Sam was in fifth grade when she entered Lori Gaines’ classroom, glowing with what Lori calls an “unshakable positive spirit.” Lori had taught students of all shapes, sizes and specialties for over fifteen years, but helping Sam integrate from a moderate/severe special education class into her general education class forged a unique bond. “She changed me,” Lori says. “Her big heart and beautiful spirit lit something within me that led me to want to dedicate my career to wonderfully special students like her.”
Inspired by Sam, in 2009 Lori enrolled at California State University, Chico for her mild/moderate special education credential. She then returned for another year to earn a moderate/severe credential – all while maintaining her full-time job with a caseload of 28 students.
Lori’s pedagogy focuses on individualized student growth and modified grading, rather than student academic achievement. Modified grading uses an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to adjust standards to base instruction on each child’s needs, abilities and goals. Lori says, “Why just modify our teaching? Our grading and assessments need to give us a clear picture of where a student is and where we need to help.” A child with a tendency to bite others or hit himself, for example, might need to learn to bite a soft toy or punch a pillow before he can focus on learning to read. Lori also fosters a “growth mindset,” harnessing “the power of yet.” This mindset encourages kids to choose to say, “I don’t know this yet,” instead of, “I can’t do this.” Students build on their knowledge, asking themselves, “How can I apply what I do know?”
As special programs coordinator at Children’s Community Charter School (CCCS), a not-for-profit public charter school in Paradise, Lori has the opportunity to write the budding charter school’s special education program policies and create change from the top down. Emily Mullins, CCCS principal, describes Lori as a “passionate, patient, and ambitious teacher who has worked incredibly hard to prepare our school for becoming our own Local Education Agency for special education in the 2017-2018 school year.” CCCS offers IEP services and three tiers of intervention, ranging from aides for struggling students in general education classrooms to targeted lessons in a pull-out classroom.
Lori’s passion for teaching started as a young child. She credits her father with inspiring her to teach. Lori’s parents still treasure a handwritten paper that Lori wrote in the 5th grade expressing that she wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps and pursue a teaching profession. Jeff Gaines taught high school for 32 years, and even after retiring continued teaching as an elementary substitute. In rare moments between teaching, finishing her master’s degree and taking National Honor Society leadership courses, Lori spends time with her parents in Chico. Lori has two daughters in college and one has chosen to carry on the family tradition by majoring in early childhood and special education.
As a special education teacher, Lori takes on a rather unexpected role of “grief counselor” for parents. She recalls the parents of a group of moderate/severe autistic kindergarteners seeing their children among peers for the first time. “It really became a time of mourning as they realized their children likely wouldn’t meet all those milestones parents dream of for their children.” Some parents resist testing their children for special education because of the stigmas still shrouding special needs. Lori urges these parents, “Kids are who they are. We can – and should – give them what they need to access education.” She recommends two web resources tailored specifically to parents: http://www.additudemag.com and http://www.understood.org.
Amid the challenges, Lori loves “the extra special connections,” with her students, “especially with students who know they perform below their classmates. You feed their self-confidence; you help them feel good about who they are and what they can accomplish.” She still maintains regular contact with Sam, whose bright personality won her the homecoming crown in high school. “If more teachers knew about these incredible connections with such unique students, more teachers would want my job,” Lori says.
Lori urges people to overcome false assumptions about special education. “In our society of easy access to information – be informed. Attend the special Olympics, volunteer and don’t be afraid to ask questions,” she says.
The mission of our Be the Change column is to feature community members from the North State who are actively making a difference in community life. If you would like to nominate someone who is making a difference, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.