–by David Schleck
It can take several minutes for Beth Maul’s students to answer a question. Sometimes the response is as subtle as a small shift in their eyes.
“I have to be more patient with myself, not with them,” Maul said about her work with the Exceptional Mustangs at Pembroke Elementary School. “I get going on a roll, and I’ll want to keep going. I’ll have to slow myself down and make sure I’ve acknowledge everyone’s effort.”
Her students work hard to solve math problems and remember how each letter of the alphabet sounds. They may not be able to mouth the words of every new word, but their voices are heard. Maul is listening, along with Special Education Assistant Tempall Gregory.
Like many teachers last year, Maul and Gregory mastered online teaching. They did it so well that their students’ parents asked for virtual learning over in-person classes again this year.
“They’re absolute rock stars,” said Principal Katherine Ryan Goldburg. About 130 of Pembroke’s 500 students receive special education services.
“Our school theme for the year is ‘Endless Possibilities.’ Ms. Maul can take any topic and adapt it to make it virtual and also adapt to meet the needs of people with profound disabilities. She would go to every degree possible to make it amazing for the students.”
“We can play a video, or we can read a book, or we can do an activity,” she said. “Let me know how you want to learn more about letters and their sounds.”
Maul put their choices on a slide on their computer screens, and asked each student individually. Some answered by smiling, others by moving their hands in a certain direction and others by sending signals to a caretaker at home.
“That gives them a voice and a choice,” Maul explained. “They get an opportunity to tell us how they want to learn. They pick what we’re doing.”
Many of the students have health conditions that make them especially susceptible to infections like COVID-19, making at-home learning safer during the pandemic. Maul uses her own computer, carrying it and other equipment from home to school every day to provide the best visual tools for her students. Soon the school system will be providing her with more equipment, not that Maul is complaining.
“I’m loving this,” she said. “I love technology and visuals. And when the parents are home with the kids, they pick up the progress their children are making. These families are excelling. They blow my mind every day.”
Knowing you’re in the right place
Maul started at Pembroke Elementary as a long-term substitute in 2013 before becoming a full-time teacher in January 2014.
“I got to meet the students and felt, this is where I want to be,” she said. “Being able to help a kid answer a yes-or-no question may seem small. But when you realize what they have to learn to be able to do that, it’s actually quite big.”
In a recently math lesson, Maul used nickels to count by increments of five. She plopped the coins into a cup, and asked students to add up the nickels’ value. Students responded by gesturing or by having a caregiver hold up a response card. Maul complimented each of them on their answers:
• “Oh, Mia has it. Nice job, Mia.”
• “De’Zaria, I like you using the money card.”
• “Mya, I saw you make that choice. Good job.”
One of her students didn’t respond right away.
“Are you playing possum with me?” Maul said. “OK, I want you to smile when you see the answer you want.”
The child yawned.
“Are you checking out the screen?” Maul asked.
Moments went by, giving the teacher another opportunity to practice patience with herself. When the student smiled at the correct answer on the computer screen, Maul congratulated him.
“God job!” she said, adding a compliment to the entire class. “I like how you are using your words to share your learning.”
“I enjoy the excitement on their faces,” said Gregory, who has been a special education assistant since 2010. “I am learning so much from each student and it provides an exciting learning opportunity for all of us as well as a journey through their own communication strengths.”
The success of the class has a lot to do with the students and a team of teachers, Maul said. Gregory leads afternoon social studies lessons. Adaptive Music Teacher Cynthia Mosley and Adaptive Art Teacher Clara Somers encourage students to use instruments and materials provided by the school and delivered to their homes. Adaptive PE teacher Hailey Hansen engages with Maul’s students online while simultaneously leading face-to-face activities with students in the building.
“It’s been a colossal team effort,” Maul said. “Everybody pulls together and works out so many different ways to support the students.”
Nikki Scott said her daughters Mia and Mya have shown amazing progress in Ms. Maul’s and Ms. Gregory’s class, especially when it comes to answering questions through response cards. Scott has learned new things about her children, such as their favorite songs and activities.
“I’ve seen them dancing. I’ve seen them laughing. I’ve seen so much for the girls over this time period during COVID-19,” said Scott, adding that the teachers’ dedication moves her to tears.
“They don’t move on to another subject until every child answers,” Scott said. “They are awesome teachers.”
How does Maul keep her energy up?
“Coffee. Lots and lots of coffee,” she said. And the students provide more than enough inspiration.
“They give me my energy. I get it from them,” Maul said. “When I see the grins on their faces. Any energy I give out, they give it back to me 200% and that just renews me.”
“Our class has a huge team we work with regularly,” said Beth Maul, teacher at Pembroke Elementary School. “Each of these team members is equally invested in our student’s success.”
Hailey Hansen – adaptive PE teacher
Clara Somers – adaptive art teacher
Cynthia Mosley – adaptive music teacher
Jean Cummings – teacher for the visually impaired
Sarah Wright – teacher for the hearing impaired
Nikki Ryan – speech teacher
Shelby Solhaug – assistive technology teacher
Kasey Sabo – physical therapist
Li Cavanaugh – physical therapist
Melanie Anderson – occupational therapist
Jill Lauber – administration assistant
Stephanie Lopez – assistant principal
Ryan Goldburg – principal