Teacher Was In Tears Seeing Her Disabled Student’s Excitement At School.

Story by Ellie Braun-Haley

I was a dance teacher when I first began working with people who have disabilities. It was actually a fluke (or maybe not, perhaps it was God just opening a door for me.) I worked for a College teaching Jazz, Ballet and Creative Movement. I also continued to do a fitness show for television. It was a small city that I lived in and so because of the television stuff I became well known.

I had a phone call one day from a lady. She said that she had a young woman living with her who had a mental disability but who seemed to have a lot of rhythm and she really loved music. I was asked if I would consider working with this young lady, tutoring her in a private dance class. I decided that I should give it a try. My supervisor at the College agreed to allow me use of the ballet studio for an indefinite period of time while I designed a class for this young woman.

She and I had two or three classes which left me exhausted and seemed to be quite tiring for her also. I generally have unlimited amounts of energy so I was puzzled. I decided it was because we were working one on one that the class was so totally draining. I phoned the woman who had originally asked me to teach and said I felt that the student would do much better in a group setting. Understand at this point I felt I had resigned from the project. A short time later the lady called me back. “Okay, I have three more students for you!” was her announcement.

I decided that since I was going to get quite serious about this I should actually take some courses in working with people who have disabilities. I approached the College professor in charge of teaching in that area and told him that I felt I should sign up for some of his courses.

He said, “No, Ellie, I wouldn’t do that if I were you!”

I questioned him about such an unusual statement. He said, “If you come to my classes I am going to tell you all the things these people cannot do. But if you go forward and attempt to teach them what you know, in your own area of expertise, with an expectation for them to do it, many of them will succeed. Also if you do not succeed at teaching them all with one approach you will search for a new approach to make it work.”

I didn’t take his course.

In a short time I had thirty students. These were teens and adults up to the age of 40. They all had mental disabilities, but of course they all had abilities and personalities that were specific, just as you and I. In teaching them I learned. I learned how to find new ways to teach what I already knew. I learned that this class of mine was quite similar to all my other classes. I had the “stars” who would shine immediately. I had those that might take ten classes to learn the difference between right and left. I had students that I immediately loved and others in whom I had to look for something loveable. Soon the class had to be divided into two classes as we did not all fit well into the ballet studio.

To each class I took with me my love of dancing and music. I was armed with a determination to successfully share this love with these new students. I’m so glad no one told they could not dance. I am grateful for the insight of that one teacher who told me to go and teach them what I knew! We learned new steps together. We laughed together and we shared a love of music and fellowship. When my family moved from that city it was with a heavy heart that I bid goodbye to this fun loving group.

Years later, I was in another city and working for another College. Again I was teaching a course for people with mental disabilities. I was still learning from them!! I had one pupil, Dan, who didn’t appear to get much out of the class. He sat a lot and nodded his head and made sounds in a hum hum kind of way. I never had eye contact with him. When left the class to travel down the stairs to reach the main floor of the building, he moved apprehensively as a blind person might do in unfamiliar circumstance.

I did not feel successful as a teacher with Dan. One day his parents met me shopping downtown and told me that they were so grateful that I was teaching the class at the College. They said that my class was the high point of their son’s week. I pondered over that. Were they just being courteous?

A week later, a blizzard held me up and I was later than usual pulling into the school parking lot. Ahead of me by one row of cars, and over to one side, was my student, Dan and his worker. In class Dan had never moved at any great pace but that night I watched Dan as he got out of the car I saw something I shall never forget. There was an expectation about his movement. I could see his face as he moved toward the building. He was gleeful and excited. I watched Dan run toward the building in anticipation of his weekly treat, my class. I cried as it hit me that though I could not see in class all that Dan derived from the class, it surely meant a lot to him. Dan did indeed love the class. He was getting enjoyment out of it. I was successful!!

Today when I teach courses at the College to students who are studying in Early Childhood Education, I remind them that children (and adults) all learn in different ways. Some can stand on the sidelines and seem to be unaware or disinterested and yet they can be learning at the same pace as those who are in the middle of the activity. When I teach this, I think, yes and this is true for those with disabilities too, for this was true with Dan! Dan taught me so much!

Teach with the wonderful enthusiasm that God has given you and you are bound to reach your students. Tackle your job with a zest and love for others and you will be successful no matter what your job involves…..

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