By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – University of Nebraska at Kearney senior Morgan Curlo was supposed to be in an elementary school classroom, learning from the people she plans to join in the special education field.
Like many other Lopers in the teacher education program, this semester was her final opportunity to gain that hands-on experience before she begins student teaching.
“These field experiences are so important to our future teachers,” said Bailey Koch, a lecturer in UNK’s Department of Teacher Education. “They allow our students to have that one-on-one contact and really connect with the information. During field experiences, they’re able to use the information they’re learning in our classrooms and apply it to real-world settings.”
Koch, who teaches two field experience courses for UNK students studying special education, was “heartbroken” when the ongoing coronavirus pandemic eliminated those classroom opportunities.
With K-12 schools and UNK transitioning from in-person classes to remote learning to slow the spread of COVID-19, she needed a new plan to ensure this valuable learning experience wasn’t lost.
“I essentially beat my head against the wall for a week, trying to figure out what I was going to do to give these students that real-world experience,” she said.
Then it hit her.
Koch has one son with high-functioning autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and another with epilepsy, and she’s been an advocate for individuals with disabilities for years. During that time, she’s developed some “amazing” friendships with other parents whose children have disabilities.
“It’s the families and the parents who make all the difference,” she said. “Every positive change regarding the advocacy of individuals with disabilities has happened because parents are willing to fight for the rights of their kids and they’re willing to help other people learn through their experiences.”
This network of difference makers was more than willing to help Koch during her time of need.
Over the past four weeks, Koch’s students met with these families via Zoom, allowing them to learn directly from parents and ask any questions they may have.
Kathy Farber, whose 25-year-old son Derek has Down syndrome, didn’t think twice when Koch reached out.
“I love talking about my son and the joy and love he brings to our home,” said Farber, who lives at Johnson Lake. “As a parent, I tell my story so, hopefully, everyone will get an opportunity to see in him what I do.”
Farber, now retired after a career in corporate sales, talked about her son’s daily routine, communication and self-care skills and early education. She also discussed the resources available to families and her own struggles during the 50-minute virtual meeting.
Derek, a big Bob Marley and Denver Broncos fan with a bubbly personality, provided the lighter moments while engaging with the UNK students.
Farber said educators and families need to work as a team to support individuals with disabilities.
“As educators, getting to know the family, their situation and their needs will strengthen the outcome for that student,” she said.
Koch believes that’s an important part of the lesson for her students.
“That’s going to help these future teachers be advocates for families,” she said. “And that’s an enormous part of what we do.”
For Curlo, who is double majoring in elementary and special education, the opportunity to meet with these families has been “extremely beneficial” as she prepares to student teach next semester.
“Even though we’re not able to go to schools, we’re still getting that experience,” the Ashton native said. “We still get to meet individuals with disabilities and their families and get that at-home perspective. A huge part of being a special education teacher is being aware of students’ home life and knowing what you can do to support them.”
In another class, Koch’s students connected virtually with secondary educators who discussed how they serve students with disabilities in both inclusive and special education settings.
Koch said it “makes my teacher heart happy” knowing her students are still getting these opportunities during an otherwise uncertain time.
Of course, none of this would be possible without that network of friends.
“These are just amazing people and I’m beyond blessed to know them and so thankful that I knew I could reach out to them for help,” Koch said.