Not a Challenge, Just What Needs to be Done

His spacious office lined with sports memorabilia and college degrees hanging delicately on the painted drywall, Dr. Tim Smith, Assistant Director at R.I.S.E. Learning Center, eagerly speaks of all the upcoming changes.

R.I.S.E Learning Center, part of Perry Township, will become its own entity starting in the school year of 2011-2012. Budget cuts are looming and the economy seems to not be getting back on its feet quite soon enough. Tension mounts as most of the final questions will not be answered until May.

Smith, knowing the state’s financial education problems, believes that the cuts will not be as harsh as some believe and stresses that he wants to hold onto as many current staff as possible and does not see what he couldn’t. “We just might be replacing some of the staff that is leaving due to other reasons,” he says.

            Armed with multiple degrees and plenty of experience, he knows better than anyone how important it is to have uniformity in his staff. There is no one key player he says.

He believes that with his teaching experience as well as with his administrative duties at three special needs schools, he has helped motivate his employees and has improved the school over the past year. He joined R.I.S.E. a year and a month ago. “Boost of encouragement,” he says. “I enhance what they are already capable of doing and help bring the whole staff together.”

It is all part of his ongoing professional development he believes and is ecstatic after receiving his doctorate in educational leadership from Indiana State University this past July. He promised his mentor, Dr. William Duke, who was a principal of Carmel High School where Smith worked, that he would finish the degree after nearly five years of pursuing it. Duke received the letter sadly on his death bed from throat cancer alongside his dedicated wife Smith says.

“Everything is a challenge, but that’s a part of what we do, so nothing worries me when I come home,” Smith says. “It’s all part of the fun. My personality is laid back, I don’t have a lot of stress, and I love kids, so that’s why I chose education. Sometimes we all have to chip in for the dirty grunt work, not necessarily challenging. It’s just what we do.”

The biggest challenge he faces he says is trying to satisfy all the parents who believe they have certain rights or needs that sometimes the school can or is willing to provide.

“When a kid becomes violent or aggressive, it is an opportunity to be prepared through training, workshops, so we know how to handle the situation correctly,” Smith says. “That’s what we are here for is to help the kids and ourselves.”

Tina Johnson, a moderate to severe disabilities primary teacher at R.I.S.E., says that it is vitally important to be collaborative in working with everyone, especially the people directly involved with her students, such as therapists and assistants.

“In every school it’s like a combined effort; I have a mentor teacher,” she says. “I try to go to her to get new ideas. Our speech teacher is also really helpful. A lot of issues can come out because they can’t talk so we all have to work together.”

Doing research online is one tool Johnson has learned fast. “I have found that visuals are best for kids with autism,” she says. “Since most of my class is nonverbal, I set up object schedules, which are boards with objects on them and they map out the student’s day. Once an activity is done, they place the object in a basket. It helps them know when the day is close to being done.”

She also stresses how important it is to have her staff on the same page as her. Strict guidelines and daily schedules are neatly organized in a clear bin marked on the colorful wall by the front classroom door. Time is everything.

Bubbly, alert and focused, Johnson scurries out into the hallway to pick up her last student, who was finishing her speech therapy. The students are leaving early due to a winter storm and gears up to make sure everything was done for the day.

“Attention. The Beech Grove bus is here. Any students left in the building need to be sent to the front office at this time,” the intercom overhead calls out. Grabbing the little girl’s little hand into hers, she helps her put on her pink fluffy jacket and walks her to the front.

Johnson always knew she wanted this world, even in her undergraduate pursuit. Transferring to Indiana University Bloomington after just a semester at Ball State, she began her classes for a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. It resulted in her going on to get her master’s degree at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis.

“I don’t think that school can help you become a good teacher; it’s mostly experience,” Johnson says. “Student teaching really opened up my eyes.”

Knowing how vital it is for her and her staff to be here for her students, who are the most severe cases out of four townships, she knows she has to be extremely patient and compassionate. “You really really just have to love your kids,” she says. “One minute they may vomit on you and you just have to get over it, because you have to get back to helping them two minutes later.”

“They may do the most disgusting or gross things, but… I like working with them and really getting to know them.” To some it is more than just a teacher-student relationship; it is a bond. The students sometimes have the same teacher for multiple years and they spend every day learning and growing with the teacher and their assistants.

“There’s a lot of trust that goes into the staff with these kids,” Johnson says. “Parents send their kids off and they want to know what they are doing. They trust us.” Goals, accomplishments and paperwork are sent home in plastic three-ring binders in colorful miniature cartoon backpacks on the bus or in the minivan everyday for the guardians and parents to review.

“Patience can wear thin for sure; things can get boring like hearing the same song every morning or doing the same activities, but it’s good for the kids,” she says. There are plenty of physical challenges that pop up. Diapers, potty-training, eating restrictions and walking devices are just a few of all the challenges. “At least 50 percent of my day is spent in the bathroom with the kids it seems,” Johnson says. “Potty training is number one on the parent’s list and we try. There is still a chance at this age, once they get to high school, it is almost too late.”

Both students and parents tend to rely on the staff for support and help in gearing their special needs child into as much normalcy as possible. Speech therapists, occupational therapists and social workers can all help. Hearing that you may have saved someone’s life may be all the inspiration that is needed to stay at work.

Kid-friendly and visually eye-popping, the bright candy corn orange plastic chair in the shape of a hand, greets students as they enter in this safe haven. Working diligently at his desk in a small room filled with games, social work books and candy, R.I.S.E. LLC social worker Kyle Walke, LSW, prepares for the next task of the day, behavior mapping.

Behavior mapping is a valuable resource and tool for social workers in discovering and understanding where the child is coming from, their mindset. Walke explains that it is a board of four or five aspects of the child’s life that need addressed and then try to figure out what behaviors need modified or corrected. People involved in student’s life, such as the social worker, teacher, guardian and family are all present to give input. It helps give a background to help everyone involved better understand what is or isn’t stable in the child’s life and how to better address issues.

“Everything I do I have to collaborate with the teachers,” Walke says. “They are my best resource I have.”

“Students with disabilities are different. It’s not like scoring 100 percent on a math test. For one student we may have them practice not running into people in the hallway so they won’t do it at the grocery store and have someone get angry at them. We help them with social skills and issues,” he says.

It is important to know that patience is a virtue and is a must for any career in education, especially one in special needs. “It’s important to be patient, calm and empathetic,” Walke says. “Emotionally disabled kids are here because they have been kicked out of their schools because of bad behavior. You can’t let it get to you or you will get really burned out in a week or a day or an hour.”

Learning patience is one thing, how to deal with everyday situations is tougher. “We have different skill sets than counselors,” he says. “We advocate in a lot of different ways. We are trained early on how to handle and adjust to deal with wide variety of circumstances we will encounter.”

Knowing when to ask for help and when to work together seems to work for R.I.S.E. Learning Center and it will continue to thrive in the upcoming years as changes will be made. Collaborative efforts are the name of the game.


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