It’s been a long road, becoming who I am today. I want to share with you how I came to be the mother, the educator, and the advocate that I am. It’s not a short story, and it definitely has some parts that may make you wonder, “How does this even fit in?” But it all does.
As with most people, my journey doesn’t really have a fixed starting point. It was a combination of many times, many impressions, and many experiences that shaped me to become the woman that I am now. To hold the beliefs that I do about children, and about learning. Let’s start when I was a child, myself.
My Mother, My Childhood
We have all heard a million times that your own experiences as a child shape who we become as adults, and especially as parents. I don’t think that I’m any different. My childhood, I think, was just about as great as it could have been. The focus was on playing, discovering, and pursuing things that interested me. All of that is thanks to my fantastic mother, Susan.
I don’t want you to think that I had some kind of cushy, super easy childhood. We were not wealthy, or even particularly well of, by any means. But that didn’t matter to me. We lived out in the beautiful country of Central New York, in a huge farm house, with plenty of land. We had sheep when I was young, and dogs, and any cats that wandered in were allowed to stay. I was the youngest of four children, so there was always someone to play with (or pester, depending on the day). We had a wild raspberry thicket in our side yard, so in the summer we could go out and pick raspberries “for a pie.” (I put that in quotes, because 2/3 of the berries picked went into my mouth each time, so there were never enough left over for our pie).
My mom says that she loved being a mother, and the things that we liked to do, she enjoyed doing as well. She had friends in all of the programs that we were involved in as well. She was a troop leader for our Girl Scout troops. She was a leader when we joined 4-H. She was a dance mom for my sister, and a dog trainer for me. We loved doing things with her, and she loved doing things with us, even if they were not necessarily things that were her own passions.
As I grew up, there were so many things that kept me busy. The main one was animal training, which we’ll talk about in a little bit. But we also were scouts, and we had friends from school that we spent time with, and we had our farm that we played on. I think a main thing that my mother did incredibly well was allow and support imaginative play. We played with our Barbies how we liked (that’s a post for another day, I think. There’s a whole lot of madness there). We created and re-created our farms. We told stories to each other, played dress up using our sheets and tights, and pretended to be deer out in the back yard.
Overall, I call my childhood an absolute success. I was raised with a focus of fun, teamwork, exploration, and trying new things, which I think was so important in shaping how I became as a teacher, and now as a parent. I am forever thankful to my family, specifically my mother, for giving me this foundation on which to build the rest of my life. It is strong, and is steady enough for all kinds of opportunities.
Dogs, Horses, and the Beginning of Teaching
We always had dogs when I was a child, and when I was 9 years old, we took two of our dogs, Daisy and Sam, to a beginners obedience class hosted by the local Cooperative Extension. The program was a community class, but it tied into 4-H as well, if we wanted to join.
I remember being quite small, with a medium-large sized dog (about 65 lbs), going to class every week to learn new things. Daisy was my dog, and my sister had Sam, and my mom sort of ran back and forth between us, helping as needed. We worked on heeling, and staying, coming when she was called, and on and on. I would go home and practice with poor Daisy for at least 30 minutes a day, putting her through her heeling patterns and making her stay out in the front yard. She was an amazing dog, and she took it all in stride.
We joined the 4-H dog club, and it started to really foster and create a great love of teaching for me. You see, training a dog uses different language, but in essence, you are just teaching new skills and behaviors. Waiting to see understanding, and moving forward to more difficult concepts. It’s amazing to see your dog continue to learn new things, and to do them with you and for you because she loves you. I competed with Daisy, and then my dogs Spot and Tammy, at the County and State Fairs each year from the time I was 9 until I was about 16. I branched out into showing at American Kennel Club events when I was about 12 and got Tammy as a puppy, my first show quality dog. I showed in Conformation (think the Westminster Kennel Club show), Obedience, and then later, when I got Chili (my first Bloodhound) at 16, Mantrailing.
While the only titles I’ve ever actually put on my dogs in competition is their Conformation Championships and Mantrailing titles, I showed for years because of the amazing community that surrounds dog sports. We were always encouraged and supported by the wonderful friends that we made in those circles. One great friend described her outlook on dog shows to us as “A great big tailgate party. Oh, and we show our dogs in there somewhere, too.” There are many people involved who are fiercely competitive, but we were mostly in the groups that were there for a good time, and the titles were just a perk.
When I was 14, my mother brought me to the Cortland County Fairgrounds in October to volunteer in the food booth with her at the annual Draft Horse Auction. By this time, I had trained four of my own dogs in obedience, conformation, and agility, and I was sure that I was ready for my own horse. For about two years, I had been researching different breeds of horse, and I had settled on Percheron as my preferred animal. So when I say that my mother brought me, what I really mean is that I had begged her and begged her to come along, to see all of the magnificent Percherons, Belgians, and Clydesdales being sold.
In a later conversation, she explained to me that she bought me a bidding number to show me how auctions worked, and because we had talked about maybe buying some tack for a future horse. She explained that she never, in a million years, thought that I would bid on a horse. Because it didn’t occur to her that I would bid, she never told me, “Sarah, don’t buy a horse.” And, because she didn’t tell me not to, and my grandfather had just given us the savings bonds that he and my grandmother had been keeping for us since birth (about $700 worth), I bid on and won a feisty 6 month old Percheron while my poor mother was working in the food booth.
“Mom! Guess what? I bought a horse!”
“You did WHAT???”
“I…bought a horse?”
I was so excited that I had my very own foal that I had forgotten which horse I had bid on, and we had to go and ask the auction secretary which horse was mine. But when we found him, and my mother arranged transport, and he arrived at home, he was the most perfect thing I had ever seen. I spent hours with him every day, and with the help of a few friends, we built him a stall in the barn and fenced in the back acreage for him.
As he grew (and grew, and grew, and grew), we accumulated two more horses to help him learn horse manners. I began taking riding lessons at a local hunter-jumper stable after school, and became an adept horse woman. Patience and respect, patience and respect, and a little bit of creativity.
Kayce Cover, and a Change of Paradigm
When I was 16, my mom had come home with a new dog, a Pyrenean Shepherd named Tristan, who was in a whole new league of intelligence and weird behaviors. She found out about an incredible animal trainer named Kayce Cover, who had created a type of training called Syn Alia Training Systems.
Kayce came to New York a year or two later to give a seminar, and we hosted her at our house. It was then that I really began my journey in understanding training as teaching, and vice versa. The key element of SATS is that every training relationship should be mutually respectful and beneficial. That really is a game changer. Each thing you teach an animal should be done because it is beneficial for BOTH of you, and in a way that respects BOTH of you. I think that gets lost in a lot of training techniques.
The more that I learned from Kayce, the more I wanted to teach my animals. So I worked, and I worked, and I worked. I taught and I trained, and I trained and I taught. And finally, as I sat in Psychology class in my senior year of High School and watched a video about autism, I got it.
Autism was where I was supposed to be. That was what I was supposed to do. I had spent years honing my abilities as a teacher and trainer for my animals, and this was a career path that I could follow happily, and without reservation. So that’s what I did. I spent the next four years at SUNY Cortland, earning my degree in Inclusive Special Education, Grades 1-6, and then Syracuse University for a Master’s degree in Inclusive Education, Severe and Multiple Disabilities.
While I earned my Master’s, I worked as a Direct Support Professional in a group home for young people with developmental disabilities and mental health diagnoses. It was a rewarding, but very challenging job, and it gave me a lot of insight into the lives of those who would one day be my students as they grew up. It helped me understand what happens to children who grow up with behaviors that are too challenging for their families to manage at home. What sort of place they can end up in if they have no means of communication, and the difficulties that they can endure when they’re there.
At the same time, I was also doing internships and student teaching at some amazing preschools. The one that really meshed with my views of childhood learning was an absolutely incredible place called the Jowonio School.
This school was an all inclusive preschool, with seamlessly integrated classrooms that contained children with disabilities and without. The curriculum was based on the Creative Curriculum for Preschool, by Diane Trister Dodge, Laura J. Colker, Cate Heroman. This is the same curriculum that I base my own work on at home, and almost everything that I post on this blog. It included a magnificent Sensory, Occupational, and Physical Therapy room called the Enchanted Forest. It had a children’s library called the Magic Bookshop. There was an extensive playground outside, as well as a nature trail and a little village with play stores, houses, and tricycles called Trike Town. Inside the classrooms, the focus was on exploratory play, and the lessons taught were taught by invitation.
One day, I set up a lesson involving Venn Diagrams, explaining that we can sort things with differences, but some things fall into both categories. All I had to do was set up my lesson on one of the tables, and children wandered over to try it. When they were finished, they wandered off again to play in other Centers.
This is my dream setting for children to learn in, at a young age. Regardless of ability, interest, race, whatever, all of these children were included and invited to engage and learn equally in the school community.
The Teaching Profession
Once I had completed my Master’s degree, I had a plan to move to Texas to be with my then-boyfriend, now husband. Not only did I want to be with him, but there were also absolutely no jobs for special educators in Central New York at that time. The market was very flooded, and a change of location was needed if I was going to start teaching.
A few months after graduating from SU, I was offered a position as an Elementary Life Skills teacher in the Irving Independent School District, and I packed up my six dogs, four cats, parrot, and worldly belongings and moved to Dallas. My horses would join me a couple of years later, once I had a firmer foundation and and found a ranch to keep them on. We made the move with little drama, though it was an extremely long drive. We were all glad to make it to the other end.
My first classroom was actually created because the current teacher at that school was overwhelmed. The first day of school, four unexpected students enrolled in her class that put her numbers at about 12, with such a wide variety in ability and behavior that she and her paraprofessionals simply couldn’t keep up! So they hired little old me to come and take 5 of their toughest students. I’ve always loved a challenge, but I will admit that it was not a smooth year. I ended up trying four or five different teaching models before I was finally satisfied that things were going well (by about March…so most of the year was in flux). The things that I ended up focusing on in that room were:
- Schedules and Routines
- Creative Play
- Outdoor Play
- Small Group Work
With the class I had, large group teaching could only last about 10 minutes before we started to lose kids’ interest, so most of our teaching was done in groups of 1 or 2, with the kiddos rotating through our stations. It worked incredibly well, and they really enjoyed being involved in different activities throughout the day.
My next year, I was put in a different room, with older and more advanced students, and none of us thrived. I definitely will say that I was far out of my element with that crew, for I was used to working with little ones whose interests were more focused on play and exploration, rather than on academics. I ended up leaving the Irving district that year and moved to a small Middle School Life Skills program out in the country. I was back in a small, intimate room with students with very significant needs, and I was back in my comfort zone. I stayed there for two years, until my students moved on to High School, and I became pregnant with my first little one.
Teaching’s Effect on My Parenting
There was a lot that I brought to teaching from my experiences as an animal trainer. And there is a lot that I’m bringing to parenting from my teaching. Much of it is the same: patience, creativity, and respect. However, being in a public school setting for four years also gave me a lot of insight into what that institution has become over the years.
Have you read those articles written by teachers on Facebook, where they give their reasons for resigning from a job that they love after 25 years? About how instead of fostering a love of learning, they are drilling quickly forgotten facts into little brains that are too young to grasp them? About how they are forced to force children to sit for hours at a time, with only short “movement breaks” during those 120 minute long ELA blocks? Yeah. That’s not a lie.
I was fortunate as a Life Skills teacher to have a lot more flexibility in designing my learning program for my students. To be honest, most administrators didn’t know what was going on in my room, and I don’t think that they questioned it at all as long as I was keeping everyone happy and busy during the day. However, most teachers were not as fortunate as me.
I saw Kindergarten classes walking down the hall in a straight line, hands behind their backs and a “bubble in their mouths.” No touching. I saw 6 year olds practicing sitting for standardized tests, when they could barely stay in one place to begin with. A maximum of 15 minutes for recess. No play centers once they left preschool. Not a place that I’m interested in for my own children.
My husband has been a secondary school teacher for 22 years, and he too has seen a decline in the public education system. Kids are held in their little standardized boxes, not able to step out to learn more or less than the curriculum prescribes. Creativity, innovation, and forward thinking are not fostered. They are developed in spite of the school system.
So, when we found out that I was pregnant, it wasn’t really even much of a discussion whether or not our baby would be attending school. We decided that as long as we are able to manage it, I’ll stay home with her, and with our future little ones, and nurture them to be all they can be, without the limits of public school.
Arrival of a Baby, and a New Way of Life
My little bundle came to join us in July of 2016. Almost a year, now! I finished out the 2016 school year in my classroom as a gigantic, pregnant whale, and we chose to have me stay home with our little one, rather than find a daycare program for her and return to work. I worked from home as a professional dog trainer from September to May of 2017, but now that our nugget is nearly a full-blown toddler, there just isn’t time in the day to train dogs and keep her busy.
Things have changed for us as a family, no doubt, but I believe that they’ve changed for the better. My teaching years gave me plenty of experience and ideas for the direction that I want for us to go. As I raise this child, and the children that we plan to have in the future, I plan to implement the ideas in Creative Curriculum, those of Maria Montessori, and of course, John Holt. All of these people have similar ideas about teaching, and about learning.
Right now, I think our focus is on growing, exploring and playing. As we grow as a family, I’m sure that focus will change, as mine did as a child, to deeper learning and to finding our passions. It’s my hope that I can help you explore and learn along with us, and I invite you and your little ones to join me on our continuing journey toward growth. I have loved every moment of it so far, and I can’t wait to find out where we will be in the coming years!