Tak­ing it one day at a time

Teacher’s per­sonal strug­gles help her bond with stu­dents

The Covington News - - OPINION - By Jenny Thompson

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.”

Mandi Singer/Cov­ing­ton News

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.

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