Students’ little achievements are a big reward
If Jamie McFarland made a public service announcement, her message would be simple: “People should realize that special education kids are just kids,” she said. “They want to be included, they want to have fun. They are just like any other 8-, 9-, 10-year-old, they just have different abilities.”
McFarland, 2017 Gwinnett County Teacher of the Year, teaches third- through fifth-graders with severe and profound disabilities at Rock Springs Elementary. Her students have conditions like cerebral palsy, genetic disorders or traumatic brain injury. She thrives on finding the best way to teach them as individuals. “Every student is unique in their abilities and disabilities. Every student is new and different, and it’s fun to figure out what they can do and how they can do it.”
The most rewarding aspect of her job is “the little things,” she said. “My kids don’t make huge gains and jumps, but they make all kinds of little achievements every day that are exciting. I can really see how they are learning and growing.”
For example, when one of McFarland’s students who uses a communication device came on stage in this year’s class play, “Beauty and the Beast,” he went right to the proper page, said his first line by himself, and remembered to wait while other characters said their lines. “It was so exciting to see how far he’d gotten,” McFarland said, recalling previous years when the student required lots of help with those skills.
Her focus is always on what’s possible, a welcome change for parents of special needs children, who often feel hopeless and are used to being told what their children can’t do. “One of the exciting things about my job is that I am one of the first people parents meet who says ‘there are challenges, but I believe your child is important and we can figure out ways for your child to learn to do some of those things you hope for’,” McFarland said. “I love the connections with families I get to make as we figure out ways for their children to learn.”
One of the biggest challenges to teaching special education is that “a lot of people don’t think the children are capable of learning. A lot of people have a misconception about what we do in the classroom. They assume we are babysitting and not really teaching. When people believe that about your classroom, it is really hard to get the support you need,” McFarland said. “The biggest thing for our students would be getting the people who are making policy to come to our classroom and see what’s happening. Having some buy-in, having them see there is learning going on, would be huge for our kids.”
At Rock Springs, she works hard to ensure that general education students get to interact with her special education students, both by having general education students visit her classroom and having her kids visit other classrooms. General education students help McFarland’s pupils prepare for their annual play, for instance. When one of her students passed away recently, she saw how successful she had been at helping students connect with each other – the general education fourth graders wrote to the child’s parents about their friendships with the boy.
Special education is something of a family business for McFarland. She became interested in the field as a child when she went on home visits with her mother, Lynn McFarland, who works with a state program for vision- and hearing-impaired children. “I mostly fell in love with the children; I couldn’t see myself doing anything else,” she said.
McFarland, a Gwinnett native and South Gwinnett High School graduate, considered becoming a special education physical therapist, then realized she wanted a classroom of children she could “get to know and love on.” She earned a degree in special education from the University of Georgia and has spent her entire six-year teaching career at Rock Springs.
It is difficult to compartmentalize work and stop thinking about her students when she’s outside the classroom, McFarland admitted. Even during summer break, she keeps up with her students, communicating with their families and attending events like birthday parties. She uses the respite from day-to-day classroom work to plan fun activities for the coming school year.
“I know that what I’m doing is important in the grand scheme of things, and that helps me keep going and fighting for these kids,” she said.