songs from “Frozen” for us. I think what turned her around was that she liked the structure of school, practicing her penmanship — it gave her some normalcy. She’s now in 1st grade at her regular school.

What’s your strategy to figure out how to reach each child?

We’re consistent. We see them every school day at the same time. Also, we believe in having children do challenging work, but also work that they can accomplish. We don’t want them to experience frustration. We average five or six students in the class so we can be flexible and work with them individually. Sometimes I work together with the other teacher, who teaches pre-K through 5th grade. It’s like a one-room schoolhouse.

How do you gain their trust?

We have the advantage of having their parents here all the time. Getting family on board is half the battle of convincing the students that school is a good idea. We definitely use humor, and we make the class a happy place. A hospital can be an isolating experience, so we have students partner with one other, the older kids helping the younger ones.

Do you grade their work?

If they’re here 10 days or longer, I grade their work. I can administer most of the 3rd- and 8th- grade state tests and the Regents exams. If the student is stressed out about missing a midterm, I’ll ask the school to send the test over.

What are some of the challenges?

It’s a very intense relationship with a student for a short period of time. We get students anywhere from one day to a couple of months. Some of the students in the burn unit might not be able to use their hands or even speak right away. Things have changed suddenly for them, and the school gives them a sense of normalcy. They had a traumatic incident, but everything is about moving forward. It’s all about the healing.

It sounds like optimism is part of your arsenal.

You have to decide to be happy. It’s the kind of job that when the day is done, you have to close the door so you can come back the next day. The job gives you an appreciation for every day.

— As told to reporter Linda Ocasio

Related Topics: What I Do