Taking it one day at a time
Teacher’s personal struggles help her bond with students
Even though all of Daphne Cofer’s students are unable to speak, she does her best to give them a voice.
Cofer, a teacher for 10 years, works with severely intellectually disabled students at Ficquett Elementary, where she is the Special Education Department Head.
She said she knew from a very early age she wanted to work with mentally disabled children.
One of Cofer’s older brothers is mentally disabled. For three years she and her brother worked on trying to teach him how to tie his own shoes. Finally, he succeeded with the “ bunnyear” method.
“ The look on his face — he was so proud — and at that moment I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my life,” Cofer said.
Cofer’s classroom has one student from every elementary level grade. Since the Georgia Performance Standards require all students to have access to the general curriculum, Cofer’s classroom variety means she must be extremely creative with some of her lessons.
Ten years of teaching has allowed her to generate lots of ideas on what works and what doesn’t.
After reading a story, Cofer’s students — like any others — have to identify the setting and the main character. The best way she found to have them do this is with worksheets and bingo markers. Students place a colorful dot on the correct picture answer on the work sheets.
Many of her lessons involve tactile materials such as cotton balls when discussing clouds or any other textured item that would aid a child’s understanding.
“ I try to make everything concrete and as meaningful as possible,” Cofer said.
During a science lesson about how the human body needs water to function, Cofer lightly spritzed her students with a water gun whenever she said the word “ water” to reinforce what she was talking about and also hold their attention.
Cofer also utilizes communication cards, which allow students to respond to class readings or lessons. Students can point to a range of responses such as “ I liked the story,” “ I didn’t like the story,” “ the story was sad” or “ the story was funny.”
“ Who wants to sit in silence their whole life,” Cofer said. “ I know I have a lot of things to say and things I want.”
Someday Cofer wants to go back to school for her doctorate, but she said her four- year- old daughter comes before her continuing studies.
Almost two and a half years ago, Cofer’s connection with her students and their families was strengthened by her own personal struggles.
“ That year was a strange year,” Cofer said.
First, her husband was in a motorcycle accident, which left both of his knees very badly injured. Cofer had to care for her husband as well as her daughter, who was two at the time.
Five months after her husband’s accident, she was diagnosed with cancer. She continued teaching and finished her work toward a specialist degree as well as took care of her husband and daughter, even as the chemotherapy caused her to lose her hair.
“ I promised God I would never complain about a bad hair day again,” Cofer said.
She now has a full head of hair again, although she said it grew back darker and curlier.
Through her and her husband’s recovery she realized her struggles were only temporary, but her students and their families would struggle for a lifetime.
“ My students are really what got me through it,” Cofer said.
She began and coordinates the Celebrate Kids Recovery Program at Eastridge Community Church for children who have family members recovering from injury, illness, addiction or loss of a family member or friend.
Cofer also mentors new teachers coming into the special education program at Ficquett. She said she tells them the career they picked is not and easy one, but it does have its rewards.
“ I say the one thing I know is that these students will bless your life,” Cofer said.
She added this advice to all teachers, but especially to those who work with students with learning disabilities.
“ Take it slow— everything doesn’t have to be done right now,” Cofer said. “ Don’t be afraid to try something new, and don’t think just because something didn’t work this time, it isn’t going to ever work.”
Cool communicator: Daphne Cofer pauses in the entrance to her classroom and holds communication boards she constructed to help her non-verbal students answer her questions and express their opinions.