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Becoming an Exceptional Teacher to Exceptional Students

Today's blog post is written by my friend Dee Yoder.  Learn more about Dee at the end of this article.

One day I was walking around humming and singing all the songs I learned over the summer and hadn’t taught yet.  I was thinking about getting my room organized and ready for the new school year. Then the unspeakable happened.  I got that dreaded phone call.  You know the one.  The one you usually get at the end of the year. School hasn’t started yet.  I couldn’t be in trouble already, could I?  
Hesitantly I walked into the office and saw a chair facing away from the door.  My principal turned around and said, “I am not sure how to tell you this and I know that you won’t like it, but you have to choose which day you go the school for exceptionalities. I told them I thought you would prefer Monday or Friday.”

What? I was in shock. There was no warning. I couldn’t help but blurt out, “Why me? Don’t you know that I am more qualified to teach aerospace engineering than to teach special needs? What am I to do there? The only preparation I had been given was a catalog with adaptive instruments and told to hang on to it. Why isn’t anyone else going? What have I done?”

Friday came early that week. I put on my big girl panties and headed there. When I got in my car, I prayed to wake up from my nightmare the entire 30-minute drive. I couldn’t have dreaded it more. 
Like every school, the teachers and staff were hustling to get things done and ready for open house. I was greeted by many as I walked down to the office. Then it happened.  I saw my name on a mailbox. It was official.  I was definitely on staff there every Friday.

Determined to make the best of it, I met with my principal and asked to observe the first 2 classes.  I also requested the teachers stay and assist for the third class. As agreed, I observed each class and took pages of notes.  I thought I had covered every aspect that I could think of including students’ likes, dislikes and more.  My notes were very detailed. I even got the yearbook and copied the photos to put with the info that I had gathered on each child. The teachers showed me mainly smooth classes. The children were receptive and cooperative for the most part. I spoke with previous teachers and planned and planned.  I couldn’t help but think that it wasn’t going to be as bad as I had first thought.

I went in the next Friday with my head held high and more confident than I should have been. I went in with a huge assortment of instruments, all laid out on the tables.   I had lots of dances and songs at my disposal.  I was ready.

What happened next can only be described as a disaster.  Some children screamed the entire time with me.  Others refused to take instruments and some even threw the instruments!  I tried to duplicate the way the classroom teachers handled the children, but some of my students even tried to run away. 

By the time I got home I felt defeated.  I knew that begging my principal to reconsider this placement would fall on deaf ears.   I looked back over the notes that I had taken, time and time again. This information was invaluable. I knew it had the clue to what I needed to do.  Exhausted, I took a bottle of wine into the bubble bath with me and replayed the day again.  (Don’t judge me!)

I realized that my perspective was that of a well-seasoned music teacher of typical elementary children. It would not work with those children.  It was then that I realized that it was not my job to teach them musicality. I realized that they needed validation, praise and independence as well as socialization. I had to figure out how to use music to do that and not sacrifice their dignity.

I started researching again.  I read many articles.  I planned lessons that only had 1 instrument and I personally took it to each child to play.  I made sure that I said their name over and over again and praised them with every other word. I sang books to them. I turned the lights down low and lowered the volume of the music and my own voice.  I realized that baby steps were what I needed to do.  These students were not going on to be music teachers or sing at the Met. They were students who could benefit from the vast wonders that music can provide us all.

Slowly, I gained their attention. I even began to gain their trust which was essential.  I stayed positive and I learned so much from them! 

I found out that I needed to refrain from touching some of them. If I did, then I needed to do it with a firm grasp. Light touching is much more stimulating than a firm but gentle touch. They may not like eye contact or direct conversation with anyone. I had resources like icons that they could use to show me what they wanted but I also learned that their assistants were there for a reason. I needed to utilize them for the sake of the child. I didn’t have to prove anything to them or the students.

All the reading proved to me that every one of these children were different. It was not anything that a book could tell me. I had to experience it with them.  Only .04% of the world population has perfect pitch. With the autistic population, between 40 to 60% of the children have perfect pitch. It makes sense to think they would scream when all they hear is out of tune overtones! I would, too!

There is an alphabet soup of different descriptions of these children. It doesn’t matter what you call them, except it matters that you call their name. The articles often spoke of the teenagers and young adults as having the IQ’s of a 3 – 7 year olds. It doesn’t say that they don’t want to hear music of that age person.  

I had an “aha” moment when I met up with a boy who begged not to come to my room. When I talked to him about it he told me he liked playing rhythms but didn’t understand why I couldn’t do it to his favorite country song, “Red Solo Cup.”  I immediately envisioned myself being publicly stoned if I used this song in class!  The reality was that he was 19 years old.  He listened to that music every day at home. I spoke with his teachers and they told me to go for it. So, playing sticks to songs like “Red Solo Cup” began.

His class was a higher functioning class which could read quarter, barred eighth notes and quarter rests. I wrote rhythms for them and put them in clear acrylic photo stands. They play the rhythms directly on the acrylics and keep up with where they were.

Now, here is what I have learned that will hopefully save you some headaches and heartaches.
1.       Take notes on your students, but also, keep notes on each class.
2.       Don’t take it personally when something doesn’t work, or they melt down. It probably isn’t you.
3.       Keep communication open with the classroom teachers, the assistants and attend the IEP meetings when possible. You will learn a great deal from these meetings.
4.       Don’t be afraid to change your plans.  When your students are having a tough day, (I call them screaming days) I will go in and just sing quietly on the carpet. This helps calm down the group and get them focused.
5.       Take time to look at the world through their eyes. These students will teach you more than you can ever teach them. They remind me to walk in gratitude always for life is fragile. Love them and they will love you unconditionally. You will know.

My lesson planning has become simplified as I plan with their ages and abilities in mind. I constantly differentiate and realize that I should do it even more in my regular music classes.  I repeat things over and over.  It helps kids connect and they love finding success in things they already know how to do.

For my younger children, I always do a simple hello song. We sing a book every week. I link my songs to YouTube videos that are purified in a Symbaloo. Allow the students to have a chance to choose a song. I have a Symbaloo board that has songs each class likes and some even that specific students ask for. When they are well-behaved or if we have a little reason to celebrate, they can choose the last song.  Participation is a giant step for them and a victory for you.  Here is an example of one of my Symbaloo pages.

Check out the rhythms in the lower left corner. If you work with your students, they can do these and do them often. I give them chopsticks, drumsticks, pencils, drums and any other thing they can do these rhythms on. They love them and so do my typical students.

If you have a SmartBoard or Promethean board, utilize it by embedding your music directly in the files you use. If you do this, make it a point to keep things in the same place each time or reuse the icons for things you are repeating.  I use several of Cherie Herring’s things. They can be found on Smart Exchange and Teachers Pay Teachers.

Working with exceptional children isn’t easy, but the rewards are amazing!
Dee Yoder is a mother of two amazing young ladies married to wonderful men. She counts her greatest blessings as her grandsons, one from each daughter. A vocalist, she is a graduate of Catawba Community College and Lenoir Rhyne University located in Hickory, NC. She has taught for Burke County Public School for almost 20 years. She has taught at a school for exceptionalities, severe and profound disabilities for 4 years. Dee is a member of NAfME and is currently the chair elect for the North Carolina Music Educators Association Elementary Division . She has been a clinician for NCMEA, the topics included Being a Portable Teacher, the North Carolina Evaluation of Music Teachers and Real Life lessons for Exceptionalities.

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  1. I am speechless Tracy. I am thankful for your caring and loving heart.
    I've learned so much through reading your heart's cry.
    Thank you!

  2. Dee,
    I loved reading this article and your amazing first adventure into disabilities. I do not have a degree in music, however, I am teaching music at a place you may know, Conover School. When I read that you attended LR in Hickory, NC, I just grinned. I've been there and done exactly what you've done. I did have one advantage over you, my son is disabled and goes to Conover School. You are amazing!

  3. Dee,
    I have been in your shoes. I started teaching music at Conover School in Conover, NC this year. I do have one advantage over you. I have a son with a disability who goes there. Still, it was a very humbling experience, The staff is an amazing resource when it comes to these kids. You are amazing!

  4. Dee,

    Thank you for sharing! I just texted you! I'm so glad I met you this summer!