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Great Georgia Teachers: Atlanta's Elisha Gray. 'I see abilities, not disabilities.'

Great Georgia Teachers: Atlanta's Elisha Gray. 'I see abilities, not disabilities.'

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I am delighted to share a new piece by frequent Get Schooled contributor and University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky in his ongoing Great Georgia Teachers series.

By Peter Smagorinksy

I’ve heard something like the following many times from people who go into teaching: “Before I knew teaching was a profession, I was having class with my dolls at home after school and on weekends." In this case, the speaker is Elisha Gray.

Before recently moving to an administrative position, Elisha was a special education teacher at Maynard Holbrook Jackson High School. She was the Atlanta Public Schools Teacher of the Year in 2012—the first special education teacher ever to receive this honor—and a Finalist for the 2013 Georgia Teacher of the Year Award.

 In one of the profession’s ongoing dilemmas, Elisha is among those great classroom teachers whose outstanding work gets them promoted out of the classroom and into administration. She now serves as the APS Office of the Deputy Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction. In this capacity, however, she continues her dedication to improving teaching and learning, albeit from a new perspective.

 As a special education teacher, Elisha worked with kids whose cognitive capabilities have developed differently than have those of their peers. Her students used assistive technology to learn, communicate, and interact with those around them. Spending all day, every day with people who struggle with the very basics of social and intellectual life can be difficult and draining, and undoubtedly at times it can become frustrating and discouraging.

Some people in such positions eventually crack, resorting to cruelty or outright abuse to overcome their own inability to teach students with mental and neurological differences in sensitive, compassionate, patient, and supportive ways.

 And then there are the great ones, those for whom families are eternally grateful and to whom schools are profoundly indebted. When working with a young person whose cognitive functions do not develop in age-appropriate ways, Elisha discovered potential, not trouble: “I see abilities, not disabilities,” she says.

 Ideally, every teacher views every student through such a positive lens. Parents of kids designated as benefitting from a special education are especially concerned that their teachers take this hopeful view of their child’s life’s possibilities and work earnestly to cultivate them.

 This dedication, according to Elisha, is what all good teachers bring to their work with youth. “The profession of teaching is undoubtedly the most powerful profession in existence,” she said upon being named APS Teacher of the Year. “The power of a teacher is both present and future, in that as you reach the children of today, you develop the leaders of tomorrow. Although you may not have the power to determine the state-mandated curriculum, the passion with which you deliver it lies in your hands. You, the teacher, have the power to impact and live on the inside of each individual who has ever called you Teacher. It only takes one person to make a difference and there is no reason why that person can’t be you. That is the power you have as a teacher.”

This upbeat and optimistic vision came during the APS cheating scandal, one that pointed the national finger of disgrace at the district’s teachers, administrators, and schools. It crippled morale, tied up scarce funds in court cases, and made many teachers doubt if they could keep on keepin’ on with their efforts to prepare young people for lives of fulfillment. It also created a need for a new generation of administrators, leading to Elisha’s appointment as a district leader.

 Teaching special education requires patience, understanding, empathy, and support. For Elisha, that dedication came easily: “I simply do the work that I love,” she said, viewing her Teacher of the Year less as a reward and more as a responsibility to do yet more for her kids and for the profession.

 Although she believes that school ought to be fun for teachers and students, it’s a serious form of fun, one that enables those involved to thrive through engagement with learning. She says:  “I get to enjoy the privilege of working with students who many might find outside of their level of comfort zone. There is a need to remove the ambiguity surrounding what goes on in a classroom of students with severe intellectual disabilities. I teach the grade level standards in all four core subject content areas, collaborate with general education teachers, have daily parental communication, provide community-based instruction, offer health- and comfort-related care; and that is just to start.”

 Elisha views herself not just as a teacher, but as a learner from what her students can teach about overcoming challenges to be successful. This disposition is part of a broader view that all of her students can learn, leading her to make no compromises in having appropriately high expectations.

The gains her students have made might seem modest to those policymakers who believe that all students, regardless of readiness, must pass the same standardized tests in order for their teachers to be deemed proficient; see, for instance, some of the tasks she set for her students in this video.

But progress is the goal of special education, rather than meeting nationally-normed “achievement” standards derived from the test-taking performance of whole school populations. Making such progress with learners who have special needs requires a dedication to helping all students make progress without compromising their engagement with the curriculum so that they may have the greatest success possible in their studies and subsequent life trajectories.

 In turn, Elisha learned daily from her students what it means to achieve success, in spite of seemingly prohibitive obstacles. Her teaching was fundamentally hopeful and future-oriented, designed to help people make the most of lives that many in society believe are of hopelessly lesser value. But to great special education teachers like Elisha, these kids are too special to lose hope in. Those of us who have friends and family that include such kids know just how much the Elisha Gray’s of the world mean in their lives.

 Elisha learns from people other than her students. She recently completed the Harvard University Graduate School of Education Institute for New and Aspiring School Leaders, an experience that should serve not only her personal career but those of teachers she works with throughout APS.

Elisha’s career tells us much about the great teachers in Georgia. They often work in the midst of policy demands that are focused on technical proficiency in test preparation, rather than attending to the human needs of students and their families. They view themselves as citizens of community institutions, and their impetus to teach is born of passion and compassion, of care for the well-being of young people and investment in their futures, and thus the future of their society. They also, due to their considerable abilities, at times take on new roles in the broader system, often with some regret, in order to have a greater impact across classrooms.

Great teachers are the heart and soul of our schools. In today’s heartless policy world, they are the people who build the relationships on which the critical social institution of the school are founded and maintained. They provide the emotional core of the institution most responsible for binding communities together. Like Elisha Gray, they care so much about their kids that they can tune out the endless impositions from technocrats in the policy world and focus their energy on the people who drew them to teaching to begin with.

 Teachers’ passion for the present and future possibilities for the youth who will inherit the earth, as she says, gives them the power to affect each student who comes under their care both today and deep into their lives. Teachers like this are perhaps our greatest public servants, due our gratitude and worthy of our enduring debt and appreciation.