Lavish Your Soul ... The "Road less Traveled" ~ a Teacher's story by Karen Kanwhen
"I still remember it like it was yesterday - sitting in my office as a drug and alcohol counselor, listening to the local Christian radio station and working on patient files. I'm not sure who was on the radio that day but I do remember them asking, "why aren't you doing what you love?" Now I loved being a drug and alcohol counselor at the time but what I really loved was working with children. That was something that I missed greatly. As a child I had always wanted to be a teacher but dismissed the idea when my parents urged me in the direction of more lucrative careers. That day I decided that I would do what I do with any other project that I'm interested in --- pray and research it to death!
I petitioned God, talked to trusted friends, looked up articles on the internet, asked around, and talked to another colleague who had actually left the drug and alcohol counseling profession to go on to be a special education teacher. She offered for me to come in and observe in her classroom and I jumped at the chance!
Being in her classroom was eye-opening. I learned so much just from that short period of time and fell in love with all the kiddos that I met. Growing up I had a friend who had a brother and sister who had special needs and I remember thinking that it took a very special person to work with children with disabilities. I didn't think I could do it. Now here I was all these years later contemplating being a special education teacher. Who knew? God knew! ... Thus the journey began.
As a teacher of 3rd through 5th grade students with autism, I look back on the road that led me here in wonder. I am thankful for how much I have learned and how much I have been able to help my students grow through the years ...
The journey started ten years ago when I entered the classroom for the first time. It was trial by fire --- diapers, daily injuries, runaway students, non-verbal children ... all while trying to teach students of wildly variant abilities. The road was pitted with potholes & each day was exhausting! Seeing the challenges that I was facing in the classroom made me realize I must address the whole student; both at home and at school.
At the beginning of the year, I started doing home visits to introduce myself to the family and get to know their child. This allowed me to get to know the families on their terms; building a partnership with them to promote the academic, social and emotional growth of their child. I provided training for parents in behavior strategies, answer questions and responded to concerns. I planned and attended students' birthday parties and activities outside of the classroom.
In the classroom I kept food and clothing for the students who were in need. I organized Christmas adoptions so that the children could receive gifts over the holidays. I maintained a library of books across different topics and difficulty ranges so that each student had an
opportunity to find something that appealed to them. I made most of my own classroom materials so that I could tailor them to the needs of my individual students.
Once a month I hold 'Fun Friday' for my students. It is a themed day where the students can play games that are cross curricular at each individual's instructional level. Their excitement at having fun at their own Hot Wheels race course or Play-Doh factory and winning
prizes makes learning interesting and gives them something to look forward to each month ... the growth I have seen in the children is phenomenal
*science project ~ homemade solar oven to make s'mores
As an advocate for all students, I seek to encourage and give them the confidence that they can do what they set their minds to and that I believe in them. I not only seek to advocate for the students in my self-contained classroom, but also for those who might be considered
"under-resourced" --- For example, I have a student who at one time was often seen not eating during lunch. Upon further investigation it was determined that this student did not like school lunch and really wanted to bring lunch from home. Knowing the challenges this student faced at home, I offered to have all the necessary lunch supplies at school and I would help him learn to make his own lunch. He now, independently comes in each morning, makes and enjoys his lunch.
This year I have also made it my mission that no student would be excluded from attending the fifth grade class trip to Sea World due to a lack of finances. Through a "Go Fund Me" page, money has been raised for several students to receive full scholarships. This trip for some may be the only class trip they ever take!
* trip to Sea World
The road has not always been straightforward or easy. When I decided to enter the Alternative Route to Licensure program I was offered a scholarship to complete the Special education program. However, it required that I leave autism. I knew that this path would be more difficult, but autism is a high need area and I am dedicated to the field. I turned down the scholarship and took out loans in order to complete my education certification.
I do sacrifice for my students, but I love what I do. Long days, late nights and a cuddly guinea pig that I'm allergic to are the norm in my classroom. Working with students with autism has been the hardest job I have ever loved! It is not the road I expected to go down, but I am reminded of the Robert Frost poem whenever I look back ...
A huge turning point for me would be attending the Global Leadership Summit 2014 that is simulcasted all over the world. I learned so much information about being a great leader in my sphere of influence and a great follower of Christ. God spoke to me about expanding my reach beyond my classroom to help others understand how to work with children with disabilities. God wanted to make me a leader and my introverted self said "I'm not ready."
I took the information I had and I tucked it into my pocket to think about later. What I didn't realize was that God said I was already a leader and He was expanding my reach. Over the next few years I would see God do just that --- expand my reach. I would be given opportunities to provide professional development to teachers within the school district, work with families inside their home to help them deal with behaviors with their children, teach at a local University and be asked to sit on the board for the Autism Coalition of Nevada (ACON). Talk about expanding my reach!
My involvement with ACON started when a friend approached me with her bright smile and cheery greeting at church one day. I had previously shared my heart about wanting to help start a ministry for children with disabilities at our church. A twinkle formed in my friend's eye as she said, "There's something that you've got to be a part of and I think you would be a great asset to the group. I have told my sister about you and you two should talk." She proceeded to tell me about ACON and I was intrigued.
Once again I did what I do with any project, pray and research. I found out that ACON does a lot with legislation and I wondered where I would fit in with their vision and mission. My heart was to help people understand better how to work with children with autism on a practical level. I was interested in increasing my reach from not only my own classroom's students and parents but to other teachers in the field, parents looking for help at home, and the general public seeking to be more understanding and educated.
When my friend's sister, (Michelle Scott-Lewing, President of ACON), and I finally connected in the fall of 2015, we discovered that our visions and missions aligned. ACON not only works on legislation but they also strive to educate people who want to understand how to work with children with autism. These people include parents and family members, first responders and educators and many others. Michelle asked me to be on the board and I accepted.
God was expanding my reach even more and pushing me further out of my comfort zone. Where God leads He provides. My work with children with autism has not always been easy but I know that it is where God has called me and I know that He will sustain me. If it were not for His guidance and His strength there is no way that I would be able to do what I do. You know the old adage ...
"God will not give you more than you can handle"
Sometimes I wonder why He trusts me so much. I am glad He does because He has blessed me beyond measure and I hope that I can be a blessing to others ....
Karen Kanwhen, M.Ed
Karen holds a Bachelors Degree in Psychology from Baylor University & a Masters Degree from University of Nevada Las Vega (UNLV). She hopes to continue on to receive her doctorate. Currently she teaches in a self-contained classroom for students with Autism in grades 3 through 5 with the Clark County School District during the day & as an adjunct faculty member for Touro University in the evening. In her free time, Karen enjoys volunteering at her church, reading, hula hooping & cuddling with her dog.
~ Lavish Three ~
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