Meet Tameka Graham, One of Our Mighty Special Needs Teachers of the Year
Tameka Graham is a 39-year-old special needs educator at ACE Learning Center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. She teaches pre-kindergarten, ages 1 to 4, and has a mixed ability classroom, including children with autism and Williams syndrome.
This school year, The Mighty asked its readers to nominate a special needs teacher who made a difference in their or their loved one’s life. To nominate, they submitted an essay to us. Our staff then picked five teachers, and Graham made the cut. So we reached out to her to learn more about what makes her so Mighty.
Describe the moment you knew you wanted to be a special needs educator.
I have a Bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from Middle Tennessee State University and I was working with children previously. I was linked with a friend who had typical and atypical children in her classroom. I just learned to love the kids and to know them as individuals.
When I was born, I had epilepsy and my daughter has epilepsy. Doctors gave me a life expectancy of the age of 4, but here I am, at the age of 39. So there’s nothing to limit my students. No matter if a doctor says, “He has autism and this is what he can and cannot do,” I work beyond that. I won’t limit them to anything.
What is the most challenging day-to-day part of your job?
Figuring out if a child is having a bad day, where that spark is coming from. I’m trying to figure out what triggered that downfall and how to work around it to prevent it from happening again.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out as a special needs teacher?
Learn the child; if you don’t know a child then you can’t do anything to help. Go in with an open mind, I don’t treat any child different. Keep eyes open, ears open, mind open; a lot of classroom observers are unaware which children have disabilities, and that’s the goal.
What would you change about the special education system?
A lot. Just because someone has a special need, you shouldn’t limit them. Don’t focus so much on the disability, focus on the child.
Describe a moment when you were satisfied with your job.
One kid come to me with no words and left with six.
What can parents of special needs children do to ensure their child gets the most out of school?
Always have their back and always push forward. I know there’s gonna be hard days, but there are hard days for everyone. There are people just like you. Reach out.
What is one way you make learning fun for your students?
We play a lot, we sing a lot , we dance a lot. Learning together is fun.
What is the most memorable thing a student or parent has said to you?
Just to tell me how much they appreciate me and to see the tears of joy when their kid has a breakthrough.
How do you motivate a reluctant learner?
Oh, I just don’t ever give up. Continue to repeat the same thing: “We’re gonna get this.”
What concerns do parents have for their children? How do you address these worries?
They worry about if their children will ever be in a regular education classroom, but with time and effort and, if we’re both on the same page, we can work to that. That’s a major thing — to be on the same page.
Is there bullying in your classroom? How do you deal with it?
Oh no, I don’t allow that. I explain to all the kids in my classroom that some may need a little help and I call them “Big Friends.” Working together is important.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Seeing these kids succeed and seeing them overcome things their parents thought they wouldn’t.
Describe the most surprising moment you experienced in the classroom.
Just to hear a child who hasn’t spoken or said any words have a breakthrough and have them say, not just one, but two or three words at a time. I had one who hadn’t said any words and he broke through with, “all done” and I just started dancing around the classroom.
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