Mike Kersjes - Mentor Teacher
By: Mike Kersjes
A teacher, his class and their unforgettable journey
Mike Kersjes spent more than a decade teaching students with learning disabilities. His first special education teaching job was in an inner-city school in a cubicle that "barely fit five people," ....a "pitiful excuse for a classroom" that sent "a message to the kids who were taught there: You are worthless." Mike later began teaching at Forest Hills Northern High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His primary responsibility was to run a self-contained classroom for students from five different high schools.
Mike's story takes a teacher's sense of "burn out" in a new challenging direction. A teacher with a passion to help kids with disabilities and with an impending sense of frustration, Kersjes, sought a new way to help his students learn. His motivation to help his students see their strengths quickly saw the possibilities for expanding horizons as he read an article about a space camp for gifted and talented students in Scholastic's Scope Magazine.
He got the outlandish idea that his students would benefit from going to Space Camp, where, in conjunction with NASA, high school students compete in a variety of activities similar to those experienced by astronauts in training for space shuttle missions. His students found success. The program is now in many states and the film rights to Mike's book on his goal to bring Space Camp to students with disabilities have been purchased by Walt Disney Pictures.
Mike states that the growth of this program has been "phenomenal." When we spoke to Mike he was raveling in Minnesota. He says he now is raveling much of the time and showing others how they can inspire students with disabilities. His goal is to bring the Space Camp program to students across the United States. As part of that goal he created Space is Special, a not-for-profit organization, that helps special education students enhance their science and mathematics skills using space as a motivational theme. Mike told us that the story of his student's successes will soon also be featured in People Magazine.
Mike's teaching philosophy:
"I believe in teaching kids to challenge themselves, to questions the labels that had been thrust upon them."
What are some of the problems for students in special education?
a. The label
Both general education teachers and other students often seem to respond to a student's label first. This sends the message to the student that s/he is "worthless." As a special education teacher one quickly learns that "you become much more than their teacher-you become a psychologist, social worker, foster parent, and friend." You will try to help them find success any way you can. Sometimes this means working around accepted "rules" that are label-induced.
b. What people expect.
Most of the students in my classroom found their way there after many other missteps. These students often lose hope of any real success. General education teachers and school administrators also often express this sense of hopelessness. This sets up a downward cycle. It is important to realize that students in special education programs also have an enthusiasm for learning and a hope for a positive future. Their Space Camp successes are a tribute to their motivation.
Are there differences in special education programs between kids in the inner city and in a more affluent community such as Grand Rapids, Michigan?
In both cases the classes felt as if students were perceived to be outside of the general education program. Kerjses found that when he was in the faculty lounge teachers focused on the problems of students in the special education program.
Students in the more affluent community, however, seemed even more bothered by the label and harassment of their peers. They often found it very difficult to eat in the cafeteria preferring instead to bring their lunches to the classroom to eat. For students in the inner city school this problem was not as apparent.
What is the most important message to be learned from your story?
Exciting math and science programs, such as the NASA Space Camp Program, can motivate and benefit all students. Students with disabilities can succeed. "We have taken over 2,00 children with disabilities to Space Camp and our program is growing. I could see how imaginative and well my kids were with their hands and they wanted to be challenged, but nobody really wanted to give them the opportunity to be challenged became they were special ed."
Not only have his students found success at Space Camp, but their lives have changed from their experiences.For more photos, visit Space Camp Web Site
All photos are used with permissions
Mike Kersjes (2002)