Sometimes, elementary school teacher Kim Cunningham thinks she has the best of all worlds. Not only does she live close enough to walk to her job at Wild Rose Elementary School in the Grandin neighbourhood that she has always called home, but she ‘gets’ to teach a small group of grade 5/6 students in the school’s learning assistance class.
For some ten years, the St. Albert native and U of A graduate has called this corner classroom home, though the mom of two university students got here in a round-about way. While her kids were young, Cunningham used to live right across from Wild Rose, and substitute teaching K-6 classes district-wide soon led to a stint at the school next door. That eventually brought the lively instructor to her post teaching special education at Wild Rose.
Now happily ensconced in the small community school of 220 students – a place where teachers know every student’s name – Cunningham says it’s like a second home teaching reading and math (plus social and science) to a group of about 12 students that are working to get to grade level. Some kids have behaviour issues, others may have speech or language delays, cognitive impairment or a place on the autism spectrum, but all have a place to be: an inclusive and nurturing space to learn in whatever way is best for them.
There’s not the usual desk and chair setup here, but rather an assortment of swivel chairs, stools, bean bag chairs, couch, computer counter and exercise balls where students can learn on the move if needed. At a large, interactive white smart board at the front of the class, Cunningham and her long time education assistant cover curriculum in ways a student responds best, whether it’s visual or auditory learners, ones who need a tactile approach or those who can listen and process quietly on their own.
“Students go at their own pace, and all have Chromebooks to work with. There’s opportunity for lots of one-on-one time, meeting students wherever they’re at,” says Cunningham. “Our goal is for inclusivity and integration with the rest of the school, and we do that with gym, recess and weekly option classes, but we also want students to have the best learning environment possible. There can be a stigma attached to special education classes, but in reality, all kids do learn differently, and all can benefit from individual attention.”
Along with regular curriculum, Cunningham leads a Friday afternoon class around board games, where peer teaching and social skills are emphasized. Students can occasionally invite a friend from another class to join in with the Grade 5/6 crew too. And when the teacher rings her chimes, it’s a chance for class to recharge their batteries and decompress from a busy week. “The chimes and music – they’re all beneficial when we need to unwind,” she says.
Cunningham says that she has been teaching special education classes for ‘a long time, so I get to know what works best. Some need a concrete, black and white approach, while others really respond to interactive technology. I feel lucky to have these kids for two years, so I get to know what works best for them. Because we have time and a small class, I can authentically connect with each student every day – that’s a rare treat,” she says. “I’ll probably finish my teaching career in this type of class.”
That’s likely a long way off for the 46-year-old, who credits a committed, supportive administration, collaborative special ed teachers district-wide and a consistent approach for students at every grade level with the success of the program. “I have high expectations and goals for the students, but working with these kids every day keeps me feeling young.”