Jessica Kahn (’91)
vividly remembers walking into her first classroom as a real teacher.
One girl was engaged in a striptease, one kid was hitting himself, one
was talking to his crayons, and another was crying in the corner.
The brand new
teacher had just arrived at a suburban Atlanta school after graduating
from JMU with an education degree focused on teaching emotionally disturbed
students. She was about to take on a population that many people consider
unteachable and even unreachable — children with autism. Officially
called autism spectrum disorder, this politically correct name acknowledges
recent research establishing that people with autism cannot be placed
into a single narrow category.
autism have difficulty communicating and forming reciprocal emotional
relationships. They may not make eye contact and often make peculiar,
repetitive body movements, like finger or hand flapping. Some are unable
to regulate their own bodies and may hurt themselves physically. Children
with autism may become distressed outside their established routines
and rituals. Think of Rain Man, with and without the savant aspect.
It is a developmental disability that continues to vex educators and
For her part,
Kahn took a deep breath and vowed to make positive changes in the classroom.
In the ensuing 11 years, she has done just that. And the tops in her
field have recognized her expertise and commitment. Last year she earned
the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards’ certification
as an early childhood through young adulthood/exceptional needs specialist.
There are only 865 others like her in the country. Created in 1987,
the NBPTS aims to establish rigorous standards for voluntary teacher
assessment. Along with the exceptional needs specialists, there are
16,037 regular classroom teachers who have earned the NBPTS designation
as well — on top of the traditional state certification required
Despite this huge
achievement, Kahn has learned a little something about scale. “In
my classroom, it’s the little successes that count,” she
says. Kahn’s instruction emphasizes life lessons — problem
solving, communication and social skills, areas that often come more
slowly than pure academics. “Students’ limitations are their
interactions,” Kahn explains. “A student may be able to
complete a calculus problem but be unclear about what to do when a peer
brushes up next to him in the hall at school.
take two or three years to help a student develop the ability to communicate,”
she explains, but that’s a little success that goes a long way.
Kahn speaks of a boy who, after two years, finally has started communicating
with the class about his feelings. His education will prepare him to
enter a special school rather than a group home away from his family.
is all about balance,” she explains. Her educational plan balances
three parts: academics, emotions and behavior. She ought to add a fourth:
Jazz, a yellow Lab mix, with whom she has been team teaching for eight
years. Now that’s balance.
Jazz is a big
help in making those little successes materialize. Kahn encourages students
to control their behavior by creating a plan through which students
earn “Jazz rights,” or time with Jazz. That plan empowers
her students with a sense of responsibility. Jazz is always ready for
a friend, and her students seem eager to take care of him.
Kahn found her
four-legged partner in 1994, on a random visit to the SPCA, after she
had spent a summer as a volunteer CPR teacher in Africa. Kahn had returned
to Harrisonburg and began work as a home-schooling teacher at Eastern
Mennonite University. Jazz was a year old and had been admitted to the
shelter a month earlier with a broken hip and evidence of significant
abuse. Kahn adopted him a week before he would have been put to sleep
and charged the $2,000 surgery to her credit card. Tenderly and carefully,
she nurtured Jazz as she does her students, taking one step at a time.
Soon after she won his trust, she began training him.
the two journeyed into the Appalachians to visit twin boys diagnosed
with autism. During breaks in her tutoring, Kahn allowed Jazz to come
into the yard to play.
go stay in a ‘down-stay,’ and the boys could come up to
him on their own,” Kahn says. Eventually, over time, one of the
boys would throw a ball or stick for Jazz to retrieve. “We would
use that time to help the boys learn that words have meaning and, by
telling Jazz to ‘get it’ or ‘leave it,’ that
Jazz would respond.” Kahn says Jazz’s response helped the
boys understand cause and effect, a concept that had remained unclear
through other activities.
According to Kahn,
Jazz sensed the other boy’s fright and so did not approach. Instead,
Jazz waited for the boy to come to him. Before long, the boy “was
running his fingers through the fur on Jazz’s back.” Jazz
was a safe way for them to learn cause and effect, not to mention that
he enabled the children to feel powerful, Kahn says.
The duo moved to
California in 1995 to pursue work with other children with autism spectrum
disorder and spent three years setting up autistic programs and conducting
behavior analysis in the classroom and in the homes of students. Since
1997, she has worked for the Folsom-Cordova Unified School District
in Rancho Cordova. Kahn says the district’s programs attract families
with autistic children nationwide.
In her California
classroom, Kahn remembers a fifth-grader who whispered into Jazz’s
ear. Jazz listened patiently. The student’s history of violent
expression had hindered her in a normal classroom, but in her second
year with Kahn, the student was beginning to act with less violence.
In fact, she had now begun calmly confiding in Jazz in frustrating moments.
“I can’t get mad,” the student would say into the
dog’s ear, “because Ms. Kahn said I can control myself.”
her telling Jazz how mean I was too,” Kahn recalls, “but
it was better than her lashing out at me. Soothing and petting Jazz
and speaking calmly helped her calm without hurting someone.”
This student suffered from childhood abuse, bipolar disorder and other
mental issues and was the only girl in the 13-student classroom. Like
many girls needing special education, she was able to hide her disabilities
until her fourth-grade year. Fourth grade is when school changes from
“learning to read to reading to learn” and to “learning
with more classmates,” according to Kahn. “This can be a
defining point for a student’s learning curve and social success,”
In special education,
by contrast, class size is smaller, and Kahn often gets to work with
the same kids over two to three years. Her students, who are diagnosed
with some level of autism spectrum disorder, share special education
with students with emotional disturbances, and learning, physical and
sensory disabilities. She is careful to not contribute to the stigma
that can be attached to special education. Her classroom, she says,
is “just a place where things are taught a little differently.”
It helps that
Kahn can relate to her kids. “I hated school,” she says.
“I was put in a lower class, because I was disorganized and basically
a nontraditional student.” She did not perform well in a normal
classroom but did excel in test taking. Kahn attributes a summer session
with JMU professor Dave Herr to her finding her niche with kids having
autistic spectrum disorder and other disabilities. Herr’s techniques
from this summer session and his other classes involving emotionally
disturbed kids and discipline have stayed with her. “You’ve
got to catch students being good,” she says, mimicking Herr. “You
have to tell them they’re being good because they may not even
recognize that they are doing it right.”
Kahn says she tries
to provide structure and accountability toward the student’s overall
performance. “You have to ask, ‘What is the function of
bad behavior?’” she says. Kids with a lot of failure get
frustrated. “I try to structure the class right above where the
kids are,” she says, which makes classroom goals more achievable.
“If I see that a student is having a frustrating day, I don’t
have such a huge responsibility, and part of the responsibility is taking
care of ourselves and modeling that for the children and our colleagues,”
she says. “If I am asking the children to control their anger,
then when I am angry I have to point out how I am feeling, and how I
am expressing it, so they can learn.”
That can go a
long way in establishing trust, which is equally important in relationships
with emotionally disturbed kids, she adds. So many of Kahn’s non-autistic
students come from abusive homes, where trust has been lost within the
family. But even in the absence of abuse, students with learning disabilities
have often experienced many failures as they have moved from classroom
to classroom. These instances can have a negative effect on a student’s
ability to trust a new situation to be any different. Playing a constant
and supportive role, Kahn has been able to create a trusting relationship
with many of her students. “The bonus of special education is
that I can spend more time with each student and tailor the learning
to his or her needs,” she says.
Almost as important
is gaining trust with the parents, who can actually work against the
teacher’s efforts. One parent insisted his child not complete
homework. In a similar situation, another parent told a child not to
listen to his teachers. Yet after making considerable effort to gain
confidence with the parent by calling and visiting the home, Kahn was
finally able to break through the barrier.
Kahn credits the
practical experience she gained at JMU for giving her a solid launch
pad into her profession. “Field experience at JMU is a real strength,”
Kahn explains, as it offers a real feel for what the classroom will
be like for future teachers. Eleven years after Kahn graduated, that
remains one of the JMU teacher education program’s heralded strengths.
Today JMU students can student teach in five to six school divisions
in the Shenandoah Valley or opt to go to Northern Virginia to get experience
in a more urban setting.
While the special
education program has continued to evolve since Kahn graduated, it still
focuses on “being a resilient teacher,” says program coordinator
Karen Santos. “This is a challenging field to enter and stay in,
and we restructured the program according to The National Council for
Exceptional Children’s knowledge and skills standards.”
The program consists
of a five-year undergraduate-master’s program, which is like a
super-charged double major, according to Santos. Students complete 40
hours of general education, 40 hours of teaching requirements, 40 hours
of liberal arts major (such as interdisciplinary liberal studies, psychology,
English) for a total of 120 hours by the fourth year. In the fifth year,
students complete additional hours in graduate classes, earning a master’s
in education by graduation.
teacher shortage affects special education classrooms to an even greater
degree than so-called regular classrooms. At JMU, 25 to 30 students
graduate yearly in the special education undergraduate program, and
they are snapped up by school systems immediately. JMU special education’s
five other master’s programs provide additional numbers of graduate
continues the education begun at JMU. “Getting certified by the
NBPTS has been the best professional growth I’ve had,” she
says. In the extensive year-long application process, candidates must
critically analyze and reflect on their teaching and pass a series of
performance-based assessments that include submissions of student work
samples, videotapes and rigorous analyses of their classroom teaching
and student learning, which are then judged by specialists in the field.
The application cost is steep, $2,300, and their chances of Exceptional
Needs certification are less than 50-50. But it’s worth it, says
Kahn. “It’s really a chance to articulate what you do and
to put value into your beliefs.”
is about a challenge to learn new things and learning from your students,”
says Kahn, who has been promoted to program manager for psychological
and speech and language services in her district. “When I see
a smile of pride at learning a new skill or when communicating with
a friend, a connection is made as to why I love what I do.
you have to find the laughter and the joy,” she says. “Sometimes
… you have to step back and either lay your head down and cry
for a bit or do something silly and laugh at yourself and the world.”
Kahn and Jazz have
gone on to train two other puppies for Canine Companions for Independence.
Kahn lives in Sacramento and is studying for her M.Ed. in administration
at California State University.
Do you have National
Board for Professional Training Standards’ certification? If so,
please let JMU know by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story by Meme McKee
Photos by Gary Krueger