Agre finds calling in special-education field
fter receiving her bachelor’s degree in business administration, Ellen Agre discovered a career in business wasn’t her calling and made the decision to go back to school to become a special-education teacher. She is beginning her 20th year this year as a special resource teacher at Lakeside Intermediate School and considers her career change to be the “best decision she ever made” as far as her career goes. She will teach fourth grade this year.
Why did you choose a career in special education versus general education?
Ellen Agre: My undergraduate was business marketing and, later on, I found out that business wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do. I’ve always championed the underdog. I have just always felt for the kids that had kind of a harder time getting by. A lot of my kids have average or above average IQs, but they might have a reading disability and I see them for literacy, and our other lady, Mrs. Stathakis, does their math. But they’re in a regular room most of the day except they’re pulled out for an hour with me and an hour with her. I like the idea of a small group — I usually have eight at a time, no more than eight at a time, and I really get to know them. I think
that was the main thing. It sounds cliché, but I kind of wanted to make a difference in kids’ lives. What motivates you to go to work every day?
EA: Just the excitement of being around these young people and, again, not to sound cliché, but just to make a difference and their lives. And selfishly, the reward I get is when we go over something new and they get excited about it, or when we read a book — one that we read this year was ‘Stone Fox,’ I usually start the year out with that book, and the kids love it. They love that book and they talk about it all year. Something will come up and they’ll always refer back to that book.
Then, part of my job in working with literacy is getting their reading fluency, their comprehension, their decoding skills, to improve. Through the reading program that we use in this room and our writing program, their ability has improved so much and to see the smiles on their faces when they write a full paragraph with a topic, detail and closing sentence that they couldn’t do a year ago and the confidence that they achieve. I’m just so glad I made the decision to go into special ed almost 25 years ago. It’s the best decision that I ever made as far as my career, from everything I’ve received from being in the field.
What are some of the challenges of your job?
EA: The thing that special education teachers know about as a challenge is the paperwork. There’s a lot of paperwork associated with a student who receives special ed services. We keep a folder on them and there’s a lot of due process paperwork that we have to keep up with, because we are monitored by the state, and we make sure that everything that needs to be in there is in there. The students have an individual education plan that the special ed teacher and the whole committee for that student creates, but the special ed teacher is the one that prepares it and gets it ready.
What qualities must someone have to be a special-education teacher?
EA: There’s quite a few hats that a special-education teacher wears. I would say the number one characteristic is to have a lot of patience. And to be creative and think of new ways to reach a student who may not have learned. One of the things that I’ve learned, as far as sayings about education, is if a student is not learning the way we teach them, maybe we ought to teach them the way they learn. I love that. So many of my students
do need extra support in reading and writing, but they have gifts in so many other areas, like maybe they’re a great math student, or maybe they’re a fantastic artist or they’re wonderful in music.
Another quotation that I’ve seen is that all students are gifted, they just open their packages at different times. Being able to be a good team player is probably right up there in the top three, because we deal with the regular ed teachers, our special ed supervisor, our administrators and parents, so the special ed teachers deal with a lot of outside details.
What advice would you give to a firstyear special ed teacher?
EA: I have been a mentor for a young lady who was in her first year. My advice to someone just coming in for the job would be to seek out positive people, people that have experience that can help and give suggestions, bounce ideas off with. Go in willing to work hard, get to know the students. Know everything you can about them and learn the way that child learns best and individualize the lesson so that child can find success. Also, just enjoy every minute and be prepared for a great time in their life.
How is it determined that a student has special needs?
EA: The students who come to my room, first off they are recommended either by a parent or a teacher because they’re struggling in a certain area, maybe math, maybe all subjects. Then, our educational examiner will test them and then the committee meets to see if that student is eligible for services. But even before all that, they have a program called Response to Intervention where they try other remedies, maybe different programs, and if all of that is exhausted then they meet and decide to test the student. When we meet, if the student does qualify, maybe based on a discrepancy between their IQ and achievement test, they might be eligible for services in here for reading, decoding, fluency, reading comprehension, anything in the realm of written language.
What is your education in the teaching field?
EA: My bachelor’s is in business administration, and like I said, several years I was in that field and decided that I needed to do something else and that’s when I went back and did the master’s in special education. For that, I did have to make up some undergraduate courses that with the business degree I didn’t have to have. It took me two years to do that, taking special education classes such as Foundations into Reading and Psychology of the Exceptional Child.
How long have you and your husband (Rick) been married?
EA: Thirty-five years in October. Thirty-five years married to the same darling husband. There have been hard times and he’s stood by me in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer. We have a darling daughter, Kelsey, who is a nurse practitioner, just finished that over at UAMS, and she works there.