Name: Julia Heenan
Title: Special Education Teacher (Elementary)
Campus: Hillcrest Academy
Year Start: 2014
Can you tell me about your background in education?
I graduated in 2000 with my bachelor’s degree and in 2001 with my master’s in elementary education. Currently, I am finishing another master’s degree program in special education. I’ve worked in public schools, Catholic schools, and corporate schools. I also worked in a residential facility, similar to Hillcrest. I feel like I’ve had the most success working with that population. When I worked in other schools, they kept giving me all the “difficult” kids. I loved it. The most success I’ve had as a teacher has always been with the special needs population, and I enjoy it. It’s not something that you pick, I think it picks you. I just kind of stuck with it.
Do you remember when you started working at Hillcrest?
When I saw Hillcrest was hiring, I kept applying. I was probably somewhere in the pile and I applied again because I was impatient. Finally, I got the interview and was hired. It was a rough start because we were over at the old building (formerly Housatonic Academy) and I was coming in mid-year from no teacher. They hadn’t had a teacher since August and I started in November. The classroom was very small. It’s been so wonderful to move into this new building, to see us grow and to see everything expand. We have more staff now. We have more space. We had resources before, but it’s different when you’re in an office compared to a classroom. It’s a different vibe.
What are the happiest moments for you working here, or most rewarding?
I have students who come to me and they don’t know the alphabet. Some know the alphabet, but they won’t know the sounds. Others know the sounds, but they can’t put the words together. I’ve had students who’ve learned to read with me. Not just the little ones, but the older kids too. My students are ages 7 to 11. Teaching students to read is very rewarding to me.
Some of the kids’ behaviors have been really adverse to learning and they don’t like it. Many of the kids don’t like the behaviors; they just don’t know what to do differently to still get what they want in an acceptable manner. Teaching and then seeing those lightbulbs go on and the changes the kids make in themselves, it’s amazing. It is so rewarding.
I had a student today who was doing really, really well, and for whatever reason, he started to slide back. We had a very good conversation. I said, “Hey, what’s going on? You could do this before. Why are you doing it this way again? You were doing so well.”
And he responded, “Oh yeah, I was!”
I asked, “Were you getting what you wanted?”
He said, “Oh yeah, I was.”
I responded, “So let’s go back and do it the other way.”
The student responded, “It’s really working for me.”
On the flip side, what are the hardest parts about the job?
I teach elementary school grade levels second, third, fourth, and fifth. All of my students are at different ability levels, all needing to be taught at the same time. It’s a challenge. It’s a rewarding challenge, but it’s still a challenge. I wouldn’t be able to do it without the staff, especially my teacher assistants (TAs). They know that. I tell them constantly, “I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without you.” Getting lesson plans done and having that time to work one-on-one with the students, it wouldn’t happen without the TAs and the amazing job they do. In my classroom, it’s a team environment.
What is the most surprising part of your job?
Oh my goodness. Everything surprises me and nothing surprises me anymore. You have to expect anything at any time. It can be something wonderful or it could be that kid who wants to write standing on his head, upside down and he’s going to get his work done…or not. We get the oddest things and you have to go with it. You have to really be able to think on your feet. It’s fun. Public school teaching is boring after this, I have to say. Boring! At Hillcrest no two days are the same. I could tell you that today is wonderful and everything is great. Tomorrow could be even better or it could be ten times worse. You never know. That’s kind of enjoyable. Those calm days, when everyone is using their skills and doing what they need to do, they happen. You really enjoy those days.
Who are the most influential people in your work life right now?
We’re such a team that I don’t think there is anyone who isn’t influencing me. My TAs help me stay organized and are always sharing ideas on how to stay organized. The supervisors are always willing to work together to develop behavioral interventions for the kids. The program directors support me with supplies and I get a lot of ideas from them. The kids also have taught me so much. Some of them are learning to overcome real difficulties. Watching my students grow and learn to persevere has taught me not to sweat the small stuff.
I have a tremendous amount of support here. I could go to Allison (program director) if I need something crazy, like a crockpot because I’m going to make stew with my kids. I have never worked in a more supportive and more healthy environment where we’re supportive of one another. The staff all know that we’re going to be there for eachother. If you’re having a bad day, staff are going to help you. If you’re having a good day, we’re going to celebrate with you. If you need help, wow, we are going to help and support you. The amount of support I have received from this community…you don’t find that everywhere. I don’t know if it’s because of the level of intensity we have where we’re working, but I am so grateful for where I work and for the people that I work with. I am proud to come to school every day.
Do you have any advice for new employees?
Any time they bring the new staff group through, I always tell them what a wonderful place it is to work, that we look out for each other and not to be nervous. Share your nerves, but realize we’re going to be here for you.
The other thing I always tell them is you have to have an outlet. A healthy outlet, whether it’s reading, gardening, cooking, going to the gym, something where you are taking care of yourself. This job takes a lot of effort and a lot of work. It’s very rewarding but it’s not the kind of work where you’re going to see progress at the end of the day. You’re probably not going to see it at the end of the week. You’re not gonna see it at the end of the month. We’re talking a year in, you’re going to see the progress in that child.
You have to realize that this isn’t a job. I think a lot of people come here thinking it’s a job. This is more than a job. No matter where you work in this company, whether you are top flight in the major offices or you are a TA/YDP, this is a career. But it’s a great career, you just gotta stick with it.
What kind of person do you think succeeds as a special education teacher or a teacher’s assistant?
You have to have dedication and understanding. You need patience and self-confidence. You don’t have to be an alpha, but you need to have the self-confidence in yourself to say, “I can do this, I’m able to do this. I can help this child.”
Anything else you’d like to add?
I wish people would see the tiny little things that go on behind the scenes that we don’t all know about. All the little things we do for the community as well. After the Christmas party, Judy (ASD program’s admin. assistant) and I brought all the leftover food to Soldier On, along with all the leftover turkeys that people hadn’t taken from the All-Staff meeting. That didn’t get published or announced, but there’s so many instances of that. Things like that happen and people don’t know about it. I wish that people would realize that. I’d love for all of us to have pride in the place we work.
*******This interview has been lightly edited and condensed*******
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