As we continue to highlight CUE educators who are catalysts for change, we look next to Christy Cook – a special education teacher from the Inland Empire who seeks to empower her students through inclusionary practices at her place of work. Read how she was inspired to pursue a career in education and the work she’s done at making inclusion an ideal at her school site.
Name: Christy Cook
Role in Education: Specialized Academic Instructor
Location: Romoland School District
Social Media Handles: @evolvesped (Twitter)
How long have you been in education? I have worked with children and adults with disabilities for 13 years. I was a Montessori teacher for 5 years, and am now in my 3rd year as an SAI Teacher.
Please describe a “day in the life” of Ms. Cook? I start my day in a 2nd grade general education classroom. My staff and I provide specialized academic support in the lower grades general education classrooms until lunch time. After lunch, we work with students in the Learning Center. Regardless of the classroom setting, my staff and I, work on teaching skills and filling gaps. The more inclusive our school becomes, the more time I spend doing observations and consultations. My job includes regular check-ins with general education teachers to ensure that the students are accessing the curriculum and making progress. In addition, I volunteer with many teams before and after school.
What is the best thing about your job? The best thing about my job is the teamwork. I love teams! I didn’t know that I loved teams until I started my job at Harvest Valley. If you saw how many teams I signed up for this year, you might think I have a problem…I’m totally addicted. I believe that when teams function with collective efficacy toward one purpose, magic happens! I got my love for teams from Michelle Giroux, my Principal, and the 2019 CUE Site Leader of the Year. Michelle has brought many innovative practices to our school, but one that stands out has been Core Collaborative’s Impact Teams. Impact Teams has helped us to function with collective efficacy toward one purpose, creating a strong current for achieving our ambitious goals, like working towards inclusion.
What motivated you to pursue a career in special education? My motivation for working in the field of education has always been social justice. I fell in love with the work of Maria Montessori because of her dream to educate for a better world. I left Montessori because it felt limiting in what I could do, and who I could serve. I did not switch immediately to a career in special education. I have played around with other career options. In my mind, special education was always my safe career choice since I had experience in the field. StiIl, I held back because I feared that it would also be limiting; not in who I taught, but in how I taught. When I realized law school wasn’t going to work out for me, I felt pressed for options. I remember walking into an information session for an Education Specialist Credential at Cal State San Marcos, after a suggestion from a friend. The speaker was passionate, and spoke just enough social justice to perk my ears, and whet my appetite for more. I walked out certain that I would earn that credential, and see where it would take me. This was the best career choice I have made so far. I have never regretted it, and I have never felt limited.
What are some ways that any teacher – whether general education or special education – could differentiate in his/her classroom?
This is a difficult question to answer because Montessorians have an out-of-the-box view of differentiation. Differentiation is not a word that Montessorians use; it is built into the method. I see differentiation as a spectrum, with fully differentiated classrooms on one end, and slightly differentiated classrooms on the other. A Montessori classroom is one example of a fully differentiated classroom, but I have seen many examples in public schools as well. These classrooms focus on transferring power to the students, and increasing student ownership, student voice and self-determination. They use innovative teaching methods and technology to provide a range of learning opportunities, constantly assessing the student, and the environment, and making changes as needed. In this way, differentiation becomes more of a dance between the teacher, the student and the environment, with the teacher as the guide and facilitator.
Differentiation begins to bleed into every cell of the classroom, it happens all day long, resulting in more access for the students. So if you are a teacher who would like to differentiate more, it may help to think of it on a spectrum. Assess where you are at, and create a vision of what you would like it to look like in your classroom. Then work towards that vision.
You recently shared that you attended a CUE conference and had originally thought it wasn’t “for special education teachers.” However, after attending the conference, your mindset shifted. What changed your mind? At IACUE, I saw presenters who were innovative in their teaching practice. Some did this with technology, others with ideas, but all focused on increasing access for all students. This event was full of presenters creating and sharing for equitable education. Romoland School District had more than a handful of presenters representing, which helped to make CUE feel like my kind of tribe. I have heard many inspirational things about social justice from presenters, but these presenters weren’t just talking about it – they were doing it and sharing without asking for anything in return! Needless to say, I am a fan of CUE, and I tell everyone else that they should be too!
Let’s talk inclusion. I know that you are passionate about it. What can you tell our readers about it, how it works, and how it benefits all? I see inclusion as an ideal, a standard, a work in progress, a path that we follow. Inclusion is something that we, as a collective, work towards. In my opinion, the exclusive setting indirectly sends a damaging message of ‘you are not good enough’. Inclusion sends and models the message of, ‘we are all different, and we are all good enough!’. Our school has not been practicing inclusion for long. We still have much to improve, but there have been countless benefits so far. I’ve seen students transition to inclusive settings, and grow in confidence, social/emotional, and academic skills in ways that make myself, my co-teachers, and the students’ parents cry tears of joy.
I’ve seen general education students develop from a hesitancy of not knowing how to approach a student with a disability, to full acceptance and empathy for all of their peers. I see these as lifelong benefits for these students (and for society), and we have only begun to work towards our ideal.
What are some resources (e.g. activities/lessons, templates, people to follow, etc.) that you’d like to share – resources that might inspire others?Here are some of my Twitter PLN I have been most inspired by:
Gregory Mansfield (@GHMansfield)
Tim Vallegas (@TheRealTimVegas)
Think Inclusive (@think_inclusive)
Core Collaborative (@TheSocialCore)
Daniel Coyle (@DanielCoyle)
Is there anything else you’d like to share or include in this interview? Inclusion is a team effort at every level. The administrators and general education teachers work just as tirelessly as I do. I am but one member of the team, yet my role is important because as the special education teacher it is my job to hold tightly to the vision of inclusion, and see it through.
Christy is a learner, teacher, mother, dreamer. She graduated from Rutgers University in 2001 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science. She earned her Masters Degree, and Montessori AMI Primary Teaching Credential from Loyola University in Maryland, in conjunction with the Montessori Institute of San Diego in 2011. In 2016, she began working as an SAI Teacher with the Romoland School District. She is still working on notable achievements, but she has a growth mindset about this, so be sure to read her bio again in the future.