“Three Defining Qualities of a Special Educator” – By an Aggie Teacher


Written by: CEHD Communications Staff
Post date: May 07, 2015

By Stephanie Haechten ‘12

Haechten is the 2015 recipient of the Walter Kase Teacher Excellence Award, which the Anti-Defamation League annually presents to three educators for their outstanding efforts to create an atmosphere in our schools that rejects prejudice and regards diversity as a strength.

Haechten received a Bachelor of Science degree in Interdisciplinary Studies with an emphasis in Special Education from the Department of Educational Psychology in the College of Education & Human Development at Texas A&M in 2012. She is currently a Profession Educator at The Monarch School in Houston, Texas.

My eyes were opened to the world of disabilities when I was eight-years-old.

At that time, the deaf education program was supported through inclusion into my grade general education class and I was adamant about connecting and communicating with my deaf classmates. This is when I became fluent in American Sign Language.

Fast-forward fifteen years to May 2012 when I graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in special education. After years of babysitting, volunteering, studying and student teaching, I was officially a certified special educator ready for hire!

For three years, I have been a special education teacher and I have been working the last two years at The Monarch School. While I have always known that educating special populations was incredibly important work, it wasn’t until March 12th, 2014 that I was able to clearly identify the reasons special education was unparalleled work. I came to the conclusion that being a special educator is less about whom you teach and more about what you teach.

On that day, my co-teacher and friend Stephanie Kirkpatrick was killed. Stephanie K had been the No Place For Hate (NPFH) coordinator at my school the two previous years, and as her co-teacher, I was introduced to the integral and challenging work of anti-bias and diversity education. Creating a classroom environment that is safe and respectful is always hard work, but proves even more difficult when working with adolescent boys with neurological differences.

For eight months, I assisted Stephanie in incorporating the NPFH curriculum in our classroom and then, overnight I became the NPFH coordinator for what would be the most challenging 2½ months of my professional career. With support from Monarch and the Anti-Defamation League, I made the commitment to complete the final activity in order to receive our NPFH designation for the 2013- 2014 school year in Stephanie’s honor.

During those two and a half months, I made a commitment to myself and most importantly to my students. I made a commitment to step towards the hurt, stand up for the healing, and stay through the difficult work of processing grief. I made this commitment every morning and made the decision every moment to make love bigger than hate, so that one day my students would be able to do the same.

Through this commitment, I have come to believe that there are three defining aspects of a special educator:

"I came to the conclusion that being a special educator is less about whom you teach and more about what you teach." - Stephanie Haetchen '12Tweet This

Special educators step towards the uncomfortable:

When I taught in public school, the staff joked that it was easy to identify the Special Ed teacher in the group. We were the ones that would approach a dysregulated student, the ones that would put ourselves in harms way, and the ones that dealt with situations that made most educators and most people uncomfortable. We step towards the uncomfortable knowing that these tense situations often provide the most pivotal opportunity for change. It is in those moments that a difficult and honest conversation can help a student write a better story for their life.

Special educators stand up for the unconventional.

At Monarch, we operate under the belief that every day is a new day. That’s not just an endearing expression to us, or to special educators. It is a foundational truth. By believing that every day is a new day, special educators do not conform to the idea that children need to be small adults. We understand and encourage our students to make mistakes in the safe and compassionate environment of our schools and classrooms in order to empower our children to grow up to be forgiving, respectful, and patient.

Special educators stay through the unpredictable.

We are in it for the long game. We know the value of a heart-to-heart conversation, but more importantly we believe in the lasting effects of an honest and consistent relationship through the ups and downs of life. I once read a proverb that stated, “If you are planning for a year, sow rice. If you are planning for a decade, plant trees. If you are planning for a lifetime, educate people.” Special educators provoke change by consistently taking the next steps, even when they are unsure of where they are walking.