On Taking Risks in Your Teaching: A Teacher Speaks Out

By: Carolyn Cosmo

"Special Education is a place where experimentation and risk-taking aren't an option - they're a necessity," says the New Jersey Federation's Teacher of the Year Matthew Jennings. "People often try to do more of what doesn't work, trying the same things in larger doses, but if it's not working we need to try something different."

Jennings' own risk-taking has paid off. He came to national attention this year for his work at Crossroads Middle School in Monmouth Junction, NJ, when he was recognized as an outstanding teacher at CEC's annual convention. He's also experienced positive feedback a bit closer to home.

"Mr. Jennings taught me a lot," says Rob Jogan, 13, of his Crossroads encounters with Jennings in special education language arts as well as mainstream social studies classes where Jennings assisted Rob.

"He had all these techniques," Rob says, including " how to study for tests, how to do the things that we have to do in this life, how it will be [when we're] writing a resume, steps to succeed." Rob says he enjoyed Jennings' classes: "I was happy I was teaming."

Doreen Jogan, Rob's mother, is an educator herself but notes "when you're on the other side of the fence you see it as a mother." What did she like best about her son's tour with Jennings? "Number one, the improvement in self esteem. Secondly, Rob got the idea that school was fun." In addition, her son entered the year reading poorly and by the end of it had "mastered his grade level," she observes.

Service with a Smile

Jennings was nominated for the New Jersey Federation award for his innovative service learning programs. His students taught kindergarten students how to read. They trained senior citizens in computer use. They made quilts for infants born addicted to drugs. In each service program varied skills and subjects were woven in - reading, writing, math, measurement, and topics in social studies. The programs were so successful that Upper Elementary School in South Brunswick has hired Jennings away and is now asking him to create service learning projects for every unit in the school - special and general education alike.

"I had 7th and 8th graders below grade level in reading. I trained them to be reading tutors for young special education students," Jennings says, explaining how he got started.

He was supported by his supervisors, who provided 160 books and other resources, including computer programs where students could write and illustrate alphabet books to share with their younger reading partners.

"It was fun working with the kids," comments Rob Jogan. "It reminds you of when you were little, and it was fun reading the books to them. It makes you feel good because you're helping them."

Next, when Jennings heard that a senior center's computers were lying idle, because "nobody knows how to use them," he created a second program, this time setting his special education English class to teaching computer use to seniors. Using computers and scanners provided by the New Jersey Educational Association, Jennings tutored his kids in computing. He discovered "they were phenomenal.... and often developed exceptional skills."

The students were next matched with one or two seniors who learned word processing and basic computing from them. The learning, however, went both ways, with the pairs writing stories together. As part of the project Rob Jogan had to research and write a paper on Social Security, and his mother links the seniors program to his improved reading.

"Every Friday they took a bus to the Senior Center," says Jogan. Of Rob's senior partner, she says, "He loved her like a grandmother. He would get all dressed up on Friday, as if he were saying to himself, 'I'm going somewhere' in life."

A Boost in Morale for Teachers Too

"My service projects motivated me," Jennings says, noting that he, like many teachers, goes through tough times. "It's the sheer volume of paperwork, and special ed teachers have to look for smaller steps in terms of student growth. If you're results driven, as I am, that can be a frustration," he observes.

The service projects were a boon because they brought out the best in everyone, he explains. "Some of the more difficult kids would rise to the occasion with these projects. I rarely had a behavior problem," he comments, although, he adds, "they might act out coming back on the bus!"

The service projects were a lot of extra work and involved him in late night grant writing and other searches for funds. However, the extra time was worth it, because his programs address the whole child as well as his or her academic achievements.

"I'm concerned about the increasing focus on improving test scores," says Jennings. "Unless we deal with the emotional and social needs we're not going to get forward movement with the academics."

In special education, teachers need to take risks to move forward, he believes, knowing that "sometimes it's going to work, but not always. Sometimes it's not going to go your way. And sometimes it is."

CEC TODAY, September 2000 Reprinted with permission