My Kids: A Special Contribution From Ashlee Yokom

Friday afternoon. I start my car, and an annoying disc jockey comes blaring on the radio. As quick as can be, my hand jumps to the dial to turn off the volume. Right now, all I want is to soak in the silence. Just for a moment drink in that sweet nothing. I commute about forty minutes to and from work each day, and in the afternoons, it usually takes about half the drive until I want to hear anyone or anything. I spent today getting hit, kicked, spit on, screamed at…but at least today there wasn’t any blood or vomit. The quiet though, is something I want to savor.

Sometimes, I wonder how long I can do this job. Yes, this is my day to day, and I pay my bills in some of the most unusual ways. Burn out is real, and there are certainly days I feel it, but usually the twenty minutes of quiet is enough. Those twenty minutes give me time to reflect on the struggles that my students and families face twenty-four hours of each day and remind me that I go home to a quiet house with a glass of wine. And I get to wake up each morning and choose to be here, because these children and families that I love so dearly need support.

I teach in a self-contained classroom which primarily serves children impacted by ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). ASD is characterized by social skills deficits, communication deficits, stereotypic and repetitive behaviors, and unusual responses to sensory stimuli. My students fight each and every day to overcome greater struggles than you and I will never know. Because of these differences, the students in my classroom receive instruction in all areas, not just academics. They need guidance in social, behavioral, life, communication and even fine and gross motor skills. So on any given day, I teach about how to interpret a graph, how to blend phonemes, how to appropriately hold a pencil, how to share, how to zip a coat, how it is or is not appropriate to behave in a bathroom, how to protest using language, and countless other skills, depending on what “my” kids need.

Autism is still such a mystery, but helping people impacted by Autism–that is my passion. I have spent the majority of my life working with people that are impacted by this disorder, which has led me to insatiably consume materials on the subject–on research, on anecdotes, on strategies and pedagogies. Over the years, I have been part of teams that help children talk for the first time, use the toilet independently for the first time, read for the first time, make their first friend. This is the stuff that each day bolsters me to continue on in a very tough career.

In my program, we strive to incorporate a variety of strategies to engage our students and enrich their lives in a bigger, more holistic sense. One of the ways that we do this is by teaching thematic units, where we introduce a topic of study that we can address gradually. It keeps the kids excited and engaged, and allows them to experience things they might see in their day-to-day lives.

This February, we studied sports. We learned what the overarching purpose of sports is, we learned about exercise and competition, and we learned how to play some basic sports. We culminated this unit by taking public buses to a local gymnastics academy and having an hour lesson.

Overall, we considered this thematic unit a success. But during the month of February, we also talked about the winter Olympics, and read some stories about Olympians. The students began to get excited; a few asked if they could win a medal…Thus began the planning for our very own Olympics.

My teaching partner and I found some videos of athletes participating in luge, hockey, skating, and designed our own versions in which we could compete in our school gym. We got medals donated from a local charity and made our own decals for them. We created a banner, a podium, and even downloaded Olympic theme music.

When we got to our Olympics, my staff and I didn’t know what to expect. We had been pre-teaching the kids what was going to happen and how to participate, but anything could have happened.

What did happen was amazing. The students excitedly and proudly participated in all the events. They cheered for their peers. They high-fived one another. Our students recited the rules of the games and followed them. Seeing the look of pride on each of their faces as they stood on the podium with the medals around their necks—there is no better feeling than that. They won in every way that the Olympics represented.

This activity was born out of student interest, was planned by passionate educators, and I truly believe changed lives. These kids felt that they could do anything they worked for—which is something that every child deserves.

At times, holding onto these precious moments helping children grow is the only way we as teachers get through the rough times—the sixty-hour workweeks, sleepless nights, bureaucratic nightmares, the threat and fear of losing our resources, of losing our jobs, of being condemned in the media as being greedy and irresponsible. The moments that I hold onto are the ones where I see my children shine.

April is Autism Awareness month, and this month, as you see the world fill with blue lights and puzzle pieces, I hope that you will also hold onto the image of passion and pride that each of my kids had as they competed in their Olympic games. This moment was so special to me, because it highlighted how passionate they are in each and every moment of their lives–fighting to communicate, to interact, and to learn. These are the moments I will savor during my quiet drive home, to remind myself that I do, in fact, have the best job in the world.

For more stories from Portlanders and the like following their heart, check out the full magazine here. Ad-free, banner-free: Poppycock Magazine

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