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Q&A with Special Education Teacher Genesis Gonzalez

Genesis Gonzalez is a special education teacher in New York City. In this interview, she shares the story of how she got involved in the profession and what she has learned about supporting her students with learning disabilities (LD) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) during her teaching career.

How did you start working in special education?

When I was 17, I graduated from high school and I had no job. I didn’t get into Queens College the way I thought I was going to. I got into Syracuse, but my dad said, “You’re staying in New York.” I was at a standstill working at a clothing store as a manager and I felt like all my dreams had shattered. And I was thinking, “I’m not going to college, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

At the time, my mom was working as a paraprofessional for the New York City Department of Education, but there was a hiring freeze. And she said, “Why don’t you just apply, anyway?” She was a bilingual paraprofessional, so she had to work with a student and translate to him from Spanish to English and English to Spanish. I decided to give it a try. Three years later, the DOE called. Because I was bilingual, I got hired right away.

I started as a substitute paraprofessional in District 75 (a special education division in New York City). I got trained by a huge team of coaches for children with autism on how to deal with deescalating their needs and how to differentiate their instruction. And then four years later, I got my first position as a regular teacher for pre-K.  From there, I taught general education and started my student teaching to finish my special education degree where I met Shira Moscovitz, my mentor. With her, I started doing Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) and shadowing her in the special ed department. And then I got my own special education classroom, and graduated with a master’s in Special Education. From there, I started in the Bronx doing fourth/fifth grade self-contained, and now I’m back in District 75, working with kindergarten/first grade.

What’s a student success story you remember?

My first four years were as a paraprofessional. I had a student I will never forget. He was my pride and joy. When I started, he had already gone through seven paraprofessionals and not one of them wanted to stay. Nobody wanted to work with him and nobody wanted him in their class. He was in pre-K. He was 4 years old. He was adorable.

I remember my first day on the job, I walked into the classroom and he was hiding under a desk. And I thought it was going to be tough. And the team asked me to get him from under the table. I walked in, got under the table, and said, “Hi, I’m Miss Genesis. How are you? Do you want to come play with me?”

We played together all day. He got out from under the table, we fixed the table, we picked up the toys. I had no idea what I was doing. At the end of the day, they called me into the office and said, “You’re the first person he has ever responded to let alone made eye contact with.” And right then and there, the coach, Debbie Goldberg, told me, “It’s because of you, inside your heart. There’s something about these students that they know when you’re real and genuine. If he came out from under the table, it’s because he’s attached to you.”

Can you talk about your experience as a paraprofessional?

The role of a paraprofessional is really important. You might not realize that right away because you are there to support the teacher, right? You do everything that’s difficult for them; you are not there to compete. But once I started getting trained and coached, I was there specifically to teach one student. And I’ve just always had great teachers to work with; I’ve always been very involved in their lesson planning and their IEP writing. I had no idea what an IEP was at first, but I was always being asked about my student’s goals, what he was achieving, what his strengths were, what his weaknesses were. And I was the only one who knew the answers to those questions.

After a few years, I realized, “I can write this IEP because I know my student. I’m the one who he goes to when he’s in emotional distress. I’m the one who he goes to for his academic needs. I’m the one who knows how to differentiate his work. I’m the one who knows how to deescalate him.”

In reality, the paraprofessional is not just present to support the teacher. You get to know these students and because of that you are able to provide a lot of suggestions on how the teacher can plan her lessons. And you’re there for the whole class. Now, when I work with my paraprofessionals, I tell them, “You’re a teacher in this room.” And I always vocalize to my students, “All the adults you see here, they’re all your teachers.”

We’re all here to work together and get this job done because it takes more than one person. And sometimes the student has a bigger emotional attachment to the para than to the teacher. Sometimes the teacher can’t get through to the student, but the para, they’re emotionally there and they can.

For example, this year I had a student who needed a one-to-one paraprofessional. I observed him for a while and said, “I need a male paraprofessional and I need someone who’s going to resemble his father because the only person he responds to is his father. There’s something about me that he’s not responding to.”

I went through a few paraprofessionals. He went through two females, and then finally I again requested a male paraprofessional. We got someone new, and they were a match made in heaven.

What did you learn from your student teaching experience?

When I was a paraprofessional in Shira Moskovitz’s room, I was able to use that time as my student teaching. Having her as a mentor was the most amazing experience; I learned so much from watching her teach.

She always knew exactly what a student’s disability or learning disability was and how to differentiate her teaching, how to change her tone, how to change her language. It was always on the spot, moving at the pace of the child. And as we know, children who have learning disabilities can sometimes be really high in emotion or low in emotion, and it can go from zero to a thousand really quickly, up and down like radar. She was able to fluctuate at that same rate.

She also included in me in her planning, took my ideas, and made me look at them through a big-picture lens. I had ideas, but I didn’t know how to successfully accommodate every student. I knew how to start, but I didn’t know how to put the whole thing together into a plan. So, she would take an idea I had and she would say, “Well, what do you think about this or that?” And I’d say, “Whoa, where did you get that from?” And she’d say, “This standard, and that one.”

So, I would always go back and look at the standards. She helped me learn that as a teacher, you just don’t learn the standards for your grade. You know the grade before and the grade above or maybe two grades above. And I remember I learned those standards like there was no tomorrow. We were in second grade. I knew the kindergarten, first, and third grade standards. And she always knew, “This student is two grade levels below, I need to do this.” Or, “This student is a grade level above, I need to do this.”

Why does training for paraprofessionals matter?

If I didn’t become a para first and I didn’t get so many kinds of trainings, I wouldn’t be the teacher that I am today. Everything that I learned as a para, I use today. For example, sometimes when you deescalate a student, they’re bodies get very dangerous and you need to restrain them. In trainings about this, they teach you how to hold them correctly. They also teach you the right language so that they actually respond to you. So sometimes you have to change up your words. They also teach you how to keep your tone and your face still, not giving too much emotion, because they also feed off of that.

Training as a paraprofessional also teaches you a lot of strategies for behaviors. You never just have one strategy, you have several that you can use to deescalate a child or help them academically.

But it seems like paras aren’t always getting as many of those trainings now. I do take the time with my paraprofessionals to train them because sometimes you have students who are not always being safe with their body. If you’re trained correctly, you can help them deescalate and minimize certain behaviors. And sometimes I see that not having the training means that paras feel more frustrated with the hard situations they have to deal with.

Can you talk about some of the ways you have worked with families?

When I was working in Miss Moskovitz’s class, we would have parent workshops and she would do one in English and I would do the following one in Spanish. For example, in math, a lot of parents, like me, learned how to add the vertical way. Now we add in boxes. You draw a picture in one box, you draw a picture in another box, then you have a third box. You have to put it all together. Most of what we taught in English translated perfectly into Spanish; nevertheless, we made sure to help parents learn the step-by-step skills themselves, so they would have that support if they needed to help their kids at home.

We would do this every week. And then every time we would have a new unit, we would bring the parents in and we would also explain the vocabulary to them. A lot of our parent handouts were visuals that they could take home. The parents felt like the school community was involving them and wanted to involve them.  

I carry that over with my students now. Every time we have a new topic unit, I send home the review. The review is always at the end of the unit. I’ll differentiate for the parents, send it home in pocket sleeves, send home dry erase markers, and have the students practice this. It’s color coded … the parents find it fabulous.

A lot of parents don’t know how to use these skills and they need to learn how to use them. And if we take the time to teach them, the students are much happier at home also because they know what to do and the parents feel more comfortable supporting them, which improves their interactions at home. But it’s a very big support to be able to have those bilingual parent workshops and really just sit down and teach them the skills. It’s a game changer.

How do you support students’ social and emotional learning?

I learned early on from one of my coaches that my students need to feel comfortable in the classroom. They need to feel loved, they need to feel happy, they need to feel safe. No matter what year, what grade, the first thing we work on in our classroom is community. For example, we always have affirmations where we read a class promise that we’re always going to try our best and I also promise them that I’m going to try my best to give them everything that they need.

Sometimes people wonder how I’m so patient. I will have a poker face and sometimes it takes everything in me not react, but you need to be as patient as possible. Sometimes kids’ behavior is simply part of their LD.

For example, I have a student right now who has a circle around him. We make a circle every day with Sharpie markers and he knows that’s his circle. He knows he can work for five minutes, but then he might need to run five laps around a circle. He will run the five laps, then he will sit down and finish his work. He’s engaged, he’s not a behavior problem to anybody. He’s not in distress. We figure it out.

I also use color-coded mood meters and the students know how to gauge themselves. You will notice students move the meter it if they’re sad; it’s a way they can learn self-regulation. Once we know what is expected as far as emotions, we can feel safe and we can be in an environment where we can work together. So that’s very, very important right off the bat, just to make sure they’re loved and they’re safe.

Because what we do notice in the classroom is that when they are stressed or anxious, the students shut down. They’re not the same person. They don’t want to interact with their friends, they don’t want to interact in morning meeting.

Then what do we do? At times like this, we bring in our self-regulation strategies. A lot of students cannot explain their feelings, so we need to give them sentences like ‘I feel like this because…’ Sometimes you need a picture chart, right? ‘I feel like this because I’m being ignored, I’m being yelled at.’ ‘Show me a picture, draw me a picture.’ If you look at children’s pictures, they will tell you exactly what is wrong.”

What are some challenges you have faced?

I taught in a school that didn’t have a special education department. It was a very different culture in terms of student support and expectations. Even though my students made a lot of progress, they were still below grade level at the end of the year and that impacted how I was evaluated during the year, even though I was in effect doing the job of the classroom teacher, special education teacher, and ENL teacher all at once. This was not only hard on me – it was also hard on the students because I knew that doing things differently would provide more support for them but the school did not see it that way. I returned to District 75 and found people who understood students’ need to learn a different way. As special education educators, we know our teaching is different, and it’s beautiful. And sometimes it has to look different, even when people are pushing us to stay on a certain, more traditional path.

You shared that your daughter needed some reading support. How did you figure that out?

It started when I would ask my daughter, “How was your day? What was your favorite part of the day? Can you draw me a picture to show me?” And she would say, “I had no favorite part.” That’s how I started to notice she was miserable at school. Her picture was always of her sad or she was always drawing pictures of just me and her doing something unrelated to school. “Mommy, I want to be on vacation,” she would say.

It took me a few months to pick up on what was happening for her at school, and it was hard for me to accept since I am a teacher. I’ve been teaching her since she was a baby. Why was this happening? But I had to check myself and remember that getting her some support wouldn’t hurt and was important.

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