In her time as a paraprofessional, Carolyn Bonaparte-Jones has assisted many fine special education teachers, but no one has close to Laila Elhanafy. “From the first day of school, everyone loved Laila — the children, their parents and me, too!” says Bonaparte-Jones. “You knew she was exactly where she wanted to be.”
To get there, Elhanafy, a mother of three with a husband who insisted she follow her dream, worked full time for years while attending school at night and on weekends to earn her teaching degree. At 41, Elhanafy has just begun her second year at PS 75 in District 75 in Ridgewood, Queens. She teaches 12 kindergarten, 1st-grade and 2nd-grade students whose disabilities range from severe ADHD to autism.
“Honestly, to have a child who has problems speaking or learning, sitting still or staying calm, and then see them opening up like a flower blooming is magical,” Elhanafy says. “Every single one of them, if you’re patient, consistent and loving, can learn.”
Each morning, she ushers in her charges with a huge smile, believing the pleasure she shows is both a balm and a harbinger of the day. The 12 students begin by sitting in a circle and singing songs. “They know the order of every song,” Elhanafy says, laughing. She employs all manner of tactile, visual and auditory tools to reach and teach the little ones. “Sometimes we just have to stop everything and stand up and dance,” she says.
With students who have serious disabilities, patience is crucial because learning can come ever so slowly. To their parents, the changes they’ve seen already this year are amazing. One little boy began school agitated and unable to sit still, much less learn. Today he does his homework with neither prodding from his mother nor tantrums. Another child was defiant and threw things. “I gave him a journal so he could write and draw his feelings and goals for each day,” Elhanafy says. “It has given him focus and a sense of control. All children need to feel they have some control.”
Elhanafy possesses the empathy of experience. She arrived in New York City from her native Egypt at age 10, speaking only Arabic. She was promptly enrolled in the 6th grade at PS 192 in Brooklyn. Her teacher, Ellen Brotman, couldn’t give Elhanafy the work her fellow students were doing. Instead, Miss Brotman gave her book after book and gently, but quickly, eased her into English.
“She inspired me in every way,” says Elhanafy. “She never made me feel like I was different or didn’t belong. Miss Brotman is the reason I became a teacher. I wanted to make other children feel like Miss Brotman made me feel.”
Elhanafy does Miss Brotman proud. When nothing in her pedagogical bag of tricks works, she simply listens to her heart. One day, a little boy could not stop crying, screaming and lashing out with his fists. “Laila just got on the floor with him and held him and soothed him for a long time — about 20 or 30 minutes — until he finally calmed down,” says Bonaparte-Jones.
Miss Brotman inspired Elhanafy, and now Elhanafy has inspired her paraprofessional. “I was studying to become a school psychologist,” reports Bonaparte-Jones, “but since working with Laila, I’ve switched to special education.”