Special education teacher Sarah Beck ’11 Weirich on what she values about EMU’s teacher preparation program

Sarah Beck '11 Weirich, photographed in spring 2016 in Covington, Va., now teaches in Fort Wayne, Indiana. (Photos by Jon Styer)

One day during junior year, my classmates and I visited Stone Spring Elementary to observe a multiple disabilities classroom. I left with the utmost respect for everyone working in that room and a heart for all the students. It was an awesome and overwhelming experience.

I don’t think I could ever do that, I distinctly remember thinking.

Flash forward a few years to when I was looking for my first teaching job. After applying and interviewing, I was offered a job in an elementary multiple disabilities classroom. I think my unawareness of what exactly I was embarking on was a definite “God-thing.” Had I known, I probably would have been too intimidated to apply and that would have been a shame because that job ended up being one of the best experiences of my life.

I began the school year as I’m sure all new graduates do: extremely nervous and worried I had no idea what I was doing. It only took one day to re-affirm that not only was I in the exact right position, but also that I did know what I was doing!

My students had a range of disabilities, most very severe, and I immediately loved every one of them. And somehow … I knew what to do!

All of the sudden, seemingly small experiences at EMU became the building blocks for how I structured my classroom. I worked with three older and more experienced aides. I worried how to establish rapport and routine with them…then I remembered a class at EMU where we discussed ways to handle that exact situation. I was able to start off on the right foot with all three aides from day one which made the year start smoothly.

I had been actively involved with the Assistive Technology (AT) Club at EMU because I thought it was interesting and unique … and I ended up not only using all that experience to incorporate various forms of AT in my classroom, but also to help other teachers throughout the county utilize it in theirs!

Sarah Weirich

Sarah Beck Weirich.

I worried about how difficult it would be for my students to complete tasks … and then I remembered a very specific experience with task analysis when Professor Lori Leaman asked us to explain how to make a peanut butter sandwich over and over until we had it down to the smallest tasks. “Go get the peanut butter” became: 1. Walk in the kitchen; 2. Go to the cabinet; 3. Open the cabinet door; 4. Take out the peanut butter jar, etc.

I realized I could break down tasks minutely and track my students’ progress in these small tasks. All those hours of lesson-planning in college had wired my brain to think about objectives, materials, and task analysis without even trying. Suddenly I could plan out six individual lessons for my six different students.

When it came time for me to hold my first IEP meeting, I remembered a story Katrina Maynard told us about a parent who left an IEP meeting in tears because not one positive thing was said about her son throughout the whole meeting. That story stuck with me so deeply that I made a commitment to ALWAYS make sure positive things, no matter how small, were said about each student in each meeting. Compassion and caring aren’t just words, they are ways to live and work and we can’t get so wrapped up in test scores and student achievement that we forget them.

When I married and moved after teaching in that multiple disability classroom for two years, I cried daily knowing I wouldn’t be there the following year. It had gone from something I didn’t think I could do to something I couldn’t imagine not doing.

I began at a new school in a completely different role: middle school resource room and co-teacher. Again, the nerves came and again, there was no need for them. EMU had prepared me well to co-teach with general education teachers and differentiate plans with a variety of student needs in a completely different format from what I had been doing in my previous job. Now, after three years at this middle school, my husband and I are gearing up to move again. This time, I’m not worried. I know whatever and wherever I teach, EMU has prepared me.